There I was in the Cancun Mexico airport, hungry, with three hours to kill before flying home after a soul-nourishing Christmas vacation in Tulum. There’s nothing like a loud, fluorescently blinding, over air-conditioned airport terminal to kill the vacation vibe. I felt even sorrier for all the other travelers having to return to a miserable January in Minnesota and Wisconsin (their Packers and Vikings-wear gave them away, along with their sunburns.)
And then I spotted the Bubba Gump Seafood Restaurant near gate C18. It was an attitude check, however commercial, that I was lucky to be returning to a place so lovely it stars in movies like Forrest Gump. I confess it was my first time dining at the chain where you order your food by flipping a license plate sign on your table to signal waiters: “Run Forrest Run.” The friendly, mandatory, “How y’all doing?” was giggle inducing, coming from a young woman with an accent from much farther South. And then it happened. I looked up and saw a faux-country-framed photograph of my good friend, Marlena Smalls, on the front porch of a house on Lady’s Island. It was a publicity still depicting the moment before “Bubba’s mother” passes out.
She still looks the same, almost twenty years later, and so does the house. In fact it’s the location for this Saturday’s Beaufort International Film Festival’s fundraising oyster roast. For the price of two burgers at the Cancun Airport’s Bubba Gump restaurant, you can eat fresh Lowcountry oysters “on location” of one of Hollywood’s most iconic films.
There haven’t been many movies made in Beaufort since then, which is something the festival’s director is trying to fix. Ron Tucker has managed to get every filmmaker whose work is an official selection of the festival to actually come to Beaufort for the screenings. It makes for an incredible Q&A session after each movie, and more importantly, it exposes the most promising new filmmakers to everything that is beautiful about Beaufort. With any luck, and with better incentives from the state, they’ll end up filming future masterpieces here again.
Who knows, maybe one of them will direct my latest screenplay. It’s a romantic comedy called “The Wedding Photographer” and takes place in Beaufort. I won’t give the plot away (you’ll have to come to the screenwriter’s roundtable on Feb 16th to hear actors stage an excerpt) but you’ll get a taste if you come to the oyster roast fundraiser. The band playing as we all shuck oysters and eat chili is a local favorite, Kirk Dempsey and his Side Street Walkers. Guess who I’ve written into the final scene of my screenplay? So come on out and maybe you’ll be able to say you saw them play, at Bubba’s Momma’s house, before they made it big on the silver screen.
Some days I feel like an expat in my own country, especially during primary season in South Carolina. I weary of defending my choice to put down roots here, in the face of our governors and statistics. It’s tiring, remaining faithful. And then something comes along that lifts the burden of explanation.
It happened once before, when Joggling Board Press published “Transfer of Grace: Images of the Lowcountry.” Until that moment I was never sure that my husband could ever love this place as much as I do. I had dragged Gary, a Midwesterner, to meet Byrne Miller while he still could. The fact that a Jewish modern dance pioneer from Manhattan could survive in the Deep South helped, but didn’t convince him. When strangers on spring garden tours asked him what church we attend, I sensed his commitment wavering. That this town is still so divided: black and white, young and retired, uber-wealthy and just-scraping-by – didn’t sit well. But in the photographs on the pages of our first book together, I saw that he could put all that aside. I saw that it is possible to love a place in spite of itself. There is incomparable beauty in the Lowcountry, a value in any grace we leave behind.
If you go to the opening of “Organics: the Art of Nature” tomorrow night at USCB’s Center for the Arts Galley you will see even more evidence of my relief. It’s not just Gary’s work on display; he is showing with the fiber artist Kim Keats for the first time since they started collecting each other’s work. It makes sense – both artists use painstakingly intricate, even archaic techniques to make their one-of-a-kind creations. But the show is a continuum more than collaboration – on one end Kim constructs works of art from natural elements and on the other, Gary deconstructs nature into elemental shapes, tone and texture.
She calls her work salvaging nature; he calls his scavenging and simplifying. Together they elevate elements we normally overlook into objects to reconsider, and celebrate. It’s astonishing, the strength and resilience expressed in some of nature’s most delicate, even fragile parts – a robin’s egg in a tiny but protective nest, peels of bark lashed into sturdy crossings.
I take partial credit – after all I am the one who dragged him here. And I tolerate all the dead and decaying things he now drags into Byrne Miller’s house to photograph. It is proof, to me, that the Lowcountry is finally under his skin.
A writer should probably enter a film festival to advance her career, meet people in the business, hopefully add an official selection logo to her resume. But I confess: I entered the Oaxaca International Film Festival because I saw that the trophies for best film and best screenplay were statues by Alejandro Santiago — my favorite living artist ever.
I am not alone in this opinion. According to the director of the Oaxaca International Film Festival, Ramiz Adeeb Azar, the Mexican government asked Alejandro Santiago to sign papers saying it’s okay to put his face on money or stamps after he’s dead. (Diego and Frida are on the five-hundred peso note now.)
