I went to the Penn Center for the first time in November 2012, and visited the York W. Baily Museum. It is a beautiful place, with such rich history - if you haven't ever visited, Heritage Days would be a wonderful time to do so.
I'm over a month late in writing this post, but South Carolina Artist Charles DeSaussure passed away on
the 16th of July 2013. I didn't have the good fortune of knowing him
personally, although I felt like I did because I've admired his building
murals for years now. I thought that I'd see more of them in the
future too - and his passing is a loss to the uniqueness and
vibrancy of the South Carolina Lowcountry. His work that I am most
familiar with is that of the Ravenel Fresh Seafood building (above) and Martha Lou's Kitchen (below) -wonderfully rich works of art that grace the Highway 17 corridor.
Charles, an Air Force veteran, had an easy and open manner. People
immediately liked him and wanted to get to know him better. He enjoyed
“just chillin' and meetin' the folk” as he relaxed on the swing at the
gallery. Born in Yemassee, South Carolina, his family moved to
President Street in Charleston, where he grew up. Early on Charles was
interested in art, the world around him was rich in Gullah culture. The
urban influence was emerging in his work with paintings of Juke Joints,
musicians, street vendors, sweetgrass gathering, and sweetgrass basket
sewers chatting happily in the Charleston market. Almost every painting
Charles created in the beginning had the old Cooper River Bridge in the
background. Once he told us that he played under the bridge as a boy,
marbles, basketball, bike riding, skateboarding, and chasing the little
girls with fiddler crabs. In addition to work on canvas and paper,
Charles was a skilled sign painter and muralist. His signs and murals
are on many buildings throughout the Lowcountry and Washington DC. He
painted the signs on the Red Piano Too building. “Ravenel Seafood” on
US 17 in Ravenel, South Carolina boasts a mural by Charles. Charles was
working on a sign for a business on King Street in Charleston when he
became ill, went to the hospital and died.
Two signs have popped up on Highway 17 in Mt Pleasant, South Carolina - signs identifying Highway 17 and surrounding areas as part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. This week I spoke with Michael Allen - a Community Partnership Specialist with the National Park Service - and he said that there are now two signs in Mt Pleasant, and that they hoped to put up a total of 50 signs along the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, with the goal being to have two signs per county. Mr. Allen was quite passionate about this sign project - and the on-going momentum for the cultural heritage corridor in a broader sense. To learn more about the corridor, check out the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission's website - as well as their detailed Management Plan. US 17 Coastal Highway plans to submit a partnership application to the commission, to help promote this rich and unique corridor. Highway 17 runs right through the middle of the corridor (see map), and has played a major role in it's history.
This week I went on a kind of treasure hunt - on both sides of the Septima Clark Parkway (Highway 17) in Charleston, South Carolina. I was in search of gates, grates and other works of iconic Charleston Master Blacksmith, Philip Simmons (1912-2009) that were listed on the Philip Simmons Foundation, Inc. website. It was a beautiful day, a fun adventure - and ended at the home and office of Philip Simmons on Blake Street, which is now a museum. I arrived right as the museum was closing, but the woman inside graciously kept the doors open and her pride in the museum and admiration of Philip Simmons was evident in her voice and words. She then said to go behind the house to the forge, where Julian Williams was ending his day as well. Julian is one of two blacksmiths that have continued to work at Simmons' forge - and he was a delight to talk with.
Below are a few images from my day - one that started at the Tatooed Moose for an early lunch. I recommend that you take somone along for this treasure hunt - one person to drive, and one person to keep track of the locations of Mr. Simmons' work. I managed to see about 20 pieces - but I've read that there are over 500 works, spread throughout the many different neighborhoods on both sides of Highway 17. I hope to add more images to my collection below soon, and when I do, I'll update this post.
Sometimes I come across a place that is a bit of a detour off of Highway 17, but so worth it. One such detour is Penn Center (formerly called Penn School) which is located in the Penn School Historic District, near Frogmore, South Carolina on St. Helena Island. It is a beautiful place with a deep history: Penn School was established in 1862, during the American Civil War, as part of the Port Royal Experiment, a program in which freed slaves were taught skills and worked on land abandoned by plantation owners. Penn School played an important role to many freed slaves from the Sea Islands and is the heart of the Gullah culture today. Please read more about the history of this place at the Penn Center website.
