Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Unleashed in Athens Georgia


             “You’re nothing like your father.  Take off your clothes and jump in the water.” 
Thayer Sarrono’s teasing lyrics accompanied our welcome toast as we began our visit to Athens, Georgia.  My husband and I were ready for some adult fun.  The University of Georgia is often ranked among the country’s top party schools and the town’s motto is “Life Unleashed” so we were hopeful we’d find it here.     
            The Foundry Inn and Spa got the good times rolling right away.  This is the city that famously birthed some of the country’s best bands: R.E.M., Widespread Panic, the B-52’s and many others.  Just a few steps from our comfortable room at the hotel was the Melting Point.  Every city should have a venue like this one with a first-class sound system, a big stage and a room full of enthusiastic listeners of all ages.  There are outdoor seats for folks who want to smoke or talk more loudly, a bar with TV’s away from the stage and plenty of seats around the large dance floor as well as a balcony perched above.    As we listened to Thayer’s folky set we munched on fish tacos from the menu that ranges from snacks to hearty meals.   We really appreciated that the music starts quite early.  You can catch the headliners and still be in bed before midnight.  It was so fun and easy that we went every night. The club hosts plenty of stellar local talent as well as national acts like The Soul Rebels who rocked the house a couple of nights later with their explosive New Orleans brass sound.  We never left the dance floor and couldn’t believe our luck in seeing this world class band in such an intimate venue as they stopped in Athens on their world tour, next stop France.  And what a bargain!  Admission to the Melting Point was included in our hotel charge and is otherwise only about $10.  We’d return to Athens just to go to the Melting Point again.

            At Mama’s Boy Café, you can get two essentials:  a creative breakfast and life advice.  My colorful plate of vegetable hash with a poached egg and hollandaise sauce made me reach for my camera before I took a bite.  The menu invites diners to be true Southerners and order a biscuit sandwich with eggs or fried chicken or channel their inner child and go for the warm breakfast chocolate cake.  With our bellies full, we selected a thought for the day from their fishbowl on our way out. I’ve tried to take mine to heart:  “Good judgment comes from experience and experience—well, that comes from poor judgment”.  
            Hobnobbing with the friendly crowd at the Athens Wine Weekend, many people commented to us that Athens is not your typical college town.  “The wide range of ages, the cool and funky vibe and the burgeoning creative industry have contributed to a town of professionals that are very creative.  It makes you dream and to live beyond what you imagined when you came out of college” said Meredith Metcalf of the Classic Center which hosted some of the weekend’s events.  The Wine Weekend is a fundraiser each January for the Cultural Foundation which provides scholarships, buys art and makes grants to cultural organizations.  It began with a classy Amuse Bouche where
we sampled several wines including the Sea View Ridge Pinot Noir which was described as “not your Tuesday night wine.  This is the we-just-got-engaged wine”.  The next afternoon almost 1,000 people came to the wine tasting and a sold-out crowd enjoyed the Gourmet Dinner that evening where shrimp timbale was the first of six courses highlighting the city’s best chefs. 
            Meanwhile, we were exploring the town’s other attractions.  Since the Bulldogs weren’t playing football that weekend, nothing was very crowded.  At certain times of year, it’s all about those “Dawgs”.   We especially enjoyed the 313-acre State Botanical Garden where we wandered the hiking trails amid the frost-covered trees.  The town’s North Oconee Greenway drew my husband for a morning jog and I wandered the town’s pretty downtown where 16 neighborhoods are on the National Register and history is around every turn.  Stately columned houses, many with historic markers, abound. 
The University was the first state college in the country to be chartered in 1785 and the campus is particularly charming. Scattered amid the grand architecture are occasional funky sculptures made from found objects, many inspired by bulldogs of course.   It’s all part of Athens' Dawg-as-muse attitude to “loosen up your collar” and enjoy.   
           









If You Go:
  
Foundry Park Inn and Spa                          






Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Playing all Day at John C. Campbell Folk School



          To have the freedom we had as children: to explore, to try new things, to dabble, to be alright with not being good at it, to immerse ourselves and relinquish all responsibilities for awhile… sound good? Since 1925, John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC has been answering the call of adults who want to have fun learning about music, art, nature, crafts, gardening, cooking, storytelling and writing.

