Memories in clay ~ An interview with Ms. Dixie Burrus Browning

Ms. Dixie Burrus Browning with clay Coast Guardsman statue she created.

Ms. Dixie Burrus Browning, grew up in a small island village known as Hatteras. She has fond memories of a childhood spent fishing and exploring what she considers today, a place that belongs to it’s people. The stories I heard today, she has passed down to her children and they to theirs. But her stories have not solely confined themselves to spoken words. No…glimpses of them are present in the years she spent as a romance writer. Her novels are mainly based on places she has been and the place she calls home. And then…there is her art.

One can tell by studying her water color paintings that she truly cherishes the marshes and beaches that make up the Hatteras landscape. The various shades of blues, greens, and browns lead one down winding paths to scenes that can only be painted by someone who has studied their characteristics and kept each detail, consciously or subconsciously, in that special corner of their mind that only harbors the memories that are solely meant for safe keeping.

This past year Ms. Dixie’s daughter, Elizabeth “Liz” B. Fox, donated to our society, another type of artwork her mother created sometime in the 60’s. The painted clay bust is that of a Coast Guardsman. Liz believes that it’s eyes and ears are reminiscent of her Father’s, Leonard L. Browning Jr. But after Ms.Dixie gave a quick side view glance of her profile, I can definitely state that yes…the statue does have a Burrus nose.

I asked Ms. Dixie what inspired her to create the piece. The answer was quick. She didn’t know. At that time she had been doing a lot of painting and teaching art and it was quite a bit later that she sought out making a living from her talent as a writer. She never examines why she writes or paints. “The inspiration is just there and it just bubbles to the surface”, was her only explanation. It was the only one I needed.

We went on to discuss the Coast Guardsman’s hat, which is real by the way. She had painted it with metallic paint and gave it a tilt as she placed it on his head. Memories of where she bought her paints and what she made them out of came back to her. As a child she would buy them from Sears. But she also found natural sources as well. Moss and poke berries were often used and she would have used Mercurochrome, if she’d of had it.

Our visit lasted about an hour. It is always a pleasure to sit and listen to the stories told of how things were on the island by those who were born many years before my time. Ms. Dixie is one of our most fascinating treasures and I am very fortunate to be able to call her my “kin”. The history of this place fascinates her as it does most of us. She feels an undeniable connection to this place and it’s people. Just ask any butterfly that crosses your path (wink).

Thank you again, Ms. Dixie. Perhaps we’ll visit and chat again real soon.

Ms. Dixie’s original artwork and prints may be purchased at Indian Town Gallery in Frisco, NC.

Dawn F. Taylor


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Our Ocracoke Connection

HIGPS with tour guide, Phillip Howard.

I am home now from the island of Ocracoke. Today, was spent with several members of our genealogy society and our most gracious host and tour guide, Phillip Howard. Phillip, can trace his island heritage back to the time of Black Beard the pirate. If you ever meet him, ask him about his ancestor, William Howard. Or why his home was built with no closets. But better yet, just ask him about his life on the island. He’ll be happy to tell you about it. And you’ll be happy you asked.

Last night, as with most nights before a long awaited day, I laid in bed thinking about what might take place on our group’s genealogical excursion. Just two months ago, I had visited the Ocracoke Preservation Society’s Museum, while site seeing with two friends who were visiting from Virginia. We picked the hottest day of August to make the ferry ride over from Hatteras. It was nothing like what HIGPS found on this most near perfect Autumn day.

Our morning actually started with several of us stopping at the Dancing Turtle Coffee Shop in Hatteras Village, before heading to the ferry. So there we were, five caffeine induced women heading off to meet with Phillip and also to meet Jason Jennett and his parents, who drove all the way from Wilmington, NC., to be with us. Now that’s wanting to know your roots !

The ferry made it safely to the south dock. We unloaded and drove the fourteen miles into the village. First stopping at Island Rag Pickers. I love that place. Perhaps because of the smell of soaps and earthy incense, that drifts up to meet you as you walk through the door. Whatever the reason, we enjoyed meandering through the jewelry, wind chimes, and clay faces which looked like my Father, that were hanging on the wall. I really should have gotten one of those. Dad, immortalized in clay 🙂

Eleven o’clock rolled around and we found ourselves on the porch of the Ocracoke Preservation Society’s Museum. Upon arrival, we spotted Phillip, sitting on the porch rocking away in a white chair…quite a befitting scene to start our tour. I remember a past Village Craftsman (VC is the name of Phillip’s store) Blog, and it telling of how the people of the island call a porch a pizer. And OPS certainly has one that’s quite charming. It comes complete with a view of the Ocracoke/Cedar Island Ferry Dock and a huge antique ship’s rudder in the yard. Makes me think of all the ship’s timbers that Liz Browning Fox and myself have found in our “after storm” beach walks.

