Arts & Culture

Column: With great creativity comes great responsibility

Writer John Barry describes the Gulf Coast like this: "It took nature 6,000 years to create the Louisiana coast, yet only 75 years for humans to destroy one-third of it. That damage has put New Orleans and the entire region on the verge of collapse."

The Lowcountry has similarities: geologically young barrier islands and historic cities conducive to creative, busy humans.

Some of these humans are intent on oil exploration, which could mean blasting the habitat of our sea turtles, dolphins, whales and coral reefs.

My question is: What is the artistic community's responsibility here, given that it derives inspiration and occasional profit from our ecosystem?

Scott Gordon is a painter, a teacher at Beaufort High School and a surfer. Most of his inspiration comes from the ocean.

"There is a spiritual component to it," he said.

He is jaded, however, on the oil issue.

"Every South Carolina legislator falls to the wall. My idealism has faded, but I keep it alive with my students. I've been given the responsibility and privilege of being an art teacher, teaching the constant push and pull of a working artist."

As a surfer, Gordon has a direct and visceral experience of nature.

"I like to shred, but the hook on a spiritual level is the energy. A wave is kinetic energy, and when you're surfing, you're giving and taking your own energy from that. It's a dance, interplay. Out on Hunting Island, from a Judeo-Christian point of view, you are directly participating in God's creation. In the studio, I push around a liquid, flowing medium. It's a consistency in my life and helps me understand myself."

Nature improves us, and that's the source of our responsibility.

In Rebecca Davenport's newest series of paintings, the eyes in her portraits of animals are more like human eyes. They stare back at the viewer and are based on her childhood memories.

The series will be free to view at the University of South Carolina Beaufort's Center for the Arts from Feb. 19 through March 31. Her work is in many private and public collections, including the National Museum of American Art, the Corcoran Gallery and the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

"Animals don't have an agenda," Davenport said, "They have nothing to tell you, but they do have personality. They are easier to paint, in a way, than people."

In remembering her childhood, Davenport is studying the loss of innocence and the introduction of fear.

"Animals know their place in the world; they're just trying to survive," she said.

Growing up, she saw animals born and dying. At 10 years old, she connected that process to people with the help of a calf that was, too briefly, a pet.

"These paintings are a way of touching a profound experience, seeking that innocence as the animals gaze out with no self-consciousness. Everyone has experiences that effect their way of seeing. As an artist, that quest never ends."

Then she quoted John Berger's influential art book, "Ways of Seeing":

" 'The relationship between what we see and what we know is never settled.' That's why I keep doing what I'm doing -- I feel like there's something else out there."

Lisa Annelouise Rentz's essay, "Outside My Outdoor Shower There Is a Carnival," appears this month in Afterimage.