Inside Salt Gallery, which is on Bay Street in Beaufort, a swing hangs from the 30-foot ceiling. The swing is as grand as a sultana's tent, a place to lounge with an illustrated copy of "A Thousand and One Arabian Nights," a seat for taking in the old Saltus building, all the original art, and to overhear Hank Herring tinker in his studio in the back. From this swaying perch, I noticed the work of Jerry Brem, a painter who lives on Lady's Island. He had depicted shelves of books -- the comforting and customary spines, thick page counts, cover-colors and odd angles and heights.
"What I do is paint simple objects for the viewer to accept. As you get closer you see the abstract parts," Brem explained. "I watched my 4-year-old daughter deconstruct and reconstruct our bookshelf, and now I've been working for a year and a half on this series."
Brem has also painted a series of guitars and chairs, but the books are more striking to me because, I realized as I gazed at the paintings, I don't have shelves of books anymore. I love the idea of replacing them, packed with all their words and meaningfulness, with an artistic representation that takes up less space.
Brem talks with art collectors across the country at juried festivals (he travels to 16 nearly every year). The people who like this series already have too many books, he said, "or have a nostalgia for them. The bookshelf pulls them in, and then the painting lets them explore more than each individual book."
So what book is this artist-father of two, including a 17-month old son, reading?
"I hardly ever get to read, except for children's books," he said without much complaint.
Technology has changed reading by making the literary arts more accessible. E-readers and tablet devices also provide a high-contrast spotlight on paper-based books, which have been beautiful, well-designed objects for a thousand years. To see books as art, check out the kudzu fiber pieces at Salt by Nancy Basket and Pat Schad's literary reconstructions over at the Atelier at West and Bay streets.
Kelly Collins Davidson is one of the owners of Salt, as well as Green Fish Gallery a few doors down where she offers a mailbox-sized free library. She's reading "Crazy Love," by Francis Chan. "It's awesome," she said. "Everything you might not want to hear but need to. It's about living simply, not just existing but being able to look back and know you made a difference."
Jordan Pender is the manager of Salt, and she's reading "At First Sight," by Nicholas Sparks. "It's different than any romance novel, it's science-related actually, all about a research projects."
For artists Wendy and Terry Brennan reading is usually research for the next project. "I am always in search of stories and articles that inform as to what is happening in the art world outside of our area," Wendy explained. "I devour art critiques and reviews of current shows in major art markets. Anything written by Jerry Saltz is a first morning read."
Their fellow Salt Gallery artist Joy Lillith Hermann agrees. "Everything I read now is art. I read e-newsletters from artist guilds, especially the articles written by artists, to keep my work fresh and keep my brain challenged."
Shelly Kohli is a painter of mandalas and a reader of John Irving. "I love all of Irving's work, but '(A Prayer for) Owen Meany' is my favorite," she said. "It is like a friend that I revisit every couple of years." She values Irving's appreciation of the absurdity of life, "in a less scary way than Vonnegut. 'Owen Meany' struck a chord with me. I cry at the end every time I read it and mourn that there are not more people like Owen in the world. I recently read 'Cutting for Stone,' by Abraham Verghese at (artist) Leah McCormick's suggestion."
Bill Mead, the artist well known for his realistic Lowcountry landscapes filled with surrealistic vegetables and fruit and the occasional sock monkey, is inspired by Mark Twain, particularly his inconquerably boyish Huck Finn.
"Do you know there are exactly 13 corpses in that story?" Mead pointed out.
To rewrite the words of Mr. Clemmens, artists can be awful good for one another.
Lisa Annelouise Rentz lives and writes in Beaufort.