Their history is fascinating.  The school’s namesake, John C. Campbell was described by his colleagues at Piedmont College as “the guy from up North that you can get along with” when he was president of the school.  In 1903, he and his wife Olive Dame outfitted a covered wagon and set out to explore Appalachia.  John interviewed farmers about their agricultural practices and Olive collected traditional ballads and studied the handicrafts.  They aspired to improve the quality of education in the region but they were also studying the wonderful crafts, music and tools that mountain people used.  Beyond cruel stereotypes, not much was known of this region at the time.  The book of ballads Olive eventually published is still the seminal work on the subject.  
 Familiar with the Danish system of education that combined fun with learning in a non-competitive environment, John and Olive hoped to bring that model to Appalachia. After John died in 1919, Olive and her friend Marguerite Butler went to Europe to investigate and came back determined to begin a school. They researched several locations including tiny Brasstown, NC, population 150. It’s only about 200 now. A local shopkeeper, Fred Scroggs, got enthusiastic and a few weeks later 200 people rallied in support. Townspeople donated land and work to begin what has become a huge campus where each year 860 week- and weekend-long classes are taught in superbly appointed facilities nestled in the valley.

      The power of an art retreat is described by Mark Salzman, a novelist struggling to write his second book. After throwing away an attempt that had taken five years, he went on a retreat to refresh himself. “I went without any particular intention of writing. I just wanted to exist…It was like waking from a bad dream. All of the sudden everything was like a gift: the fall colors, the sounds…but mainly the removal of all the reminders of art as a profession, as a way of making money or gaining a reputation…I was in a community of people who seemed dedicated to art almost like a sacred pursuit.” While passing around a beautiful tureen of soup in the dining hall, my lunch mate explained, “Only 25% of the experience is about the art, the other 75% is the retreat.”



My class was called “Fiber Fun”. Seven of us women learned sewing and embellishment techniques from fabric artist Martine House. Some of the others were accomplished seamstresses or quilters. I was not. Not to worry. Once the daily responsibilities of life were taken off our shoulders, our meals were abundantly prepared, enjoyable entertainment was provided and we were showered with encouragement and resources to do nothing but create, our imaginations lit up like wildfires. We burned with creative energy all day, spending free time in the studios or walking the beautiful grounds gathering ideas.
  I’d been warned “don’t eat with the blacksmiths, they have hardy
appetites” so I joined a table in the communal dining room and sat next to Steve who was assisting in the woodturning class. He’d remembered the fun he and his brother had had with their father’s tools as children and had rediscovered this passion as an adult.  “It’s enriched my life beyond anything I could have thought,” he said.  A woman at our table had been here several times.  “First I took weaving so I went home and bought a loom but found that I didn’t like warping it.  I made quilts but I liked the design more than finishing them.  I made jam and I might continue to do that but this week I’m doing dyed fabric which I’ll never do at home.”  Here you are free to dabble or become a serious amateur, no pressure.  Many of the students are retirees.  They’d asked themselves “What will I do when I retire?”  They’d answered, “play”.
      John C. Campbell Folk School was named one of the “100 Best Vacations to Enrich Your Life” by National Geographic. The garden flourishes; everyone sings together each morning and applauds each other’s creations at the art show at the end of the week. Grateful students have built a beautiful outdoor oven, carved wooden totems along the hiking trail, forged iron gates and fences and call their experiences transformative. Playing can be that way.

If You Go:
John C. Campbell Folk School is about two hours north of Atlanta just over the North Carolina border: https://www.folkschool.org/

more photos: John C. Campbell Folk School

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Woods Just Up the Road: Biking the Trails of the Francis Marion National Forest


        Whenever I unload my bike at a trailhead in the Francis Marion Forest, I always imagine it saying “YES!  I was made for this!” It’s not a fancy bike but the wide tires and shock absorbers are perfect for the rough, rooted, narrow trails that transverse the forest.  As I ride past bays, marshes, campgrounds, flooded rice fields and waterways my energy rises. Often the occasional snake, alligator, wild turkey, deer, boar or the myriad of birds are my only companions.  This has become one of my favorite pastimes for high octane exercise, especially in the cooler months.    And a great escape.  On my annual “it’s not the bridge run” ride, I drop racers off at the Cooper River Bridge starting line and head out to my contrarian destination. Even on days when the city is full of visitors, the forest is almost empty despite the easy accessibility of trails just a few miles from Charleston
       
        The easiest rides are on the service roads that criss-cross the forest.  Among the forest’s 629,000 acres are miles and miles of both surfaced and unpaved roads wide enough for cars and logging vehicles. One of my favorites is reached easily from Hwy. 17 north of Mt. Pleasant by turning onto Forest Road 228, I’On Swamp Road.  You can start biking there and ride 2.5 miles to the entrance for I’On Swamp Interpretive Trail where you should park your bike and go on foot.  It is a fascinating trail through a wetland world along old plantation dikes.  You’ll walk along embankments built in the 1700s that created a patchwork of fields and ditches historically used in the production of rice.  Signs with educational information about history and forest life dot the route.  Alligators are often lolling in the puddles of sunlight. After this one mile walk you can easily ride on the forest road as far as you’d like before doubling back to your car.  Even children or beginners enjoy this excursion.   
        Ready to get off the road and ride for an hour or two?  Head to the South Tibwin Trail near McClellanville which is cooperatively managed by the Forest Service, the SC Department of Natural Resources and Ducks Unlimited. Over the five miles of trails there are hardwood bottomlands, pine uplands, tidal marshes, freshwater ponds and wetlands.  Tibwin Creek is as wide as a river and full of jumping fish.  Ramshackle docks extend over the water and old rice trunks that were used to flood the fields in plantation days are still evident.  Great Blue Herons swoop overhead.  From the wildlife blinds, you might see egrets, eagles, hawks or possibly river otters and bald eagles.  This is billed as a loop trail for biking but it is not well marked with blazes so a map, downloadable from the websites below, is handy.


