From new contemporary galleries to new festivals, Charleston felt like a true incubator of the arts this year. Beresford Studios and the Miller Gallery created more space for contemporary art downtown, introducing talented local and regional artists — and new ways of creating. Charleston’s poet laureate, Marcus Amaker, along with the city of Charleston, put on the Lowcountry’s first poetry festival, featuring kid-friendly events, old-school poets and musicians, and poetry around town — from bar napkins to coffee shop windows. The Charleston to Charleston Literary Festival bridged the gap across the Atlantic, making connections between our little Southern city and the Bard himself.
Yet despite these arts triumphs, the city saw some tribulations, too. One of our bigger stories of the year focused on a months-long investigation into local gallerist Rebekah Jacob, a woman who owes a lot of people in the arts community — in town and around the country — a lot of money. We also talked to artists about the “exposure myth,” which often leaves them donating art to organizations for free, without receiving anything but intangible “exposure” in return.
As always, we saw art as activism — from killer Women’s March posters to a new Shepard Fairey documentary — and for that, we rejoice. Speak art to power, y’all.
Charleston holds its first poetry festival
Last year Charleston gave us the city’s first poet laureate, Marcus Amaker. The poet, graphic designer, and musician has been creating poetry around town for years now. In 2016 he talked to City Paper about his newly minted position as poet laureate, “I’m treating this more like an honor for the whole poetry community, not just for me because I’ve definitely been connected with a lot of different poets in town ever since I moved here. It’s really amazing to realize that the city is honoring this art form because there’s always been amazing poets all over the city.”
This past October Amaker reiterated the importance of poetry’s history in Charleston, acknowledging the scene of days past, which included poets like Jonathan Brown and Derek Berry. On the eve of Free Verse: Charleston Poetry Festival, Amaker told City Paper, “The scene’s been going on for a long time, I’m just in a great position to help push it forward.”
Part of Amaker’s responsibilities as poet laureate include implementing community outreach efforts, leading educational programs to encourage writing, promoting literacy through poetry in schools, and composing works that speak to, for, and of the region. So, naturally, Amaker, ambitious as he is, decided to create a month-long poetry festival, the city’s first festival of its kind. This past October events around town put poetry in people’s faces, from street art to pop-up spoken word nights to kid-friendly poetry slams. There were throwback evenings with Amaker and Brown performing alongside Charleston’s musical stalwarts, Quentin Baxter and Charlton Singleton; DIY nights at bars like AC’s, where guests were invited to complete fill-in-the-blank poetry on napkins; and finally, and probably most important to Amaker, there were those kid-oriented outreach efforts. “I need poetry to be cool,” Amaker told CP. “It’s cool to be in a band, but it’s not as cool to write poetry.”
The Artful Dodger
For many City Paper readers, the numerous allegations of questionable business practices by Rebekah Jacob came as a surprise when our exposé hit stands in late August. But for many artists who had done business with the successful gallery owner, instances of missing and damaged art, as well as lack of payment, were nothing new.
Speaking with artists in New Orleans, New York, North Carolina, and South Carolina, City Paper found individuals who claimed legal victories over Jacob, while others continued to search for their missing work. In a majority of these cases, Jacob had failed to appear in court to answer for the allegations lodged against her. Sitting down with City Paper reporter Dustin Waters, Jacob claimed to have been unaware of several of these cases and shifted the blame to poor record-keeping on the part of the artists and lofty expectations of her responsibilities as a gallery owner.
Waters was in the courtroom when it was decided that dozens of pieces of art left behind in Jacob’s former gallery space would be auctioned off to recoup her outstanding rent.
Fortunately, through our investigation, the City Paper was able to help some artists recover their lost pieces before they were sold to the highest bidder. In another case, an artist searching for a print he thought long gone was contacted by the owner of one of his missing works after reading our initial report. While the photographer had won a lawsuit against Jacob, news that his work was being enjoyed by someone who would appreciate it offered a welcome peace of mind.
Jacob has gone on to display works in Miami under the new business name Vedado Gallery. Although the gallery owner recently told the Miami New Times that the allegations against her are part of a smear campaign, at least one of Jacob’s ongoing legal battles continues to linger in Charleston with a future court date set for January.
Ultimately, while the City Paper‘s investigation shed light on one gallery owner’s strained relationships with artists, the story touched on the greater vulnerability that exists between artists and those they trust to display and sell their work.
