With the abundance of galleries and artsy events downtown, it’s easy to forget that the arts scene extends beyond the peninsula. Although North Charleston stays fairly quiet compared to the French Quarter, they keep a steady stream of artists exhibiting in the Convention Center’s City Gallery. For August, they highlight the work of two up-and-coming Georgia-based artists, Elizabeth Roberts McFalls and Samantha Meeker.
McFalls has always been fascinated with mortality. “It’s one of life’s commonalities,” she says. As a professor of art at Columbus State University in Georgia, McFalls says her research focuses on the rural Southeast as a departure point for discussing things like death, sacrifice, and beauty. Using drawing and lithography as her tools, she creates compelling images of headstones and portraits of fallen soldiers and coal miners.
Included in the headstone series are pieces of a story, as if someone has been caught in the middle of a conversation. McFalls says the idea for the text evolved out of a false sense of sentimentality. “Headstones are meaningful to the individual family, but not to anyone else,” she explains. Interested in the disconnect between the cold statement of fact recorded on the stones and the personal stories of the deceased, McFalls began researching death certificates in Tennessee. “I look for the way they categorize death records, by year and by age.” From there, she explores different cemeteries and takes photographs of headstones, though she says there’s a big departure between the photo and the drawing.
Once the drawing is complete, McFalls adds text. “Hamilton Hill” depicts a headstone with her grandfather’s death records. The distinctly Southern text describes borrowing Daddy’s sub-machine gun and mowing down trees on Hamilton Hill. “As far as I know we didn’t kill nobody and we came on back,” it reads. The intimate snippet makes the headstone come alive.
Across the hall on another side of the gallery are Samantha Meeker’s oil paintings. The Savannah College of Art and Design graduate focuses on figurative works. “I’m mainly inspired by people,” she says. “I love capturing moments, emotions, and expressions. I want people to feel something when they look at my paintings … whether it may be the technique or subject matter. Like with the painting ‘Resistance,’ it’s like you’re glimpsing this man during this moment that you shouldn’t enjoy looking at, but you can’t help looking and feeling his discomfort.”
Meeker grew up in a family of artists who encouraged her to follow the creative path, but she enrolled in pre-med studies instead. It wasn’t until a teacher talked her into switching majors that she embraced her talent. Now Meeker paints full-time, working on several paintings at once. “It typically takes over a month from beginning to end of a painting, and depending on details and size, it could take much longer. That’s why I’m always working on several paintings at a time. While one is drying, I’m painting another. It’s refreshing, because the time away from a painting gives me a fresh look when I come back to it several weeks later.”
Her provocative “Lovers” series includes a bald male in a variety of humbling, sexually dominated poses. In “Tied Up,” a piece of pink fabric is tied around the man’s face and neck and held off to the side by a powerful hand with red painted fingernails. In another, lipstick is applied to his squeamish lips, and we feel both humored and repulsed by the reversal of power roles. Meeker’s “Fighters” series, on the other hand, includes several paintings of muscular, tough-guy boxers. She says the works represent her own struggle as an artist, while the “Lovers” paintings examine the relationship and power struggle between a man and woman.
Whether we’re looking at the worn faces of coal miners or dueling boxers, the work of these Southern artists makes leaving the comfort zone of Broad Street art galleries worth the trip.