For South Carolina school kids, a field trip to Fort Sumter is a given. While students around the country only get to read about the place where America’s bloodiest war began, locals see it in person as they listen to their teachers talk about that fateful day in 1861 when Confederate forces fired those first shots. History is commonplace in a city like Charleston, and sometimes we’re so surrounded by it that we take it for granted.
In commemoration of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, two of Charleston’s most renowned art houses, the City Gallery at Waterfront Park and the Gibbes Museum of Art, are gearing up to host exhibitions that explore differing aspects of the war, from the battles themselves to slavery to the civil rights movement that emerged years later. Ellen Dressler Moryl, the director of the city of Charleston’s Office of Cultural Affairs, says, “It’s very important to remember that this is a teaching moment. It’s not a celebration. It’s a moment to observe and learn from what happened in our history so that we don’t repeat that.”
The City Gallery’s exhibition, From Civil War to Civil Rights, South Carolina Perspectives on the War that Changed America, includes two separate shows that will run April 8-May 8. On the first floor of the gallery, Post Civil War Charleston – 1865: A Photographic Retrospective features images of Charleston during wartime from the Library of Congress, restored by local photographer Rick Rhodes.
Rhodes first came across the images of a Charleston in ruins several years ago. “When I started looking at some of the images, I was amazed by how damaged the city was,” he says. “There is one that was taken from the top of the Mills House looking back toward the Market. Meeting Street was completely devastated, covered in rubble.”
Fascinated by what he saw, Rhodes decided that he would like to restore the images as a side project. Taking raw scans directly from the original large glass negatives, Rhodes and digital imaging specialist Tim Steele took the digital files and used Photoshop to do restoration work. They didn’t alter the image; rather, they cleaned up scrapes and blemishes while also adjusting the contrast and brightness for the maximum clarity that the negatives offered. The result is a breathtaking collection of images that allows viewers to actually take in the scale of the destruction caused by the Civil War.
The upper level of the gallery houses Civil/Uncivil: The Art of Leo Twiggs, a retrospective of works created by a painter who experienced the civil rights movement firsthand. Twiggs, an Orangeburg native, was the first African American to receive a doctorate from the University of Georgia. While studying in Athens, Twiggs would drive through small towns to get from his hometown to school, and he was amazed by the number of antebellum houses flying Confederate flags. “Driving through those towns was like going back through time,” he says.
He began making his own flags utilizing batik, creating pieces akin to worn and tattered heirlooms that people would find in an old trunk. His flags became part of a series he created in the 1970s called “Commemorations,” which he later revisited in 1995. The exhibition will include images from these series, in addition to a series of paintings called “Targeted Man,” in which Twiggs explores the terror inflicted upon the African-American community by the Ku Klux Klan.
A few blocks away, the Gibbes Museum also hosts two drastically differing exhibitions focusing on the war. A Soldier’s View of Civil War Charleston features 19th century paintings by Confederate soldier Conrad Wise Chapman. Chapman sketched each of his scenes between 1863 and 1864, then developed them into paintings while on furlough in Rome in 1864. Six of the paintings are attributed to his father, who helped with the process. Pamela Wall, the Gibbes’ curator of exhibitions, points out that Chapman’s paintings give context to the historical sites around the harbor and allow us to visualize the events that took place here during the war.
The museum also investigates slavery with Stephen Marc: Passage on the Underground Railroad. Marc, a contemporary photographer, traveled across 30 states and through Canada to take images of more than 100 historical sites, including plantations, to help tell the story of the Underground Railroad. Through his use of photo montages, Marc’s images depict the slaves who traveled the railroad as well as the abolitionists who helped them along their journey. “Beyond documentation, Marc’s work examines how the past is manifest in the present and challenges viewers to consider the legacy of slavery in contemporary society,” Wall says.
Each of the exhibitions aim to inform viewers about the devastation and chaos of the war, reminding them how far the city of Charleston has come since that time. “We have an obligation to think of these things and not look away,” Moryl says. “All together, it makes you think about what’s really important in this world.”