Lowcountry Local First and Enough Pie put art outside
Local nonprofits Lowcountry Local First (LLF) and Enough Pie took art into their own hands this year with outdoor installations, #LoveaLocal and Awakening V: King Tides, respectively. The Love a Local campaign was guerilla street art at its finest, with an around-town installation of 10 nine-foot letters that spelled out, well, you guessed it — LOVE A LOCAL. The letters, crafted by CofC sculpture studio manager Jordan Fowler, started showing up in front of businesses like downtown’s Kudu Coffee & Craft Beer and Park Circle’s The Orange Spot, as well as out in the wild that is Folly Beach — Jordan Fowler and Danielle Lewis’ octopus-wrapped “O” greeted drivers as they entered the edge of America. In addition to looking cool, one of these big letters featured mailboxes, pen, and paper, for locals to write love letters to businesses around town.
While Enough Pie’s Awakening V: King Tides wasn’t a new project (please see, “V”), this was the first year the project put such a large piece of art in our faces, namely, in the form of Mary Edna Fraser’s 100-foot banner, which hung from the top of Joseph Floyd Manor downtown. Maybe it’s because we could see the batik, all-weather banner from our commute across the Ravenel Bridge every day, but its message still resonates, “We argue. Nature Acts.”
King Tides, as its name suggests, was a month-long series of art exhibits, installations, and events that addressed the growing problem of our sinking city. Kicking off in conjunction with D.C.’s climate march, King Tides, like Enough Pie’s preceding Awakenings, was created to engage the community and educate citizens about Charleston-specific issues and ideas. In addition to Fraser’s banner, King Tides presented a multi-media installation by John Duckworth, held upstairs at Redux; a sculpture constructed using materials found during New Market Tidal Creek clean-up days in front of Royal American; and exterior murals at Charleston’s City Pool.
We love outdoor art — you know, the kind that’s free and accessible. But what we really like to see in this city is art as activism, and LLF and Enough Pie continue to give us just that.
Moe’s Mural sparks public signage controversy
Who knew an unassuming Mt. Pleasant Tex Mex chain restaurant could make headlines for its curb appeal? Last December Mt. Pleasant’s Board of Zoning Appeals voted that Moe’s Southwest Grill, located at 900 Houston Northcutt Blvd., needed to remove its mural, one that depicts portraits of John Lennon, Al Capone, and Marilyn Monroe, painted by Sergio Odeith. According to the Post & Courier, board chairman Mason Smith said, “Anybody who wanted to could go on the side of a building and paint anything they want, of any size they want. Is that what we want, for our town?”
Smith was referring to the town’s sign ordinance, which specifies how much signage a building can have, which at the time, was 35 sq. feet of area no greater than eight feet in height. According to the P&C, zoning administrator Kent Prause considered the issue one of zoning regulations — not whether or not Moe’s mural is art, rather than signage promoting its business.
In the months following that original decision, Mt. Pleasant residents and art activists around town disagreed with Prause, with a mini campaign launched to #savemoesmural. In a letter to the Moultrie News, Mt. Pleasant town councilman Mark Smith introduced the hashtag, saying, “Moe’s, after significant forethought, created a piece of artwork on their building. This is not advertising.” The Charleston Regional Alliance for the arts brought up the issue, too, asking “arts lovers,” “Is this a case of just needing to follow the rules?”
Rules be damned. On Tues. June 13, Mt. Pleasant town council voted in favor of Moe’s keeping its mural. The art vs. zoning controversy did lead to some change — in April council changed its sign ordinance so that non-commercial signs, including murals, are treated differently. This change allowed Coleman Boulevard restaurant Smoke BBQ to keep its mural, in addition to a regular business sign.
Charleston has “landmark” filmmaking year, City Paper interviews Danny McBride
If you saw an unusual number of camera crews around Charleston this spring, you weren’t hallucinating. This past year and a half saw a lot of filming, particularly in areas of Park Circle and downtown Charleston.
Noticing the number of TV and film projects around town, we decided to delve into the lives of the people behind South Carolina’s filmmaking industry in our March cover story, “Director’s Cut.” We learned that the filmmaking industry had a landmark fiscal year, maxing out its tax incentives for the first time. The fiscal year was coming to a close when we published “Director’s Cut,” and at the time three notable productions had filmed in Charleston, including Vice Principals, Marlon Wayans’ Naked, and Mr. Mercedes.