        My favorite ramble is the Awendaw Connector section of the Palmetto Trail.  Over its seven scenic miles it weaves between Awendaw Creek and the forest. Birds, including the endangered red cockaded woodpecker, are plentiful.  The trail is bike-able but you’ll have to dismount occasionally to avoid thick tree roots or standing water.  You can begin at Buck Hall Landing, the easternmost end of the Palmetto Trail, where there’s a picnic area, fishing dock, bathrooms and a campground.  Or start closer to Mt. Pleasant at Rosa Green Road.  The forest service sign indicating Rosa Green Road says, “Awendaw Creek Canoe Launch” and the launch is truly a marvel of engineering with a wide rail to drag your kayak or canoe down to the water.  Americorp and the other organizations that built this trail have constructed sturdy wooden bridges and benches. Sit awhile.  Eat an apple. Breathe. The sweeping marsh views are straight out of a Pat Conroy novel. If you take an out of town visitor on this trail they’ll never want to leave the Lowcountry.
        A bit longer, the Tuxbury Trail is shared by bikers, hikers and horses and consists of 14 miles of interconnecting trails near Cainhoy.  The habitat is less varied than the Awendaw Connector with some sandy patches.  Sharing the trail with horses could be a problem but I saw no sign of them on my visit.  However, the Wambaw Cycle Trail is a different story. Thinking that “cycle” meant my Schwinn, I optimistically headed there.  But as I drove closer, I had to yield to speeding motorcycles darting across the forest roads.  The “vroom” of engines greeted me in the parking lot where dozens of empty ATV trailers were parked.  Detour! That turned out to be a good day to ride on the nearby forest service roads instead.

  
         For the tough and hearty who relish a longer bike ride, the Swamp Fox Trail is the answer.  From here the forest stretches widely to the west for many miles. This is where the Revolutionary war hero Francis Marion hid out with his ragtag troops.  It doesn’t take much imagination to picture them here now, especially as the trail descends deeper into the thickest parts of the forest.  Today the Swamp Fox Trail is a 42 mile section of the Palmetto Trail extending from the Hwy. 17 to Moncks Corner.  Any section is an easy walk and a moderately easy bike ride.  A two hour bike ride from the Hwy 17 trailhead will take you to Halfway Creek campground and back, twelve miles round-trip.  The bicycling is fairly easy in this section since it is older and not as rutted with tree roots as the Awendaw Connector Trail. It’s also well marked and easy to follow.  Be forewarned that you might hear gunshots from this trail.  It isn’t hunters.  It’s the forest rifle range located nearby and there is no danger. The entrance to the Swamp Fox Trail is clearly marked on Hwy. 17 if you are headed south but there is no sign if you’re headed north so use the mileage directions on the website to find it.
        Construction of the Palmetto Trail began in 1994 and will extend 425 miles from Buck Hall Landing on the Intracoastal Waterway to the Blue Ridge Mountains when it is finished.  About 300 miles are already completed.  Dane Hannah works for the Palmetto Conservation Foundation as the Lowcountry trail coordinator.  He is single-handedly responsible for the 180 miles of trails from Columbia to Awendaw, sometimes by hacking away overgrowth with a machete.  He boasts that the Palmetto Trail includes more than recreational destinations.  It goes through towns and cities such as Columbia and Santee, and historic battlefields.  You can even plan a biking stop at Sweatman’s authentic barbeque in Holly Hill. 
        Excursions take some preparation.  It is common to find empty map holders or no holders at all on the trailheads so download a map before you go.  The forest is very buggy in summer.  Some trails get quite muddy after rainy weather.  Helmets are a must.  And water of course.  There is little danger from animals although alligators are common on some trails. They are easily scared away if you loudly yell at them “Move out of my way alligator!”  Snakes are often seen.  In one harrowing episode I saw a four foot long snake draped across the path just as I speeded towards and  (yikes!) over it, unable to stop.  It slithered away afterwards.  Since I’m sometimes alone when I go biking, it’s comforting to know that cellphone signals are strong throughout the woods.
        The most important precaution is to have the right equipment.  Road bikes will not do.  When I introduced my friend, an avid road biker, to the Palmetto Trail he insisted on taking his skinny tire bike.  It ruined his experience.  It’s also handy to have at least some gears so beach bikes are not ideal.  You’ll want to change gears in sandy areas or for covering long distances without getting fatigued.


