Summerville. What a great name for a town, right? Summerville is the little town just outside of Charleston, SC that you pass just as traffic is backing heading toward the waterfront. I’ve stopped there for gas before, but nothing else. Last week I was lucky to spend several days there for art.
So there’s this guy Kevin. Kevin and I went to the same college sort of at different times. I took 5 years off between undergrad and grad school so it’s hard to keep track but he was a familiar face and a very familiar name. Our paths crossed in recent years because he’s been teacher of the year and won all sorts of other cool titles at his teaching job near the coast. I recommended a recent grad (and sculpture worker) to him for a job and he and I grabbed a coffee together once when we happened to be in the same town at the same time. Anyway, he’s the kind of guy you really want to know…very cool, very talented, and very family oriented. Kevin was a part of a group of “dreamers” who decided to start up an art center in his hometown. They got funding for a building downtown and worked hard to open it just in time for a pandemic to shut everything down. It was such a welcome idea though, that it continued to be supported and now it is a thriving part of Summerville.
Kevin sent me a text this semester and asked if I’d consider doing an exhibit at the place. It’s called Public Works Art Center and he and the board were interested in me doing something similar to the exhibit I did at Lander in January. You know, where I put my sculptures and drawings in the gallery and then drew all over the walls with paint marker? Yeah, I was terrified about doing that crazy idea and I had no idea if it would resonate with people. Kevin’s text was a nice validation and I jumped at the chance to do the weird exhibit again. I was excited.
He connected me with Jana, the executive director of Public Works and together we sort of figured out how this would need to work. I’d be driving 3 hours to Summerville so I’d need a place to stay during the days it took me to do an original mural on almost every surface in the gallery. Jana is really great at her job and in hours she had a local bed and breakfast donate the accommodations. She was also very patient with me as I finished up my semester, taught the week-long sand sculpture class, and went on vacation all right before the installation week.
I tried my best to work out the installation in my head before the week arrived. Remember I did this only once before and had the comfort of doing it during winter break with no audience and on my home turf. If I needed something, I could walk down the hall to my office or to the sculpture studio to grab it. We advertised this one as a “live installation” which meant the public was invited to come watch me flounder about as I installed. Jana hooked me up with 24 hour access, a ladder, paint, brushes, and air conditioning. I ordered my new jumbo paint markers from an online source I’ll leave anonymous along with some smaller tipped markers to try out and I forgot about them. A week later a box came in the mail and I saw markers inside, but only a few. I checked the order online and the other markers were backordered. I still had a few weeks so I didn’t panic. After a couple of mail-less days, I decided to order a handful of jumbos from a different online source just as a backup. The 6 backup markers arrived without incident later that week.
Family vacation ended and I was mentally ready for the installation. I set my alarm for 5:45am on a Tuesday, got up and ran 3.1 miles, had a great coffee, and merged onto the interstate with a truckload of art. The FJ was packed with about 16 drawings, 4 sculptures, my mural toolbox, a couple of travel bags, and two pedestals. I forgot my water bottle. I arrived at the B&B around 10:45 am to check in and drop a bag and I was at the gallery by 11:00 to unload.
Laying out an exhibit is not easy, even when it’s your work. Or maybe, especially when it’s your work. I know gallery people who have very specific and particular rules and ideas about how an exhibit should be hung or installed. As an artist, I understand that this comes down mostly to personal taste, regardless of what aesthetic wordsmithing they may use. Ultimately an exhibit is a work of design and all the elements and principles of design should be considered when arranging a show. I considered those things, of course, but I also had the freedom of not having to worry about hurting the feelings of the artist. I could seriously do anything I wanted. I also had the design cushion of the not-yet-drawn mural which I could use to balance anything out. So I laid out the show with drawings against the wall and sculptures imagined in spots. Then I moved a few things and reconsidered. After a couple more quick edits, I started hammering nails into the walls and the drawings were hung by 2:30 pm. The sculptures were placed but then I moved them to safety because I knew I’d be dragging a ladder and a loaded paint marker around the space for the next several days.