Despite the proliferation of projects being filmed in the Lowcountry, CP writer Enid Spitz discovered that things aren’t as rosy as they seem. Linda Lee, president of the Carolina Film Alliance, told City Paper, “Films want to come here right now, but we don’t have the money for them.” The money Lee was referring to are incentives, paid out by the state in tax credits or rebates, in exchange for a film bringing revenue, exposure, and employment to South Carolina. But that money can’t come into the local economy if South Carolina’s house and senate don’t vote on bills to keep money the film industry makes from being redistributed to other causes. Those bills were delayed, rescheduled, and eventually (and currently) put on hold.
In “Director’s Cut,” Spitz reports that since 2010, filmmaking has brought 31,251 jobs to South Carolina. Mr. Mercedes co-executive producer Tony Mark also noted the benefits of filmmaking in the area: “Am I going to make a little noise? Am I going to park a car in front of your house? Yes. But I am also going to drop $35 million in your community in six months.” While those house and senate bills are still on hold, Mr. Mercedes plans on shooting its second season in Charleston in the near future.
Another big Charleston filmmaking get? The latest iteration of John Carpenter’s Halloween, directed by David Gordon Green and co-written by Vice Principals star Danny McBride. CP writer Kevin Young got a sneak peek at the film in his interview with McBride, who had this to say about the latest Halloween, “We sat down for a few weeks, tried to come up with a take that made sense, and felt like it was being true to the original. Then actually had to go in and pitch to John Carpenter and see if it got his seal of approval. He liked it. He liked what we were doing and wanted us to go for it. It’s hugely inspiring. He’s been one of my personal favorite directors ever since I was a kid. The chance to meet him and the chance to try to expand upon what he created and to have his blessing, it’s just unreal.”
David and Goliath
It started, as all good modern movements do, with a Facebook post. On Feb. 24, 2017 The Southern gallery owners, Erin and Justin Nathanson, took to the social media platform to post a 900 word manifesto, outlining what the relationship between local artists and charity organizations should — and could — look like. “It was not coming from a place of wanting to shame anyone,” said Erin. Erin and Justin specifically called out one organization by name — Spoleto Festival USA. Spoleto, a revered arts festival that has brought international talent and acclaim to the city for years, was, according to the Nathansons, treating the city’s local talents far from reverentially. After Spoleto reached out to local visual artists requesting 100 percent donations of their work for the festival’s annual auction, saying it was tradition, and that the artists would receive great “exposure,” the Nathansons decided to pen the manifesto.
The arts community rallied around the Nathansons, offering their own stories of dealing with the exposure myth, and positing suggestions to be added to the manifesto. With no tax breaks for artists donating work, and exposure being as amorphous as air — “You know what, Instagram is exposure and it’s free and reaches more people,” said veteran contemporary artist Tim Hussey — creatives in Charleston made a conscientious effort to contribute to the conversation. The end goal? Find some common ground. The Nathansons laid out some first steps in their manifesto, including: setting an agreed upon minimum for pieces of art donated to nonprofits, giving artists 30 to 50 percent of the selling price, offering the artists a complimentary ticket to the event, sharing the buyer’s information with the artist, and acknowledging the generosity and creativity of the participating artist year-round.
“We could be a mecca,” said artist and gallery owner Robert Lange. “We’re on the tip of the nation’s tongue as a cultural hot spot, why not show them we can become an emblem for how everyone can do it? And we’re small enough to implement it. Everyone wants to give something to charities. At the end of the day, there should be a fairness to it.”
New kids on the block
Charleston’s contemporary art scene expanded by two galleries this year, with the Miller Gallery on East Bay Street and Beresford Studios on Fulton Street.
Art connoisseur Sarah Miller, who was the art director for interior design company Mitchell Hill for five years before starting an arts consulting company in 2016, called opening her own gallery this year “a dream come true. I wanted a place to call my own, to be surrounded by art. I believe art has an impact on people.” The open, wood-floored white-walled gallery at 149 ½ East Bay St. used to be home to the Courtyard Art Gallery, which laid claim to the space for more than a decade. The Miller Gallery has hosted a number of successful exhibits since opening, and is popping up with 10 of its artists at Greenville, S.C.’s Art & Light Gallery in January. “When I first started pursuing artists, I told them the gallery will be a little different from anything else in Charleston,” said Miller. “Everything has good energy, it’s fun.”
