3 Inspired People

Stories Jason Browne | Photographs Masa Hensley

RITA WILLIAMS, CALEDONIA

Photographed by Masa Hensley.

Photographed by Masa Hensley.

Rita Williams has been suppressing her emotions for decades. Now she’s exploding, and art is going everywhere.

“I raised two children while working full-time. I didn’t have anything to do but work and take care of my family. But I tucked everything away, dreaming and scheming of what to do when I retired,” says Williams.

After retiring from her budgeting job at Columbus Air Force Base, Williams reviewed her dream list and settled on quilting for Habitat for Humanity, monogramming and smocking for her grandkids, growing and canning her own produce on her family farm in Caledonia and playing piano at church.

But her most peculiar, and most public, muse is barn quilting. Who knew?

Apparently painting huge quilt patterns on sign boards and hanging them on barns is a thing. And Williams fell in love with that thing while driving through the Kentucky countryside years ago.

“I had to stop and take pictures. I was captivated. So about a year ago, I painted my first one,” says Williams. “I begged a neighbor to let me hang it on her shop. And she did. And it took off from there.”

Williams’ recent tally stood at 15 barn quilts hung around Lowndes County with three more ready to hang. They’re usually 12 square feet, weigh around 75 pounds and take about two weeks to complete. Then they’re sealed to make them weather resistant.

“It’s very common up north in farming country. We’re just starting to get them in Mississippi,” says Williams. “We’re trying to get the department of tourism to link a trail of them with GPS coordinates.”

A disciple of the DIY aesthetic, Williams taught herself barn quilting and hopes to see the trend catch on further to dress up naked barns around Mississippi.

“I bought a book. I also watched a few YouTube tutorials. Then I got some graph paper out, graphed a design and transferred that to the board using rulers,” she says. “It’s very therapeutic to me.”

DONNA POE, STARKVILLE

Photographed by Masa Hensley.

Photographed by Masa Hensley.

Back in 2009, in a meeting with parishioners from Rockhill United Methodist Church in Starkville, Pastor Jerome Wilson asked for a volunteer to spearhead the church’s new clothing ministry. And the room went quiet.

The concept of a clothing ministry seems straightforward enough at first. But as you begin to cycle through the logistics in your mind (sorting, cleaning, running a storefront, establishing policies, advertising, etc.) it becomes clear that this is no few-hours-a-week endeavor.

As the people around her were doing the mental arithmetic, something inside Donna Poe told her to speak up.

“I don’t know why I did it. It was something that came over me. I said, ‘Pastor, I’ll give it a try,’” recalls Poe.

As a retiree from the State Board of Health, she had no experience running a store, even if everything in that store is free. All she had was faith and a pastor who she knew would support her.

Seven years down the road, Donna is so about that donation life that she’s willing to give out her cell number in a magazine (662-312-2935) and invite you to call her, even if the store is closed, if someone is in need.

“I’m just a two- to three-minute walk from the place. It’s no problem. My grandchildren help me out, and my husband will go with me if it’s at night,” she says.

Now that storefront (across the street from the church on Rockhill Road) serves people from all over Lowndes and Oktibbeha counties, Louisville and Eupora. Patrons are free to take anything they need. A food pantry at the location offers monthly grocery bags. A pair of roommates furnished their apartment out of the ministry. If you leave your name and number, they’ll call you when clothing your size comes in. And the Rockhill Clothing Ministry Back to School Bash is in its third year of giving out uniforms and backpacks full of school supplies.

“We try to go beyond to help out,” says Poe.

LIZ & JOHN FIELDS, COLUMBUS

Photographed by Masa Hensley.

Photographed by Masa Hensley.

Columbus dentist John Fields likes to dwell in the past. Not in the wallowing-in-regret or reliving-glory-days sense. He’s a connoisseur of nostalgia.

His mom introduced him to antiquing. Dentistry affords some grown-man hobbies. So Fields put his money where his heart is and has renovated nearly 20 houses around Southside Columbus over the past 20-plus years.

“I started out looking for an antebellum home to live in. I love older homes. Then I started looking at other homes, and every year they’re getting older like we are,” says Fields.

For his first project, he had zero experience and couldn’t even afford to buy the house he wanted to remodel, but the owner sensed Fields’ intentions and financed the sale. After that, Fields says it was “like an addiction.” Tearing up floors and laying down hardwood. Knocking down walls to open up rooms. Installing antiques for personality alongside modern appliances for comfort. Stripping layers of paint down to the wood. Picking the perfect light fixtures.

“If you ask me to build you a house, I wouldn’t have a clue. But give me one that I can change, and I’ll update it and get people in it that appreciate it as much as I do,” says Fields.

Most of his projects follow a set of criteria. Not rules, necessarily, but a pattern that reflects Fields’ agenda: The homes are classic. The restoration improves the house’s value as well as the neighborhood’s. The changes accentuate the existing architecture and history. And the completed homes are sold via word of mouth at affordable prices.

Fields’s wife, Liz Fields, sometimes has to step in to help maintain the “affordable” part. In addition to handling payroll for their contractors, consulting on interior decorating and grabbing a torch to strip paint when needed, Liz provides the pragmatic reason to John’s giddy ideas.

“I’m kind of the rein for John. I keep him from overdoing it,” she says.

Even on a budget, Liz says the love her husband pours into his projects is so evident that friends and neighbors can identify which houses John has restored. But recognition and profits aren’t what he’s after.

“It is a business, but it’s like I’m saving something. I’ve picked houses and gotten laughed at for trying to save them. I’ve lost money on some. But I have a fondness in my heart for Southside,” says Fields.