Coast Lines - Oct/Nov 2017
One man helped shaped the creative heart of Bay St. Louis in ways that will happily reverberate for generations to come: meet Jerry Dixon.
- story by Ellis Anderson
It read, “Something Wonderful Is Always Happening...”
Kat turned to her mother, Jean Hammett. “Mom, you need to see this. Something really interesting is going on.”
Jean came to the window and the women waved down to the sign poster. He waved back and the car pulled away.
Bay St. Louis changed forever. Jerry Dixon had come to town.
At first, Dixon opened a small metaphysical bookstore in the enormous building he’d purchased. He called the place “Serenity,” as if that's what customers could expect to find. The small sign on the door was replaced with a large painted one mounted on the building’s roof. It had the same message, writ large: Something Wonderful Is Always Happening…
The three ellipses trailed off, leaving it to the viewer’s imagination exactly where good things were happening. But if you asked anybody in town to tell you what it said from memory, they’d forget all about the ellipses and swear it said “ in Bay St. Louis.”
It didn’t matter what the sign said or didn’t. Good things did start happening in the Bay. Interesting things. Flower baskets began appearing, hung from street lights. Informal gatherings were often held at Serenity, a wide range of speakers sharing their expertise and interests. Jerry would often stand outside his front door and engage longtime locals and visitors alike in conversation, so Serenity became a community touchstone.
The art gallery grew gradually, but eventually encompassed most of the building. Dixon rented out individual spaces to artists or entrepreneurs who he wanted to nurture. Nancy Blance opened a used book store. John McDonald, the portrait artist, set up his studio there. Kat and Jean became gallery mainstays, showing their work there for nearly two decades. Artist Vicki Niolet remembers having one of her first shows at Serenity in the late 1980s, sharing the spotlight with fellow artist Brenda Randolph.
“I was just starting out as a working artist and to be honest, my work back then probably wasn’t good enough to show in a gallery,” says Vicki, whose artistic career since has won her national recognition and awards. “But Jerry wanted to encourage me. He gave me the confidence to push forward.”
Folk artist Alice Moseley credited Jerry Dixon for her decision to move to Bay St. Louis at age 80. In 1989, Moseley and her son, Tim, came to exhibit in a Main Street art festival. Her booth was in front of Serenity Gallery and when a storm came through around noon, Jerry helped Alice move her paintings inside. He invited her to remain set up in his gallery for the rest of the day.
Tim remembers that Alice returned to North Mississippi with a Bay St. Louis real estate booklet. About a month later, the retired schoolteacher called Jerry Dixon and declared she was moving to the Bay.
“But Alice,” Dixon said. “You don’t know anybody here.”
“I know you!” Alice said.
Tim says it was a move his mother never regretted. She became a fixture in Bay St. Louis and Jerry would visit with her every Monday afternoon when Serenity was closed.
When Alice passed away at the age of 94 in 2004, hundreds of people attended her memorial service on the Depot grounds. Today, the Alice Moseley Folk Art Museum in the Depot is one of the town’s major attractions. It's just one example of the amazing Dixon trickle-down effect.
“Scores of people moved here because of Jerry Dixon,” says Tim. “He was the glue that held the early art community together.”
“I can’t tell you how many times I heard the same story,” says Kat. “People would tell me that they found their way off the interstate into Bay St. Louis and then discovered Serenity Gallery and met Jerry. By the end of the afternoon, they were shopping for real estate.”
I can testify to the truth of that. In a large part, I’m in the Bay because of Jerry Dixon.
In 1994, after fifteen years of living and owning an art gallery in the French Quarter, I was ready for a change. I’d visited the Bay’s art galleries during a small event called “Second Saturday” and toyed with relocating.
By that time, a lively art colony was taking shape - Bay St. Louis would soon be recognized as one of 100 Top Art Towns in the country. Jerry Dixon’s friends (and artists) Keith Karlson and Tony Eccles had opened Mississippi Gallery across the street from Serenity. Jerry and Keith had cooked up the concept for a monthly gallery walk.
They were joined by others, like nationally-recognized modernist jewelry authority, Marby Schon, and her husband, Andrew Tilden, who operated a gallery at 110 S. Second Street (where the Mockingbird Café is now). And Vicki Niolet - by then a Bay resident thanks to the influence of Jerry - had recently opened Paper Moon on Main Street (Gallery 220's location).
Every artist I met encouraged me to make the leap, but Jerry was especially welcoming. I began combing Bay St. Louis for a building that could serve as my home, studio and gallery. Finally, a decrepit Creole cottage next to the courthouse won my heart. The problem? It wasn’t for sale.
I went into Serenity Gallery one afternoon, seeking Jerry’s advice.
“Well, darling,” he said. “I’ve always had great luck just knocking on the door and asking.”
It worked. Less than a year later, after renovating the building, I opened the Bay St. Louis location of Quarter Moon Gallery.
Through the next ten years, whenever I had a problem, Jerry lent a hand. Whenever I became discouraged, he offered words that lifted my spirits. I was only one of many, many people who counted on his wisdom and guidance.
I teased Jerry back then by calling him the Godfather of Main Street. Kat referred to him as the Mayor of Main. “He sweetened the place in every way imaginable,” she says.
Vicki has another honorary title for Jerry, "He's the closest thing to a saint I'll ever know."
Jerry sold the Serenity Gallery building months before Hurricane Katrina. The storm destroyed his art-filled historic home in Cedar Point. A few years later, his longtime partner, Wayne, passed away. Trying to regain firm footing, Jerry moved to Natchez, where several other Bay residents had relocated.
But the longing wouldn’t let up. Jerry visited often, kept up with friends. This spring, he returned to the Bay for good, to the delight of all who knew him well. And to the delight of newcomers too.
Recently, a woman who moved to Bay St. Louis a few years ago asked if I’d met her new neighbor yet.
“He’s the nicest man! His name is Jerry Dixon.”
Startled, I asked if she was talking about THE Jerry Dixon.
She had no idea what I meant. She didn’t know that Jerry had lived here before. Or that the town she’d fallen for had been shaped in pivotal, permanent ways by the love and dedication - and vision - of this humble, diminutive man.
So I write this little history for her, and for those to come who will also give their hearts to this very special place.
A place where something wonderful is always happening…
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