frame and title card drawn directly on the gallery wall
One of the fun and ridiculous aspects of these exhibits is that I get to frame the drawings after they’re hung. This means drawing a goofy frame around each drawing directly on the wall. I see this as extreme silliness and I love it. It really sets the tone for the mural to follow. I took out the first jumbo marker, broke the plastic seal, and gave it a good shake. This is when the terror really set in. I was about to freehand paint on a pristine gallery wall and I was completely freaking out. Knowing this fear would paralyze me, I pressed the marker tip against the cardboard blotter from the toolbox and started the flow of paint to the tip. Once the paint is on the tip, I need to move quickly so there’s no time to freeze up. I started with drawing the frames because this needed to happen first in terms of wall space, but also because I was pretty comfortable making up frames. It got things moving in the right direction and I felt better after something was painted on the walls.
After doing all the frames I took a food break by walking next door to get a late lunch/early dinner. A few minutes later I was back in the gallery staring at a rectangular column holding a marker in my hand. I was about to draw the first thing. The tall, skinny column made me think of a flamingo and wrapping the flamingo creature around the corner of the column seemed like a nice challenge. It turned out ok and that helped me to feel more confident. I added a few things to a nearby wall and around 6:00 I decided to call it quits. That was a lot for one day and I knew the next couple of days would be just as long. I drove to a craft store and picked up a couple of smaller tipped paint markers to get those corner spots better and decided to pick up a sandwich and some cookies to take to the B&B. I was pretty wiped out so I added a few things to my sketchbook and thought about what I wanted to do the next day before sacking out for the night.
the Linwood Inn
I forgot to set an alarm so the next day started at 7:15 am. As I headed out to run, Linda the innkeeper gave me some running route advice. The B&B is a historic Victorian mansion built in 1883 and the entire property is a beautifully maintained southern garden with sand pathways. It was like a southern novel come to life. After my run, I cooled down by exploring the property. Linda saw me outside and told me I should go have a dip in the pool. I was ill prepared with no towel and didn’t want to drip in this amazing home so I skipped the pool but planned to be better prepared the next morning. I found a local coffee shop on the way to the gallery and had a nice breakfast at Coastal Coffee Roasters with my coffee and then got another coffee to go. I was pretty amped by the time I got to the gallery.
I honestly don’t remember much about Wednesday. I know I worked from about 10:00 am until 8:00 pm and didn’t eat during that time. I had a lot of water and I was in the zone most of the day. I do remember talking with a lot of visitors during the day. This was mostly a welcome distraction from thinking about art. People were so nice and that’s a huge understatement. When I say nice, I mean they treated me like a celebrity all week. The artists in the studios joining the gallery as well as total strangers all came in and just marveled at what I was doing. Some families came in with children and the children all seemed to want to draw on their walls at home. A recurring theme was the inevitable question of what happens when the exhibit is over. When they were told the walls would be painted back white again, everyone had the same reaction. One child told her mom enthusiastically that they would just have to buy everything in the gallery and take it home. If you’re wondering, I’m completely in favor of that idea. After everyone had left for the night, I had a slightly unbalanced moment on the ladder and almost fell. This inspired me to draw a falling/broken skeleton guy on the wall. I also talked with the artists in the neighboring studios earlier and asked if they had any requests for the spaces near their doors. That was fun. I looked up some restaurants and noticed there was a Kickin’ Chicken just down the street so I stopped there for a quick dinner before heading back to my bed.the end of the second day
I was up at 6:00 am on Thursday and I took a different running route. There was a partial solar eclipse but I couldn’t see it from my run. I took that dip in the pool after my run and it was perfect. I got breakfast at the same coffee place and planned what I needed to accomplish for the day. I may have even made a list. I worked from 9:00 am until 9:00 pm with one break. I went thought 6 jumbo markers and if that number seems familiar it’s because I mentioned earlier that I ended up only having 6 jumbo markers because the unnamed online company never shipped my backordered ones. Now I was out and I had two more things I had to draw and one more thing I wanted to draw. I could have lost my temper but that wouldn’t have delivered me a new marker so I did what any self-respecting human would do. I got ice cream. I also got some chocolates and took a photo of the world’s largest sweet tea. Back at the gallery, I went back through the dried up markers trying to squeeze out any more paint they had to give. This was enough to get the necessary things drawn but I ended up having to scrap the idea of drawing on this one cool surface. I still had my smaller markers to use for touch-ups. And I had ice cream. I skipped lunch again but I was pretty exhausted. The closest place that was still open for dinner was the chicken place again. Not what I wanted but it was all I had the energy for before bed. If we ever have coffee together ask me to tell you about the crazy conversation I overheard from the bar.my big head and the world's largest sweet tea
Friday started at 6:00 am with my run and another pool dip. I had another quick breakfast at the coffee place and was in the gallery early. I had a few things to finish and some small areas to touch up. By 11:00 I was documenting the space with photos and packing up. The exhibit was now officially open and I was officially finished.
