3 Inspired People

Story Carmen K. Sisson | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini

The Karges, Starkville
Some people look at an empty lot and see an eyesore. Dylan and Alyson Karges stared across a wasteland and saw a dream.

Farmers, swapping strategies for stem rot. Artists, showing off their creations. Mom and pop businesses gaining strength. Families, strolling the open air Starkville Community Market, exploring tables laden with locally grown produce, watching crafts demonstrations, spending time — and money — downtown.

It’s part farmers’ market, part performance art. Every week, there’s something new at the corner of Jackson and Lampkin.

One day, Alyson plants shrubs. The next, Dylan works with Mississippi State University students, installing a rusted metal fence to define the space, please the eyes and spark conversation.

She is the yin to his yang. The focus to his fire. Together, he says, they can do anything. They can bring people downtown and keep them there.

Dylan’s eyes glow as he gazes in the distance, talking fast, waving his hands, selling the dream. When he pauses to breathe, Alyson steps in, pulls the dream down, gets people to buy in.

It takes time, she explains. It takes money. But this is about quality of life. It’s about knowing your neighbors and eating fresh food that doesn’t come from a can. It’s about seeing something wrong and making it right.

Dylan hails from Pisgah, Miss., which never had a downtown. Alyson grew up in Starkville and remembers when downtown was a destination, not a pass-through.

What started as a community project, founded by Jeremiah Dumas and Tammy Carlisle, has become a social and civic confluence, carried on by Dylan and Alyson. Through creative maneuvering and collaboration, the pair finds what they need to reach their goal: Restoring the neighborhood, rejuvenating downtown.

“I think people see our vision,” Alyson says. “The problem is patience, sweat and tears. We need people to bleed into this project as much as Dylan and I do.”

Ben Potter, Columbus
Entrepreneurs walk to a different beat. Catch Ben Potter on a typical day at the office — a long farmhouse table in his kitchen — and chances are, you’ll find him wearing sneakers.

Today, he’s bouncing around in sock feet, his attention split between the clock and the kitchen window. He sighs and flips the newspaper open to the weather panel on Page 2A. He sighs again. Looks like rain.

“I’ll be back,” he says.

He doesn’t wait for a reply. He’s single-minded in his focus on the task at hand — making sure Route 11 customers receive their newspapers on time.   

This wouldn’t be overtly remarkable except Ben may be one of the last paperboys still delivering headlines via Schwinn. He’s also 9 years old and looking to expand his territory.

Already, he’s learning the power of spin. The self-professed video game addict says he wanted to get out more, burn calories, get fresh air.

Finally, he confesses: He wanted money.

He made a list, made some calls, and when The Commercial Dispatch didn’t respond right away, he called again. And again. After two interminable hours, he was hired.

He wasted no time growing his base. He went door to door, introducing himself to residents, offering driveway and doorstep delivery. He started with four customers and gained 11 more.

He admits he’s “kind of issued” about the paper. Delivery is at three, not four. The paper must land on the drive, not the grass. If a customer didn’t receive the paper, he buys another. He loves his friends, but work comes first. Rain, wind, lightning, nothing stops him. When asked if he has a life motto, he takes a moment and replies, “Be brave and do the job.”

So will he pick up a new paper route when his family moves to Montana this winter?

“I don’t know,” he says soberly. “It’s really cold. Like zero below. And there’s snow. But maybe.”

Bessie Johnson, West Point
At a wide spot in the road, between two churches and a flat place, sits a humble brick house. Within that humble brick house lives a Mississippi artist. And within that Mississippi artist resides an artistic passion as deep as the Delta roots from which it sprang.

By most people’s standards, West Point folk artist Bessie Johnson grew up poor. But thanks to creative parents, she and her 14 siblings were blessed with rich imaginations. “We didn’t have a lot, so we had to take what we had and be innovative to make that meet our needs,” Johnson explains. Her mother taught her to weave intricate baskets from pine straw. Her father taught her to make things from corn husks. Over the years, she added to that knowledge, drawing inspiration from nature and the people who flock to her side to learn the craft.

The art itself is breathtaking. Pine straw handles and feet, affixed to gourds and accented with sliced black walnuts. Matchsticks, strategically burned, then glued together to make jewelry boxes, tissue holders, purses and other gift items. As always, Johnson remains true to her family influence, incorporating patterns from her grandmother’s quilts. She is a master artist in the Mississippi Arts Commission’s Folk Art Apprenticeship Program and received a fellowship in 1999. She is also a member of the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi and is an arts festival staple throughout the region.

But while she has inspired countless artisans of all ages, she says they are the ones who inspire her. “Working with the public stimulates me,” Johnson says. “Even when I’m the teacher, I always learn more from my students.”

She stays busy, spending little time on television, which she finds boring. Whenever she feels burned out with one technique, she strolls through her backyard. Sticks, burrs, leaves — nothing escapes her attention, and all are fodder for her craft. “I just love it,” she says. “It keeps me alive. I do everything I can to help others, improving their quality of life through art.”