Submitted Artwork — Kay Browning’s winning design for the 2012 balloon race features a colorful balloon drifting across the Mississippi River under a starry night sky.

A SPECIAL PLACE: Design keeps husband’s memory alive for artist

Published 12:01am Wednesday, October 17, 2012

NATCHEZ — This year’s Great Mississippi River Balloon Race poster and T-shirt art will always be special to its creator, Kay Browning.

The hot-air balloon watercolor will always remind Browning of her biggest fan and the encouragement he offered.

Almost one year ago, on Oct. 31, 2011, Kay’s husband James Browning suffered gastrointestinal bleeding and lost 14 pints of blood causing his kidneys to shut down. He spent several months on dialysis until finally being able to return home to Natchez in December.

Committing most of her time to taking care of James, Kay said she still found some time to work on this year’s design, working in the sun room adjacent to their bedroom.

“He was always my biggest supporter and allowed me the time to pursue this passion of mine,” Kay said. “He was very proud of this year’s design and said it was beautiful.”

Just weeks after finding out her design won the competition, James died, on Sept. 27, after the nearly yearlong fight.

Dealing with the loss of her husband has been a stark contrast, Kay said, from the excitement of having her design selected for the coveted balloon race T-shirt and poster.

But knowing the honor and reputation that comes with the selection is something Kay said will help her power through her current emotional situation.

Since this year’s design was the last one James was able to see, it will also be one Kay will never forget.

“This one will always have a special place among the other designs,” Kay said. “He was always brutally honest and told me exactly what he thought.

“He really liked this one.”

The artwork Kay created for this year’s design depicts a typical starry night over the Mississippi River bridge, with a colorful balloon making its way across the river.

Trailing behind the balloon is its color reflection in the river adding an extra splash of color to the nightscape.

Kay said the bridge is a landscape that she surprisingly hadn’t yet featured in any of her designs.

“It’s so hard to come up with something new and original for the designs, because I always feel like everything has already been done before,” Kay said. “But the bridge was something that I had never done, and I started going through all my pictures and just got this idea.

“I had an idea in my head already and the bridge with the lights, bright sky and the reflection just stuck with me.”

Not unlike the other nine of Kay’s designs that have been selected for the race artwork, the creation process for her begins with an idea.

Then Kay begins searching through various files of photographs she’s taken over the years before finally putting a pencil to paper to begin drawing.

Once the drawing and sketching is complete, Kay transfers the art to a new surface to begin painting using, in this case, water colors.

As a self-taught artist, Kay said the entire process is something with which she sometimes struggles, but that challenge makes the final product that much more rewarding.

“It makes me feel really good when they pick my design especially since I’m self taught,” Kay said. “It really helps to be in a place that stimulates your creativity.

“I still think that bridge is the most beautiful thing in the world every time I drive across it.”

Kay moved to Natchez 34 years ago from Coushatta, La., after hearing her sister, who lived in Natchez, rave about the city.

“I’ve always been artistic in some ways, but where I was from was a very small town and didn’t offer much artistic education,” Kay said. “When I moved to Natchez, I bought my first set of acrylic paints and started teaching myself by going through magazines and painting what I saw.”

The practice eventually led to perfection in 1996 when her first balloon race design was selected as the T-shirt and poster art.

Nearly 16 years and nine selected designs later, Kay said the feeling of being selected is still extremely rewarding.

“I’m always very humbled when they select my designs because there are always so many great artists competing,” Kay said. “I’m not famous by any means, but it’s certainly rewarding to see your design on the posters.”

And even though she won’t have James to critique or give his opinion on her designs in the future, Kay said she hopes to continue submitting art to the balloon race for years to come.

“I’m going to take some time and clean up my studio that’s downstairs before I paint anything else,” Kay said. “But once that’s done, I would love to keep drawing for the balloon race.

“I’ve really enjoyed doing it every year.”

Merchandise and collector’s items for this year’s Great Mississippi River Balloon Race can be purchased at the Historic Natchez Foundation or the Natchez Visitor Reception Center gift shop.

Balloon race begins Friday morning at 7:30 a.m. and continues throughout the weekend. Tickets are available at the visitor center as well.