It was interesting being on this trip alone. I’m a hermit at heart so being alone was fine. The B&B was so quiet I think I tiptoed every step I took. My brain was very active while I was working and the down time was all silent time. I guess, that is if you don’t count me talking to myself. A lot of the time that I spent in the gallery there were other people around. They weren’t always talking, but I had to be ready for that because I didn’t want to zone out and accidentally ignore someone. A couple of the artists who came through made comments about how confident my lines were and I had to laugh. They seemed surprised to hear how terrified I was with each mark. I guess we all have a way of thinking everyone else knows exactly what they’re doing. The truth is we’re all scared and just trying to figure things out as we go. I don’t think “imposter syndrome” is actually a thing. I think what we call “imposter syndrome” is just life. If you’re lucky enough to be chasing your dreams there’s no way around feeling like you’re pretending. The hope is that you’ve never done whatever it is before and that every new mark, every new dish, every new solution is off the map. That’s what makes life an adventure.
Sorry, that got a little philosophical. The point was just to let you know that I have no idea what I’m doing but I’m really glad that I’m so good at making it up as I go that some people think I’m confident.
I wanted to end this by talking a little about this exhibit and what it means. All of the drawings except for one were created during 2020 and most of those during quarantine. The sculptures in this show are a little older but they come from a similar starting point as the drawings. They all begin with characters who exist in a setting and interact with other characters in a narrative. Each drawing tells a story (or many stories) and they often deal with the intricacies of being a social human. Some are about relationships within families, some are about friends, some are about people we wish we didn’t know. All of them are about how we can try to find positive ways to deal with all those people.
I approach the making of a mural in much the same way I create an ink drawing. There are characters who exist in relation to one another. I begin with one character or entity and once that one is drawn, I begin to create the narrative from there. I do not plan these out before I go into the gallery. I do not sketch pencil lines on the wall. The mural narrative evolves in real time during the installation. Most of the characters in this mural I’ve never drawn before. Others have existed in my sketchbook in some variation but took on a new life in Summerville. And yes, there are hearts, stars, and glitter in this exhibit. All three break McAbee’s Cardinal Rule of Design, “No hearts, no stars, no glitter!”. The invisible string that ties the drawings, sculptures, and the mural together is love in all of its variations. During our temporary separation from society last year, love is the thing that we missed, it is the thing that held us together, and it is the thing that is most needed as we shift back into a normal existence. Even when it’s dark, we have love. Dang. Maybe the title should have been “Especially When It’s Dark”. Bummer.
I hope you’ll get to experience this exhibit. It is quite different from just standing in a gallery looking at individual works of art on a wall. It is as close to walking inside my head as you’ll get. The exhibit is on view through July 23 and Public Works Art Center is open 10:00 – 5:00 Monday through Saturday.