As a child I can remember my mother criticizing older men who kept hopping from profession to profession. In those days I probably thought, “Whatever I end up doing for a career, I need to do that, and only that; focus on it, and try to be successful.”
That's not how it has worked out.
First and foremost, I am a restaurateur. I've worked in the hospitality industry for over 40 years and have owned restaurants for over 35 years (no hopping around). So I guess my main job title is “restaurateur.”
There have been several additional components to my career so far. I started writing this weekly column in the late 1990s and have written 1,000 words, or more, every week since. I've never missed a week and worry that there may come a day where I'm in the hospital and will have to miss a week. I think I’ll write a few columns to keep in reserve in case I am ever hospitalized. I don’t want to ruin my streak.
I’ve written and released 12 books since 2003. The movie theater and bowling alley are new developments in the past few years. All of that has been a blast.
An unexpected passion developed a decade ago when I founded the non-profit Extra Table, which— and this is going to sound very cheesy, but— I believe, to my core, is the reason I was put on this planet. There have been other non-profits and LLCs I’ve created, but what is fresh on my mind today is a book project and documentary that my friend, co-producer, and co-creator, Anthony Thaxton and I, started a few years ago to bring awareness to the genius of Mississippi artist, Walter Anderson.
The project started while we were filming the “Palate to Palette” television series. Mississippi watercolorist, Wyatt Waters, Anthony Thaxton, and I were crisscrossing the state with a busload of people showing off our state’s food, music, culture, and art. While filming at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, Anderson’s youngest son John walked in and gave us a tour of the secret room where his dad had stored thousands of pieces of his work, only discovered after his death. It was at that moment the idea of doing a documentary on the life of Walter Anderson was born. The idea for the companion book came a year later.
From the moment production began, our number one goal was to make sure that people from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine knew and appreciated the work and genius of the Mississippi artist that art critics hailed as “America’s Van Gogh.”
The book, “Walter Anderson; The Extraordinary Life and Art of the Islander,” was released last December, and sold out within a matter of weeks. The second printing has just arrived and is moving swiftly. The documentary by the same name originally aired on Mississippi Public Broadcasting and was well received. We grabbed two Regional Emmy Awards in June, one for “Outstanding Documentary— Historical” and another for “Outstanding Original Score.” Thaxton and I were honored to accept the former; Thaxton’s 21-year-old son, Bryant, received the statue for the latter.
The most exciting news we’ve received in the past few weeks is that our documentary has been released nationwide. The goal of making sure the entire country knows Anderson’s work is being realized. The documentary has had over 900 airings on almost 88% of all Public Broadcasting stations across the country, including on 100% coverage in the top 25 television markets. Mission accomplished.
This past weekend the Thacker Mountain Radio Hour packed up their microphones and personnel and travelled from Oxford to The Anderson Museum in Ocean Springs. Thaxton and I were honored to be guests on the program in the building where the idea for the documentary and book were born.
We aren’t finished touting Mississippi and Mississippians. The Anderson project has birthed an entire series of upcoming documentaries and books on notable Mississippians. We are currently in the process of producing a documentary and companion book on Eudora Welty. More remarkable and significant Mississippians will follow, as Thaxton and I are working to create an outlet to bring awareness to the amazing talent that has sprung from our soil.
It was during the radio broadcast, while I was reading of a piece I wrote on Anderson, that it struck me, as it does so often, that I am blessed to live in a state that has given so much— by way of the arts— to the world.
You won’t find a greater cheerleader for Mississippi and Mississippians than your columnist.
There is no question that Mississippi has scars and bruises from a rough, cruel, and many times inexcusable and unexplainable past. But those are the burdens of the entire country, as well. All nations have scars. What defines us as a culture is how we move past those tragedies.
We are often cursed by the sins of our ancestors. It is unfortunate that almost every civilization in history was founded on the pain and conquest of others. Though what distinguishes civilizations, nations, and states within those nations, are the ones who rise above it. Mississippi is rising— and in many cases has risen— above our past. I am proud to be a son of the new Mississippi. And I look forward to working with Thaxton in the coming years to make the rest of the country aware of the talent that has come from this amazing state, where we’ve been and where we are now.
Hattiesburg native Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author. He has written a syndicated weekly newspaper column for more than 20 years.