        Biking in the Francis Marion National Forest is an exhilarating plunge into nature.  Speeding through the forest on your own energy, you are immediately immersed into our wonderfully flat Lowcountry.   Despite the similarities in the locales, every outing is different.  Ed Rice introduced me to this pastime and passionately bikes often.  He says, “The seasons always have a little different presentation.  Maybe the leaves changed later this year or there was more rain.  The little glimpses of flora and fauna reveal themselves on each trip and there’s always something new to see.”  He reveled in finding trumpet plant flowers this year in a Carolina bay. He’d been there before but had never seen them until this year. On one memorable outing he and I climbed a fire tower to find a bird box full of peeping baby owls.  Beneath the box, on the metal steps, was a pile of bones from mice and other critters the owls had eaten. 
        I am often surprised by reactions when I tell people who live in the Charleston area that I’ve been biking in the forest.  “What forest?” they often say.  Those who have been there know that it is just up the road and a world away from the ubiquitous strip malls and traffic.  Becoming part of this expansive green world, speeding through the trees, the solitude of the forest, these are the nearby adventures awaiting bikers in the Francis Marion Forest

If you go:

Francis Marion Foresthttp://www.fs.usda.gov/main/scnfs/home



This article originally appeared in www.scwildlife.com 

Venuses on the Wyboo

            

            We call ourselves “The Venuses of Willendorf Book Club” an unsuitably highfalutin name for the group of eight of us women.  Our ages span decades and our careers range from financial planner to retired teacher to hardware store owner to artist.  During the past 15 years we've read hundreds of books together and met for monthly discussions full of scholarly and artistic insights. And many conversations about life and love. “It's no use,” Florentino Ariza explains in our current book Love in the Time of Cholera, "Love is the only thing that interests me." 
            We've taken several trips and outings together to enhance our reading experiences.  Cold Mountain was discussed as we steeped in hot tubs in Hot Springs, N.C.; we toured Mepkin Abbey as we walked in the footsteps of Clare Booth Luce and took the obligatory trip to Savannah after reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. We've discussed books while picnicking at Cypress Gardens, Brookgren Gardens and Buck Hall Landing. Our members’ birthplaces range from Cuba to England to several Northern and Southern states but we all share a keen interest in exploring South Carolina.  So after reading about love and life in the Caribbean and South America we came, of course, to Lake Marion.  Actually it turned out not to be as incongruous a choice as it seemed.    
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s sweeping narrative mixes the mundane with the supernatural and realities with fantasies. This magical realism overtakes us at Martha’s family’s cottage.  The past percolates into the present.  In the cottage’s stash of old magazines Jacqueline Kennedy is still a stylish first lady. Recipes with jello are the latest thing.  The house envelopes us in its musty embrace when we arrive for our highly anticipated weekends each year.  With only the quiet lapping of the wake from passing boats to distract us, our minds clear a swath for us to be creative.  We sometimes spend hours making marbleized paper out on the patio or cover tables with art supplies and make altered books or paper flowers.  Not exactly “Girls Gone Wild.”  More like “Girls Gone Wyboo.” One Saturday afternoon Martha tinkered with a shadow box “museum” made from items she’d unearthed in a bathroom drawer: give-aways from the radio station, Man Tan, a piece of soap to which her mom Lucinda had painstakingly glued a cut-out bouquet of flowers, a small plastic statue of a pregnant young girl provocatively captioned “Kilroy was here”.   In Martha’s hands symbols from the past became art, folding time again.

Captain Richard of Fisheagle Tours told us an allegory about the past resurfacing.  Before Lake Marion was built in the 1930’s, only three percent of the state’s citizens had electricity.  To speed the building process that would produce hydroelectricity, the WPA cut down the cypress trees, chained them together and submerged them.  Eventually the chains rusted and one by one the trunks bobbed, and continue to bob, to the surface.  “It blows my mind to think these trees are older than the lake,” Richard says.  “Cypress trees can actually live to be over 1,700 years old.  They’re cousins of the sequoia trees, those huge Redwoods in California.”  His eco tour is full of stories that inspire us.  He passionately describes the prevalent osprey that construct gangly 1,200 pound nests to which they return every year to live with their life-long mate; stories of how  osprey band together to drive away bald eagles that venture into their territory.  Despite the rivalry, the bald eagle has rebounded from less than 100 in the state to over 400, he recounts.  On cue, Mary spots one on the horizon so he quietly cruises the boat through the carpet of water hyacinth to where we can observe it through his high powered binoculars. 