The York W. Bailey Museum was named for a Penn School graduate and the first African-american physician to serve St. Helena and surrounding Sea Islands. It is located in the historic Cope Industrial Building, and contains four galleries (with a collection of wonderful historical photographs) and a lovely gift shop and book store. The museum provides tours and demonstrations, and there is also a video that is one of the most fascinating I've seen in a museum
anywhere. The setting - the 50-acre Penn Center Campus - is filled with
live oaks dripping spanish moss.
If you get a chance, please visit
this exceptional place.
Just a few months ago I visited Maize Brown's new Sweetgrass Basket stand along Highway 17 in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina -and it reminded me that I had visited her back in October of 2011, when the widening of Highway 17 along this stretch of road was in full swing and she was still in her old stand with the red room in the back. I thought I'd post it - it might be interesting to look back on one day. When I spoke to her in new stand a few months ago, she seemed pleased with the place - although she was a little concerned about the parking. She also had another room built on the back of the stand - a better place to work when the weather wasn't so great.
Maize's Sweetgrass Baskets can now be found near the Mellow Mushroom, 3110 Highway 17 South, in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. Stop by and tell her hello (even better yet... buy a basket!)
With all of the road construction on Highway 17 in Mt Pleasant, South Carolina - there have also been apprehensive (at least to me) changes to a much-loved part of this section of Highway 17, referred to as the "Sweetgrass Basket Corridor": the sweetgrass basket stands.
The highway has been widened to include three lanes in both directions, which of course has impacted the feel of the road, and the location of many of the stands. Most of the old, familiar stands have been replaced with new ones - similar to what you see above at Maize Brown's place. I stopped by and talked with her awhile before the Christmas Holiday, and she said that overall she felt okay about the changes, though she didn't like how the parking area for her stand was after the stand, and not so easy to see. She also had someone build the room onto the back (where you see the window) to give her a warmer place to work during the winter and some protection during storms in the summer.
I hope the sweetgrass basket stands survive the changes - I think they will. I just love their work. I also hope that people keep taking up the art form, and that the art form itself survives all of the changes that we don't see as directly has changes to Highway 17.
~"popcorn tree" wreath at Maize Brown's Sweetgrass Basket stand~
The "popcorn tree" or chinese tallowtree (Triadica sebifera L.) is a native of China and was introduced into South
Carolina in 1776 for ornamental purposes and seed oil production. It is now listed as an invasive species because of it's ability to invade undisturbed forests. Their seed pods do make beautiful wreaths and you often see them around the holidays.
Brought to America from
rice-producing Sierra Leone and other surrounding countries, the
enslaved Africans came from a wide variety of ethnic groups. For many of
them, the first contact with the New World was Sullivan's Island --
just off Charleston, South Carolina -- a place of huge emotional value
for the Gullah/Geechee community to this day.
"This is the landing
point for over 40% of all the African people enslaved in North America,"
says Queen Quet. "It represents a place of pain; it also represents a
place of connection because we're standing at the shore and we're
looking eastward -- we're looking back home, we're looking to our
mother, the mother land, mother Africa."
Carlie Towne, minister of
information of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, says the Africans brought to
the island were quarantined in pestilence houses to make sure they
didn't have any diseases.
"A lot of people refer to
this as the Ellis Island, but it's not, because we did not come
freely," says Towne. "It didn't kill the spirit, because we are here
today and paying homage today to our ancestors. It actually gave us a
sense of community, of living together. Everything we did, it was a way
for us to actually become who we are. It actually made us stronger and
we continue today the legacy of our ancestors."
And please check out the following CNN videos that accompanied the piece - they are quite good:
"The McIntosh County Shouters have been demonstrating old slave shouts and singing slave songs all their lives. This age-old tradition was believed to have died out in the early 20th century. When it was discovered by outsiders that the members of the Bolden/Briar Patch community in coastal Georgia still practiced a custom that was begun by their ancestors, a performing group from the community was organized, calling themselves the McIntosh County Shouters. For over 30 years, ethnomusicologists, folklorists, historians, professors, Gullah Geechee experts, filmmakers, humanities and other professionals have interviewed this group to learn more about the history of the ring shout, Gullah Geechee, and traditions of coastal Georgia. The group travels to schools, festivals, churches, public and private events educating audiences young and old about the ring shout and the Gullah Geechee heritage."