The Art of Coping

Three local artists find comfort in their crafts.

Written by Rachel Long and Baljots Singh | Photographed by Joe Worthem

Coping with the sometimes-overwhelming levels of stress that this year has wrought has meant finding joy in the small things. Many of us are rediscovering the meaning of family time, cleaning out closets and even testing out our baking skills. Honing their crafts has helped these three artists stave off stress and find peace in their creativity.

Mary Burton McGee | Oxford

Mary Burton McGee is no stranger to channeling nervous energy into creative pursuits. When her husband had an accident nearly three years ago, an anxious McGee taught herself how to create pieces of art with clay and acrylics.

“I don’t like to sit down,” McGee said. “I had to be doing something, and I couldn’t do anything for him. I used pottery as an outlet for my stress.”

The process started with a lot of trial and error but has now evolved into a full studio with a kiln where McGee creates custom pieces for her business, Burton

Designs. From her floral ceramics to her abstract acrylic faces to her mixed media pieces made with Swarovski crystals, McGee’s focus is on bringing some color to everyone’s life.

“I love color and making people feel happy,” McGee said. “It (pottery) brings me so much joy and there is a lot of whimsy in what I do, and people like that.”

Creating that joy became especially important during the height of the pandemic when McGee experienced those same feelings that initially drove her to create.

“Now, I have a studio in the back of our house, and the space gave me time to myself to create, to think of new designs and to process everything that was going on,” she said.

Those anxious feelings were heightened by the fact that McGee is also a small business owner. Despite everything that was going on, however, McGee said she saw an increase in sales and engagement as the community focused on helping Oxford-based small businesses.

“I saw a spike in followings on my Instagram, different stores that wanted to carry Burton Designs and in commissions,” McGee said. “People wanted to buy things that would bring joy into their lives.”

Kevin Rose | Tupelo

Kevin Rose has understood the importance of having a creative outlet for several years. In 2017, the former triathlete began to experience numbness in his lower body. Eventually, he couldn’t move his feet.

“I was diagnosed with POEMS syndrome, and they found a tumor in my spine,” Rose said. “I ended up going to the Mayo Clinic and began radiation in February 2018. I was having to drive to Birmingham five times a week.”

POEMS syndrome is a rare blood disorder that damages your nerves and affects parts of your body.

“As the tumor dissipated, my spine collapsed,” he said. “I was left in a wheelchair and in tremendous pain. At the same time, my hands started to lose fine motor skills, and my fingers drew up.”

Following remission, Rose had to acclimate to his new life. Having to cope with relative immobility, Rose could not go back to the weightlifting and triathlete activities he had so enjoyed in his youth.

He spent a lot of time on YouTube and Instagram, where he eventually discovered woodworking and decided to give it a try.

So, he ordered a set of carving knives on Amazon, found some scrap wood and began his first project. Eventually, it became an important part of his recovery.

“After cutting the wood and finding my own way of doing things, I was able to rehab to where my fine motor skills returned,” Rose said. “I knew I had to do something to get out of the deep dark depression I had found myself in. It was a healing process, and it made a huge difference.”

Rose, who has always enjoyed cooking, started making wooden spoons and later crosses that he gifted to family and friends.

“Neighbors would stop and visit and see what I did,” he said, reminiscing on days before the pandemic began. “I would usually give them a piece before they left. Just to see that people cared was huge for me mentally and emotionally.”

During the pandemic, Rose’s love of carving became a way to calm his mind and strengthen his body.

“I was better at handling isolation than some,” he said. “By keeping my hands busy, keeping my mind busy, it was huge for me to do something at home.”

Rachel Walker | Oxford

When quarantine hit Mississippi earlier this year, Rachel Walker felt the world begin to close in around her. Like many of us, when not at work, the Oxford-based labor and delivery nurse found herself looking for ways to escape the stress of this unprecedented situation — and keep her young son entertained in the process.

Walker’s answer was to create chalk art scenes that helped her son’s imagination run wild. It started small with rainbows or a game of hopscotch but eventually evolved into trips to the moon and special requests for sharks and alligators.

The chalk art “really became something for my son and me to do together and to get outside not confined by the walls of our house during the pandemic,” she said. “Creating became an outlet for me.”

Walker’s creativity wasn’t limited to the pavement, however. Her chalk art designs led her son to making special requests for new coloring pages that matched his imagination.

So, using an app called ProCreate, Walker drafted custom illustrations for her son to color while inside as well.

Eventually, Walker began sharing her chalk art and coloring pages on social media and was happy to see families get excited about her work. So far, her coloring pages have been shared hundreds of times on Facebook.

“Oxford feels like such a family,” Walker said. “People I don’t even know share (my art), and it’s such a great feeling. I feel like we have all kind of banded together during the pandemic, and we made the best of a really hard year.”

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