'Doctuh Buzzard's Rootworks' exhibit explores Lowcountry lore

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comDecember 2, 2012 

Bluffton artists Bernice and Andy Tate are shown here Wednesday afternoon in their home's workshop. Bernice Tate's work often incorporates patterns from her grandmother's quilts. The Tate's installation at ARTworks in Beaufort titled "Doctuh Buzzard's Rootworks" celebrates the hoodoo culture of the Sea Islands.

SARAH WELLIVER/STAFF PHOTO

  • Most Lowcountry residents associate Doctor Buzzard with Stepheney Robinson, a longtime local root doctor famous for his purple glasses and his rivalry and eventual friendship with Beaufort County Sheriff J.E. McTeer.

    But Bluffton artists Bernice and Andy Tate said Doctor Buzzard was more of a title in hoodoo culture than a specific person.



    "Doctuh Buzzard's Rootworks Installation," based on the local legends (and factual history) of Dr. Buzzard, created by artists Bernice and Andy Tate: through Dec. 31, ARTworks, 2127 Boundary St., Beaufort. Free. 843-379-2787. www.artworksinbeaufort.org

When Andy Tate first began visiting the Lowcountry more than four decades ago, his father-in-law would drive him around the Sea Islands, pointing out local landmarks and other places of interest as they drove toward Hunting Island.

All these years later, one of those places still sticks out.

"He pointed down this one road and said, 'And down there is where Doctor Buzzard lives,'" Tate said. "Hoodoo was very much a part of the culture and still is. People just don't talk about it that much anymore."

Tate and his wife Bernice, a Sheldon native, are hoping to change that with "Doctuh Buzzard's Rootworks," a new installation the couple created and recently unveiled at ARTworks in Beaufort.

Inside, the Tates, who live in Bluffton, constructed a faux country store and replicated the kinds of products that a "rootworker," a name given to those who practice hoodoo, might need to do his job. Often confused with voodoo, hoodoo puts far less emphasis on organized religion and embraces traditional African folk medicine and magic.

Weathered bottles and jars of St. Helena's Hex Oil, Hoodoo Water and Goofer Dust sit atop a large bookshelf and are meant to invoke a sense of whimsy and tradition, Bernice Tate said.

"We really want people to understand this part of our culture and to embrace it," Bernice Tate said. "No one really knows about it and no one really talks about it but it's still here. People are still painting the doors of their homes blue to ward off the evil spirits. Those traditions and practices live on."

Before building the installation, Bernice and Andy Tate thoroughly researched hoodoo and root magic and found there was relatively little written about its traditions.

"Most of what we know about hoodoo is passed down through family members and generations," Andy Tate said. "If you want to get a sense of what's going on within this culture, you really just have to talk to the old-timers."

Most Lowcountry residents associate the installation's namesake, Doctor Buzzard, with Stepheney Robinson, a longtime local root doctor famous for his purple glasses and his rivalry and eventual friendship with Beaufort County Sheriff J.E. McTeer.

However, the Tates said Doctor Buzzard was more of a title in hoodoo culture than a name assigned to any specific person in history.

"There are many people who claimed to be the original Doctor Buzzard, but there was not one Doctor Buzzard, at least not that I could find," Andy Tate said.

J.W. Rone, ARTworks executive director, said the new installation, which runs through Christmas, captures an important and lively part of Lowcountry life.

"It's really fun and offers a window into this culture without being a totally commercial operation," Rone said. "Their work takes this subject matter seriously and treats it with great care and respect."

Though the installation is the Tates' first foray into root magic, it is unlikely to be their last.

"We would like this to be an ongoing project so we can help introduce people to this culture," Bernice Tate said. "I would tell everyone to stay tuned."

Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at http://www.twitter.com/ipbgpatrick.

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