As we glide on the surface of the lake, our imaginations are fueled by his stories of what lies beneath us:  farms, forests, cemeteries and fields that were buried when the Lake was built.  “They paid the landowners 75% of market value plus 100 chickens,” he says.  The government built them new houses, or moved theirs, which included a screened porch which was the clincher for the deal since mosquitoes were so prevalent.  Six-thousand graves were moved but many still remain beneath the water today with ominous signs warning of disturbing them.  Graves sometimes emerge when the water level drops, he says. Supernatural sparks of creativity ignite in our imaginations.
All of the Venuses are nature lovers.  Yvette and I have a tradition of swim hikes.  We loop swim noodles around us in inventive ways and swim parallel to the shore past the raucous campers at Bob Cooper or over to Scarborough’s Landing.  An hour of swimming justifies the cocktail hour to come.  Sometimes we bring kayaks and we go sightseeing along the shore admiring the variety of houses and making up our pretend futures there.  Feeling particularly ambitious one year, a couple of us joined a kayaking expedition to Sparkleberry Swamp.  Imitating the locals, we’ll occasionally drag fishing poles out from under the house and try our luck.  Sandra and Martha enjoy early morning swims or evening dips to bracket the relaxing day.  On chilly nights we delight in making a bonfire and roasting gussied-up s’mores constructed of homemade peanut butter cookies, Swiss chocolate and marshmallows.  Around our little campfire, we Santee Lakes and there are some nice trails in the Santee State Park but my favorite biking destination in the area is the Cuddo Unit in the Santee National Wildlife Refuge. On an early morning ride there, the only other living thing I saw was a huge alligator lying across the trail ahead of me. As I barreled towards it I shrieked “get out of my way you alligator.” He lumbered into the marsh as I sped on.  Mostly we stay in our bathing suits, our make-up packed away, drifting from one reclining position to another:  a chaise in the sun, a couch in the shade.  The dock is our living room. We drag a table out there for lunch or toast the sunset from its benches, waving at passing boaters. 
always comment on how quiet and dark it is.  The stars are brilliant from the end of the dock.  The water shimmers in the moonlight.  Early risers like me can enjoy the sight of the mist-shrouded lake greeting the sunrise, snowy egrets wading majestically on our beach.  Sometimes I bring a couple of bikes and explore the area.  The Palmetto Trail has a section that parallels the I-95 bridge over the
Walking and hiking in the area is easy to do.  Santee State Park has trails and lovely picnic spots by the water.  There are three one-mile hiking trails and a 7.5 mile biking trail there which are clearly marked and well maintained.  There’s also an informative visitor’s center with a display about the area’s history and ecology and cabins to rent.  Nearby the cottage, picturesque acres of unpicked cotton delight us in the fall. Flocks of migrating birds honk and squawk as they fly overhead or land to forage in the fields.  A short walk away is Scarborough’s Landing where we sometimes have breakfast.  All eight of us could eat heartily there for about $50.  The short path there goes through a fish camp of trailers and mobile homes for vacationers.  Sitting on a porch that they’re proud to tell us they built themselves, a cuddling couple told us they come most every weekend from their farm in Bishopville to enjoy the fish camp and its bar’s karaoke.  Were we missing some exciting nightlife we wonder?  But we prefer our own cocktail hour.  We leaf through a crate of old LP’s someone has left behind and put Wilson Pickett on the aging turntable.  The past bubbles up again as we tell stories of high school proms, first dates and young love.  Showered and relaxed from a day in the sun, we unselfconsciously dance in our pajamas.  “As soon as I drive up here I feel it,” says Kimberly, “There’s no pretense.  If you want to stay in your pj’s all day, no one cares.”  We are, as the sign on the house next door aptly says, on “Idle Speed Only.” 
The cottage’s décor is a chronicle of years of playfulness.  The artist Carol McGill has spent several days here painting plein air.  It’s a location that calls to her repeatedly.  Several of her creations adorn the cottage walls. In one she did from the shore of Santee State Park, her passionate strokes of high contrast color beautifully capture the unusual landscape of the trunks that protrude from the Lake.  Her paintings incongruously share wall space with paraphernalia from the family’s history:  assemblages of sun hats, and insignia boasting “pride in tobacco”, a “Wyboo World” plaque, “Go Cocks” license plates and photos of Martha’s parents shaking hands with Fidel Castro.  It’s a creative hodge-podge with the Lake as its muse.
Martha jokingly says about the cottage’s kitchen:  “Just remember when you have something at your house that you really don’t want anymore, bring it here.”  Deep fryers, punch bowls, scores of beat-up pots and pans and enough plates to feed an army crowd the old wooden cabinets.  But we manage quite well to serve wonderful meals that draw from the book’s settings.  Over a Caribbean themed dinner of mangos, avocados, shrimp and rice pudding we recount the final, beautiful chapter of the book: two elderly lovers lie side by side in their cabin on the riverboat, holding hands as the boat drifts.  They’d spent a lifetime waiting for this moment. Fifty years, nine months, and four days to be exact.  Florentino was patient throughout Fermina’s fifty year marriage replete with its passion and disillusionment, adventures and estrangements. So, inevitably, we are back to the subject of love again:  of love-sickness and obsession, the vicissitudes of long marriages, the agelessness of desire and the friendships that help steer the course in life’s rushing currents.

