One of the most valuable and most subtle aspects of Thornton Wilder's play "Our Town," which was on stage earlier this month at ARTworks, was how discretely the playwright made sure the residents took care of each other.
A steadying arm was always out for the town drunk; a hand and a whiff of calming heliotrope was deftly offered to a grumpy husband. Art criticism plays the same role in the art scene of a town, centering artists by offering pause and perspective. Art criticism is honest about the here and now in order to improve the here and later.
Beaufort is ranked No. 16 in AmericanStyle magazine's list of small city arts destinations, up from No. 25, following a campaign by ARTworks to get out the vote. As ARTworks executive director J.W. Rone said in response to the news, the arts provide the media and the Visitor Bureau with more to say about Beaufort. So this is now the critical question: What more are we doing to improve our rank?
Nationally, ARTworks is part of the Blue Star Museum program, which is a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and Blue Star Families. Artist Deanna Bowdish will be off to Michigan soon, for the massive ArtPrize competition. Rebecca Davenport, herself nationally known, selected artists from three states for the "Beaufort: Our Art Town" gallery show. Toronton architect Ava Franzolini has designed a contemporary home for her husband, Jeff Berry, who is a builder, to construct, not only as a dwelling but as a precedent, in Pigeon Point. Dancer Elsie Mufuka fuses her South African dance troupe experience with Russian ballet out at the Burton recreation center, and aren't German accents fun to overhear on Bay Street? In a literary magazine in Australia people are reading a short story set in the Lowcountry by yours truly, and military families stationed around the world return here with expanded palates.
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Beaufort's international connections go back to the earliest settlers, who were thankfully not Puritans glad about a rock, but pirates from every country and inventive Anglo-Bermudan planters such as Eliza Pinckney. We still have hopeful residents who have seen much art out there and are ready for more -- more experimental, more scale, more public, more volume -- here.
When I asked Beaufort residents Quitman and Martine Marshall (he a poet from Columbia, she from Paris) to put their heads together about this room for improvement they responded via email: "Beaufort is historically profound in a way that can escape both the clich%C3%A8s of Southernness and beach resort art. It is deeply important both to the African diaspora and to the mixed European-American colonial story. We like that it was the first French 'stronghold' in this new world, as the monument at the tip of Parris Island says. Whether artists or anyone appreciate these truths is another question, probably a very personal one. Rapacious landlords, the big-fish-small-pond syndrome, galleries turning into souvenir shops, art becoming advertising, high- and low-end consumerism: all these things can break your heart."
Josefina Blanc, who is married to artist C. Steve Johnson, came to Beaufort from Chile via New York City.
"I am understimulated here," she said. "The only thing that has blown me away was a French film at the Beaufort International Film Festival and Reverend Simmons' work at (the Red Piano Too Art Gallery)." She later thought of a few more names.
When I asked Georgia Phillips, who is from old Yugoslavia, what Beaufort needs to import, she mentioned the tradition of models and drawing classes.
"We don't have that here. Remember the show a few years ago, with the artist from Paris? It was incredible and different," she said.
Her granddaughter from Japan is here for the summer, taking art classes. She said in Japan, there are so many students in her art class they have to take a number, but here, "in (Deanna Bowdish's) class, she called me by my name."
Another bi-national local had comments too scathing to share. Like Wilder, she understands the role of discretion in a small town, and didn't name names. But it is interesting to note she purchased one of those paintings from the Parisian show at the Charles Street Gallery, and it looks wonderful hanging in her home, here on one of the many beautiful Sea Islands.