Right after Hurricane Irene hit, I became a member of the Ocracoke Preservation Society. Any group whose mission is to help preserve the past, is #1 in my book. As Phillip took us for a tour of the inside of their museum, he told us many stories of the the island’s people. I do believe my favorite part of that segment of our day was when we started to discuss the brogue of Ocracoke and how it compares to that of Hatteras Islanders. Yes, it is different in some ways…but very much alike in others. “Slick cam” was a phrase written on a poster that listed local dialect. But that is one of those phrases that I’ve heard my Father say many times. And I’ve used the words “mommuck” and I hate to admit it…but the very bad English word “weren’t” where it just didn’t belong. Perhaps I just have a little O’cocker in my blood. And there’s another term. O’cocker is short for Ocracoker. And Silver Lake isn’t really Silver Lake, it’s Cockle Creek. Who knew ?

We continued our museum tour that ended with a stroll through their gift shop. If you are ever there, check it out. They have quite a few local and NC history books for sale. And you really need to make a visit and help support their wonderful cause. It’s organizations like theirs, that keep our history alive…

After the museum tour, we had a change of plans and ended up going to Jason’s for lunch. None of our group had ever been there before except for Phillip. Think most of us were in a seafood mood. Crab cake and flounder sandwiches seemed to be the going thing at our table. But it was the conversation and good friends that made the meal. Once again, we found ourselves sitting on a pizer. I’m really starting to think that this pizer sitting on Ocracoke just might become an addiction. At home, we have a wrap around porch dotted with wooden benches that my Father has made. But I have learned that no true southern porch is complete without a rocking chair. And item I shall now add to my wish list.

Lunch lasted for about an hour. During that time, Phillip asked what our group was doing after the tour. We had planned on seeing some of the local galleries and playing the role of tourist. In which our day did end that way, but Phillip gave our little group an added bonus. He offered to take us on a tour of his historic home. A home in which I blogged about a little while back. So be sure and check it out. Anyways, mouths seemed to drop and hit the floor when our members walked through his door. I had the same reaction the first time I was there. I like old…old furniture, old photos, old homes. His house had all those qualities. But I will make you read my blog in order to hear more 🙂

HIGPS also took a tour of the Ocracoke United Methodist Church. Liz Browning Fox, stated that it reminded her of a church in the Caribbean. Perhaps there was influence in it’s design from the many contacts years ago with mariners who traveled back and forth to Barbados. Either way, the place is just beautiful. Just might try and make my way over for a Sunday service one of these days. My Grandparents, Gladys Jennette and James Washington Scarborough, were both very active in the Methodist Church. Grandmother was a Sunday school teacher and Granddad was a deacon. So our roots run deep when it comes to an association with the Methodist Church on both Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands.

Now anyone who knows me, knows that I absolutely love going to cemeteries. Many of the tombstones are nothing short of being amazing artwork. And of course a cemetery holds many clues as to one’s genealogical past. Phillip was kind enough to take us on a walking tour of the final resting places of his family, which is on Howard St. The street is lined with live oaks, cedars, white picket fences, and yards with old island homes. Many of those homes remind me very much of the one such as my Great Grandparent’s that used to stand in Buxton. Once again…there are many similarities between the two islands. But then again, we share common ancestors so why wouldn’t there be ?

Our time on Ocracoke was nothing short of wonderful. And that is probably and understatement. We ended our day with a trip to the Ocracoke Coffee Company which is located on the Back Rd. It has always been one of my favorite stops. Once again, our group had dwindled down to just we five women. I found us reminiscent of the ladies from the movie, Steel Magnolias. There we sat…in a coffee shop on and island. Surrounded by it’s heritage, history, and culture. As I twirled my straw through the whipped cream and sweet drizzle that topped the caramel mocha latte that I had purchased, I realized that life couldn’t get any better than that.

Dawn F. Taylor