If You Go:
Fisheagle Tours:  www.fisheagle.net
Santee National Wildlife Refuge and Cuddo Unit:  http://www.fws.gov/santee/
Rental cottages on the Lakewww.vrbo.com

This article was originally published in the May/June 2014 issue of S.C. Wildlife Magazine
             



Thursday, May 15, 2014

Charleston as a Muse


            You never know what will spark someone’s creativity.  Justine Post says of her childhood growing up on Sullivan’s Island, “I would sometimes open the freezer to get some ice cream and a frozen bird carcass would fall into my lap.”  Her ornithologist father and artist mother surrounded the family with nature and creative experiences.  A poetry workshop at Creative Spark with poet laureate Marjory Wentworth and an elementary school classroom visit from Jack Tracey began her interest in poetry but it wasn’t until she attended a Piccolo Sundown Poetry reading by Mark Strand as a teenager that she discovered her own creative voice.  “I had been reading the classic poetry in high school but seeing a poet that was living and that I responded to writing in a contemporary voice opened up my eyes.  Oh! Poetry can be written in the Charleston:  “The water rises with the feel of clasping, the familiar bit of salt…” Having published her first book “Beast” to critical acclaim, she’s thrilled to be a featured poet on May 27 at the Sundown Poetry Series at the Dock Street Theater courtyard this year. “Poetry is to be read aloud, off the page which gives it different meanings.  It transforms the poetry and gets the audience excited about it,” she says.    
language we speak in today instead of being antiquated,” she remembers thinking.  Birds and sea creatures populate her poems which tell of her connection to
          
  Piccolo Spoleto was created to celebrate local talent, but don’t let that make you think “second rate”.  Several local artists have catapulted to national fame.  The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art will welcome home prodigal son Shepherd Fairey for his first major exhibition in his hometown.  His new body of work is on the subject of power.  Many remember his ubiquitous “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” project consisting of enigmatic stickers that were posted everywhere.  From that humble beginning he’s launched a successful career as a graphic designer, illustrator, activist and artist including his controversial and iconic “Hope” portrait of Obama.  It’s easy to imagine Fairey’s irreverent, edgy, political images igniting artistic fires in developing minds of young viewers who may relate to Fairey’s background as a local skateboarder.  He’s sharing the bill with one of the country’s most prominent artists, Jasper Johns who was long-time friends with William Halsey for whom the gallery is named.
            Another local art celebrity will be exhibiting nearby on the peninsula.  Mary Edna Fraser’s batik Our Common Thread: Environmental Awareness” in cooperation with the local Sierra Club.  Mary Edna’s art depicts our area’s fragile natural beauty and her activism supports local environmental causes.  An avid patron of the arts and musician herself, she never misses the Sunset Serenade at the US Customs House, a free performance by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra on May 23.  
exhibit at Ann Long Gallery is based upon thousands of aerial images she’s photographed.  Her batiks have appeared in over 100 solo exhibitions including at the Smithsonian Institution.  A large one graces the ceiling at the Charleston International airport concourse.  She’s also presenting a free slide show of her work “
            Charleston has long been a center for jazz and the scene is now thriving.  Locally cultivated trumpet player Cameron Harder Handel developed her chops in Wando High School’s band program and has toured the world including a current gig with Michael Bolton.  Catch her in the big band at one of the many Charleston Jazz Orchestra concerts at the Music Hall or at Kiawah.  Repertoire ranges from Latin to swing to Duke Ellington. Want more jazz?  The jazz cruises are not just for tourists.  Catch Lonnie Hamilton’s  grooving sax or Franklin Ashley’s smokin’ piano rendition of “Summertime” while cruising under the Ravenel Bridge in the moonlight.  These are “Chamber of Commerce moments”.  They make you fall in love with Charleston.


      What could be more inspirational than stepping out of the heat and humidity into one of Charleston’s majestic churches to hear magnificent music played by stellar musicians? Local actress Dana DeMartino recommends attending one of the dozen Spotlight Concerts. “I absolutely love organ music and the experience of being in a church and hearing this instrument resonate off the walls of a large cathedral reminds me of my youth in Paris so this is always a must.” A highlight this year is The Choir of St. Martin-in-the-Fields on a world tour from England. They’re stopping at Grace Episcopal Church on June 6 to present a diverse program inspired the British Isles with music ranging from Vaughn Williams to George Shearing.
Piccolo Spoleto will have over 700 performances in seventeen days beginning May 23, 2014. Many are free. There’s theater, comedy, drama, music, children’s activities and literature. The festival is a toast to Charleston, the muse. It’s a celebration of our city’s engaged audiences, its stellar talent and of those who carry the city in their hearts as they rise to artistic success.