Neal Rice opened up his Beresford Studios this past February while balancing classes as a senior at College of Charleston majoring in arts management. The 400 square foot gallery is located in what Rice says was the red light district of Charleston in the ’60s — there used to be a brothel across the street. The tiny space came with the house Rice lives in, which formerly belonged to artist Corrie McCallum, wife of William Halsey (yes, like the contemporary art institute). Just this past year, the studio has been transformed into an immersive installation space with work from assemblage artist Hirona Matsuda; housed the beautiful and evocative portraits of women in domestic spheres by Chambers Austelle; and been the stage for Paul Cristina’s We Were Never Told the Truth About the Dying of the Sun, a rare introspective exhibit for the self-taught artist. “I don’t want Beresford to be old or young, but new transitional middle ground,” said Rice. “The city can merge with the student population. We all just wanna see art thrive, see that really beautiful part of this city.”
The British are coming
Just when you thought this city couldn’t handle more than one new festival a year (please see Charleston’s first poetry festival from poet laureate Marcus Amaker), the Charleston Library Society partnered with the Charleston Trust U.K. to bring us the aptly titled literary festival, Charleston to Charleston. In case you didn’t know, The Charleston Festival is a big deal literary event in Europe, so it only made sense to connect that festival with the states. Executive director of the Charleston Library Society Anne Cleveland said, “Our goal is to strengthen the festival each year to continue to unite internationally acclaimed authors with readers for years to come.”
The fest presented a weekend of programs around town — from a discussion with Shakespearean scholars to a panel about women’s rights. The speakers were impressive, including former director of London’s Globe Theater, Dominic Dromgoole; Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri; and British ambassador to the United States, Sir Kim Darroch. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the festival was one that had its roots in both England and Charleston — the life of Dawn Pepita Simmons.
To say that Dawn Pepita, born Gordon Langley Hall, was way ahead of her time would be an understatement. The son of servants with auspicious connections, Dawn grew up in Sussex, England in the 1930s. “Dawn was quite proud that she had known Virginia Woolf,” said Edward Ball, author of Peninsula of Lies, a nonfiction “mystery” centered on the fascinating life of Dawn. Dawn’s parents were servants for author and gardener Vita Sackville-West (Woolf’s friend and lover).
The young, observant Dawn (then Gordon) was privy to the goings on of the Bloomsbury group, an intimate circle of writers, artists, and intellectuals including Woolf, her husband Leonard, E.M. Forster, Desmond McCarthy, and John Maynard Keynes, among others. After moving to America and living for a spell as a gay man in Greenwich Village, Dawn moved down south to “antique” Charleston. Once here, Dawn underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1968, and soon after married John Paul Simmons, cementing the first legal interracial marriage in South Carolina. “I wonder what her life would be like today,” said Ball. “I think if Dawn were alive today she would not have been victimized, she was made to suffer.” Granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West, Juliet Nicolson, and Edward Ball spoke at the St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church as part of a festival lecture entitled, “Small World: Charleston Connections with Charles Anson and Juliet Nicolson.”
Pakistani at heart
Most Charlestonians know local funny guy Jeremy McLellan. In fact, quite a few people know McLellan, and think he’s pretty funny, as is evidenced by his nearly half a million Facebook followers. One may be surprised, though, to discover that the biggest fan base of the 32-year old thick-black glasses wearing proud Christian white guy is located in… Pakistan. With his only comedy rule being “you can tell a joke about any group you want, but you have to tell the joke in front of that group,” McLellan took his Muslim jokes to Pakistan, joining his friend Dr. Sultan Chaudhry on a humanitarian mission to Islamabad.
McLellan spent three weeks touring Pakistan, spending his time sightseeing, volunteering, and making jokes in front of sold-out audiences. “They don’t have people named Jeremy there, so I’m like Cher with the first name basis,” McLellan told CP this past October. “It’s just like ‘Jeremy is coming to Pakistan!'” This summer, the Pakistan Express Tribune printed McLellan’s name nearly as often as they mentioned Trump; one article, titled “Jeremy McLellan is a True Pakistani at Heart,” read “Now this guy may be Caucasian on the outside but he is a true desi…he sure knows how to celebrate Jashn-e-Azadi with the true spirit of a ‘Pindi boy.'” McLellan — who is currently on a UK comedy tour (seeking out the best biryani), hopes to return to Pakistan soon: “If you’re doing comedy that appeals to 200 million white Americans, that’s called mainstream comedy. If you do comedy that appeals to the other 7 billion people on the planet, that’s called a niche.”