Vicki Burnett will tell you — it all really began with bunco. In May of 2013, Burnett decided to paint a couple of cowbells as door prizes for a gathering of her bunco group. When she shared a photo of the decorated bells on social media, she unintentionally inspired a swell of interest that would eventually evolve into Burnett Art. A torrent of requests for custom bells began to pour in from Bulldog fans anxious to show their true colors in a unique way. Very few days have passed since then that the Starkville artist hasn’t had a cowbell waiting to be painted.
Burnett worked on one Tuesday in her studio. That space is a circa 1940s building that was once her uncle’s general store in Leake County. Her dad later moved it a short distance to his place and made it his wood-working shop. Keeping it in the family, bringing it to Oktibbeha County, was important to Burnett. It’s now a memory-filled, cozy retreat for her to paint, and for family and friends to relax.
At her work space, Burnett employed a practiced hand and fine-tipped brush to add depth and dimension to the eyes of a thick-set bulldog on a maroon cowbell. It’s all a definite departure from the oil and watercolor scenes she used to more often paint, in the days before plated sheet metal became such a frequent canvas.
A Mississippi State University alumna, Burnett understands the passion that surrounds her alma mater’s iconic symbol. As a student, she was in the stands, ringing with the best of them. Ironically, the Louisville native’s game weekends now are often spent creating custom cowbells that will become meaningful to other families, many passed down from generation to generation. It’s what she likes most about what she does.
“I’m hoping they’ll be treasured for a long, long time,” she said.
What started out with bells carrying images of bulldogs, MSU logos and scenes of Davis Wade Stadium or Dudy Noble Field soon expanded as requests became increasingly customized. Weddings prompted orders for bell portraits of brides and grooms. Rush Week spurred appeals for scenes of sorority or fraternity houses. Retirements led to commissions for specific academic halls. Graduations encouraged student portraits combined with motifs of beloved hobbies, like fishing. Burnett has painted bells with images of specific football players in uniform on the field, of a tuxedoed young man with an owl perched on his arm, and once even created a “ring” of the matrimonial kind.
The mission at hand was a cowbell that would surprise the intended with a proposal. Burnett was asked to paint a houndstooth pattern on one side of a bell for the young man’s girlfriend, who was an Alabama fan.
“But when she turned the bell over to the other side, he wanted it to be a marriage proposal — with the ring attached!” Burnett said. Together, the artist and the prospective groom came up with the idea of Bully on one knee holding a ring box, and the words “Hillary … will you marry me?” A bright ribbon around the bell handle held the engagement ring.
“Of course she said, ‘Yes!'” Burnett smiled. “I loved being a part of this!”
Then and now
For Danny and Ann Hossley of Hideaway, Texas, Burnett’s cowbells hold a place of honor. Danny Hossley graduated from MSU in 1964 and serves as the Texas director of the MSU Alumni Association. He is proud to have helped recruit more than 165 students to the university.
The Vicksburg native asked Burnett to paint a cowbell he could give Ann as an anniversary present. It pictured the couple in front of the stadium. It wasn’t long before the idea for a second bell came, a very special one, for Danny’s birthday.
“She was asked to paint us in front of the (Perry) cafeteria in 1964,” said Danny by phone. It was there, outside the cafeteria where Ann worked as a student, that Danny, popped the question.
“We’d been dating for some time but knew that we couldn’t get married until I had a job,” he explained. “I’d just gone to the post office and opened my mail and found a letter in there from U.S. Steel, inviting me to come work for them.”
Danny and Ann had already arranged to meet in front of the cafeteria for lunch that spring day.
“As I approached the cafeteria, I had the letter in my hand,” Danny continued, “and when we met, I asked if she would marry me.”
The Hossleys’ second bell shows the couple in 1964 in front of Perry. The words “MSU … where it all began” is painted beneath their feet. This month they celebrate their 52nd anniversary.
Burnett delights in helping commemorate life’s occasions, but when asked about the most unusual request she’s ever had, she admits there was at least one order she had to decline — to paint an Ole Miss Rebel on a cowbell.
“I couldn’t have painted it anyway; I’m not licensed for that,” she said. She is licensed to paint the MSU trademarks and scenes she uses. Licensing fees account for a portion of bell prices, which generally range from $50 or $60 to $150 and more, depending on the complexity of design.
Burnett’s ability extends beyond bells, of course. Her talent is apparent, for example, in “Chapel in Spring.” Burnett had about 1,000 licensed prints of her watercolor of MSU’s Chapel of Memories made to benefit the family of Gina Gentry.
“Gina lost her husband and eldest son in a car accident last November, and her youngest is undergoing extensive therapy for his injuries,” she explained. “We hope to raise more than $10,000 for this sweet family by year’s end.”
Prints are a minimum $10 donation at Hallmark, The Book Mart and Pollan Promos in Starkville.
Burnett will paint more canvases in time, but the Bulldogs’ return to the gridiron, Rush and the approach of Christmas mean bell commissions will keep her busy for the foreseeable future. She looks forward to making each one special.
“I enjoy participating in someone’s celebration, and I love getting to express the artistic ability God has given me in making people happy — knowing I helped make a wedding extra special, or added to a retirement from the university with something to remember, just celebrating life … all through the common denominator of MSU.”
Editor’s note: See more of Vicki Burnett’s cowbells at facebook.com/BurnettFineArtAndCalligraphy/. She can be contacted through Facebook.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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