For more information:  www.piccolospoleto.com

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Follow the Arts Mavens to Spoleto


           
       
        Transcendent moments: a hushed audience before the curtain goes up, time-traveling on music from centuries ago, immersing yourself in a character until you forget he’s an actor; art that brings tears, memories, laughter or insight.  Beyond entertainment, we’re all hoping our Spoleto tickets bring enlightenment and joy.  That’s a tall order.  Over 150 performances with such claims as  “a spellbinding thriller”, “breathtaking feats”, “revolutionary instrument techniques” and influences ranging from Brazilian choro music to South African ancestors, not to mention ticket prices up to $100 can be intimidating. To cut through the confusion, I’ve polled arts mavens for their suggestions.
        As the purveyor of fine instruments all over the city, Charles Fox of Fox Music recommends the opening ceremonies.  Free, lively and short, this is a perfect splash of culture to begin the 17 days of artistic experiences.  He says, “I dearly enjoy the feel and connection of the opening ceremony at city hall.” And there’s always an artistic surprise.  One year it was a composition played on car horns, once an elephant.  I hear this year involves opera. Catch it on Friday, May 23 at noon outside City Hall, the corner of Meeting and Broad Streets.
        Judy Vane, long-time arts supporter and former Spoleto board member is looking forward to the Leoš Janáček opera “Kat’a Kabanova”.  The themes of freedom and guilt set to shimmering 20th century music promise a provocative evening. “We had a whole weekend dedicated to Janáček a few years ago so I learned to appreciate him” which you can also do by attending the free artist’s talk with the opera’s director Garry Hynes on May 24. Judy’s also a big fan of the Gate Theatre.  “They’ve become friends of mine,” since they’ve performed in the festival several times.  “My Cousin Rachel”, a play by Daphne du Maurier is a new production by the company this year.
        Another fan of the Gate Theatre is Dana DeMartino, a local actress who trained at conservatories in music, dance and theatre.  “One thing that keeps me returning to festivals like Spoleto is their commitment to present new works or old works that are brought to life within a new concept.” She says of the Gate Theatre, “I love the company and find whatever they’re doing exciting to watch. They have often taken a very dated piece of theater and turned it into a gem.”  

        Ellen Dressler Moryl, the retired director of Charleston’s Office of Cultural Affairs says, “The older I get the more I need excellent choir music to sustain my soul.” She recommends the Westminster Choir and especially Handel’s “Te Deum”.  She also describes John Adams as “a groundbreaking composer in every way” and is looking forward to his opera “El Nino” with its mixture of Mexican poetry, the nativity story and female voices. 
       
        Music lovers recommended the Chamber Music series. As local flutist Susan Kraybill said, “I always like the Dock Street Chamber series, but then, who doesn’t?” Charles Wadsworth’s able protégé Geoff Nuttall curates these twice-daily programs that always include familiar gems beside unfamiliar works.  Composers may premier new pieces while listening from the audience.  It’s an intimate, often humorous and casual way to hear the country’s best small ensembles play their hearts out.  Many of the musicians are rising stars following the path of such luminaries as Jean-Yves Thibaudet who performed here before he became an international sensation. 
        Dance lovers have much to anticipate this year.  Eliza Ingle, a local dancer, choreographer and College of Charleston dance professor suggests that you not miss Hubbard Street Dance. “… a beautiful and powerful company showing the best choreography of today.”  But she has a hot tip for us:  “I’m told the sleeper is the solo work from Gregory Maqoma from South Africa doing a full evening dance/storytelling
evening.”  A reviewer said of this show “a runaway triumph in terms of artistic excellence, aesthetic sorcery and responses…” It does what Spoleto does best: showcase an exotic culture through a compelling mixture of artforms. Dottie Ashley, journalist and dance expert also recommends them as well as Dorrance Dance which she says is on the cutting edge of the tap dance revival she’s noticing on Broadway.

        It’s very unusual for a local group to play Spoleto venues, but the finale this year features Shovels and Rope who have catapulted from Lowcountry stages to fame. They’ve been touring extensively since winning the Americana Music Honors and Award’s Emerging Artist of the Year in 2013. I’ve been in and out of town for months,” says Cary Ann Hearst who performs with her husband Michael Trent in the duo.  A large crowd is sure to welcome back their mixture of honky-tonk, country, folk and rock as it fills Middleton Place on June 8 for the all-day party of picnics, beer and fireworks amidst the beautiful gardens. 
Ellen Moryl admonishes that it’s easy to become a “jaded voluptuary” and take for granted this world-class festival with its stellar experiences.  So choose carefully but choose.  You will undoubtedly find yourself transported, enlightened and entertained.   

 For more information, see www.spoletousa.org
This story originally appeared in Lucky Dog Publications:  The Island Eye and Island Connection




            

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Artfields Revitalizes Lake City

           
                 
             Until 2013, T.OD Johnson’s place on Saul Street was Lake City’s singular art gallery. His storefront window is a hodge- podge of cheap Asian cups and knick-knacks surrounded arts and crafts (portraits, Eskimo and Indian motifs, hanging mobiles of spiraling cardboard and collaged cereal boxes) that he’d accumulated after years of teaching art in schools.  “When I retired my wife wouldn’t let me bring it home.”  In six years he’d sold three pieces.  His son teaches karate in the front room.  Count him among the doubters that art could revitalize the town.
            Lake City, S.C. is tiny, with a population under 7,000.  On the two hour drive from Charleston highlights included vultures eating road kill and signs for “Dan’s Car Crushing”. “Artfields will be the premier art event in the Southeast,” Lake City native and millionaire businesswoman Darla Moore boldly predicted before last year’s premier event.  She aimed to revitalize the entire town through a unique combination of art competitions and celebrations over ten days.  Huge cash prizes totaling $100,000 for winning artists, funded by Moore herself, would attract the talent.  Crowds would come for free.  There were plenty of skeptics and doubters of course.  Who would have thought that there would be 45 minute waits for tables in the restaurant?  On a Tuesday!  Or a racially diverse crowd discussing paintings in the African American barber 
shop?  The shoe store’s sales went up 75%.  The mattress store even made some sales to arts patrons.  In fact, the economic impact of last year’s event was $5.4 million dollars.  Attendance exceeded 22,000.  Galleries were reclaimed from old warehouses, hotels broke ground, an inventive mini-movie theater was built from a shipping container, restaurants and shops rushed to open in time.  Artfields is “the best thing since the invention of grits,” said Lake City gift shop owner Sophia Powell as she wrapped another purchase.
             “Try to show us something we haven’t seen before.  Share new ways of thinking of the world and be so good at it that it’s impossible to ignore.”  This is advice to artists from Jim Arendt, last year’s $50,000 Top Prize Winner for his cut-denim piece “Jamie”. It catapulted his career.  “Since winning Artfields I’ve had a chance to share my art with people all over the world.”   He was among the over 770 artists who   registered from 11 Southeastern states.  The 400 works that were selected were displayed among 40 downtown venues, all within walking distance.  Many of the artists were present to discuss their work including John Whitman with his sculpted life-size wooden torso.  He lovingly explained how “she”, the sculpture, was created from a downed tree and sanded to accentuate the grain.  Austin Grace Smith stood beside her abstract painting and explained, “The movement of light across sky and water and how that affects color is the focus of my work.  It balances me. What moments balance you?” she asked me.  We spoke like old friends. “The reason I paint is to have these conversations about deep issues,” she said.
 In a beauty shop window another deep issue was depicted as Leanna Knapp displayed the 500 pound sculpture she’d spent a year creating from her unworn wedding gown and plaster.  Viewers were captivated by the poignancy of her story which was awarded the $25,000 Juried Second Place Prize.  Everyone is a judge at Artfields through a cellphone based voting system that determines the winner of the $25,000 People’s Choice Award and weighs the juried prizes too.  As the deadline for voting approached on the last day of the event, nearly everyone in town was punching their cellphones to get in on the action. 
            The interactive “Before I Die” wall turned everyone into an artist and elicited such inscriptions as, “Before I Die I will….stand under the Eiffel Tower…be loved by a good man…dance with the stars…”  The portrait contest drew a large audience as 24 artists were pitted against each other to create a portrait of a local farmer within one hour.  Four rounds ended with Joe Begnaud’s painting of Butch Rodgers winning the $1,000 first prize.  “This was the most athletic thing I’ve ever done,” said the artist.  “It feels like an endurance sport.  The idea of art as sport is funny.”           
            “Look around you.  See how our town is changing.  It’s buzzing with new life, replete with masterworks of artists,” a triumphant Moore asserted.  This year’s Artfields will include music, dancing, community art, food, workshops and contests throughout the ten days and $100,000 in prizes.   Perhaps best of all, almost everything is free to attend, no tickets necessary.  If you doubt that art can change the world, or at least a small town in South Carolina, come to Artfields.  You’ll become a believer too. 

If You Go:
Artfields will be held in Lake City, SC on April 25 to May 4, 2014.  For more information: www.artfieldssc.org

For more images, please see Artfields