I first read about Alejandro Santiago in Raw Vision – an outsider art magazine that celebrates the likes of Thornton Dial and Sam Doyle. I found it a little strange, as if simply because he’s from a small village in Oaxaca, Santiago is somehow an outsider. I can’t think of anyone more connected to his art, to his culture or to the human condition. Consider the seven-year project that vaulted him to fame. He came back to Mexico from living and painting in France and found his entire village empty of men. That’s the flip side of the immigration story we hear in the United States. Women and children hanging onto the thread of hope that their men will make it safely to the other side and someday return.
There are no less than three documentaries you can watch about the project, http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/2501_Migrants_A_Journey/70147461?trkid=2361637 but the art-world narrative goes like this: Alejandro Santiago had a dream, and in that dream he repopulated his village. The way he made it whole again was to acknowledge the absence. Seven years and a million dollars later there were 2,500 statues representing the migrants, plus one – himself. There were exhibits along the Mexico/U.S. border – all 2501 figures facing Mexico, yearning, and later in museums and galleries around the world.
The story wormed into my heart and never left. My own childhood was so nomadic that I’ve never felt the rootedness of Santiago’s “migrantes.” For years I’ve tried to see them. It became almost a pilgrimage. Gary and I have visited Oaxaca six times, combing through its world-class galleries, even renting a car to try to drive to the village where Santiago made the statues. But it turns out maps in Mexico are as abstract as its contemporary art. We found other works by Santiago — fantastic, unforgettable drawings and paintings I’ll never be able to afford – but not the migrantes. What we found instead was an entire culture of artistic expression, an explosion of stories put down in clay, on canvass and spray painted on the walls of Oaxaca in protest. I realize now that Mexico was making me pay my dues – when the student is ready the teacher will come.
Thanks to the Oaxaca International Film Festival, I am closer than ever. On the mornings before the film screenings began, we wandered Oaxaca’s museums again and found a group of Santiago’s migrantes finally on public display. I stood as still as the statues, suppressing the urge to touch them.
And then, on the last day of festival, Ramiz and his wife Diana invited us to a special screening at the artist’s home. As if making the trophies wasn’t enough, Alejandro Santiago opened his own home for a kid’s night – spreading out straw palapa mats on the ground and projecting all the winning animated films on a white courtyard wall. Seeing more migrantes there, in the humble outskirts of Oaxaca where Santiago still lives with his wife and children and seamstress mother, is something I’ll never forget. They appear to be walking out of a jungle. They stand in silhouette atop a corner of an adobe wall. I realize how deeply he must still feel their absence to surround himself with the presence he willed into existence. Which is only a fraction of how deeply their absence must be felt in families all across Mexico – sons, uncles, fathers and husbands offered up, prayed over, ached for.
Someday, when I’m more experienced and worldly, I’ll have an elegant speech prepared in the event of winning a major award. I was thrilled to win best screenplay for “Mask of the Innocent” and ecstatic that my first big festival win was for a female-lead thriller set in Mexico. But on Saturday night, on the stage of the beautiful Teatro Juarez, I didn’t say any of that. I was holding a piece of the Mexico I have come to love.
Just a quick update from Sweet T. That’s my blues name, you may recall, coined during our road trip down the Mississippi Blues Highway last winter. Turns out we don’t have to drive all the way to Clarksdale to hear gut-bucket blues. Not since Kirk Dempsey came back from the blues clubs of Atlanta to the tomato fields of his childhood in Frogmore, South Carolina.
Kirk isn’t a white-boy, copy-cat kind of blues musician. He grew up picking tomatoes on his dad’s farm just up the road and puts his own Lowcountry growl on artists from Woody Guthrie, to Johnny Cash, to Tom Waits. A little bit washboard, a little bit honky-tonk – when Kirk’s Side Street Walkers get riled up you realize most every song you really love was inspired by the blues.
Tom Davis – the electric banjo player, not the politician – felt the pull all the way from California. Tim Devine brought his Fender Telecaster from a city no stranger to bluesmen – Kansas City. Alan Webb, the group’s transcendent washtub bass player, says anybody who can dance can feel the rhythm of the blues.
With Kirk it goes back further than most. About halfway through the second set, he puts down his harmonica and breaks into gospel with “John the Revelator”. He does it the way he remembers from the pews of St. Helena Island’s Brick Baptist Church – call and response style – only this time he’s playing the role of the preacher.
Not that the crowd Wednesday nights at the Foolish Frog needs much converting. Last night there were two town judges in attendance, a couple of locally renowned artists, a ponytailed landscape gardener and a few bearded carpenters clapping along with folks visiting gated golf course communities. The blues brings all kinds of people together and puts us in our place, like no other music can. You can’t really argue with a deadpan pronouncement by a 60-year-old bass player who made his own instrument from an old boat oar and the plastic cord of a Weed Wacker.
“I would like to add that we are good for the digestion.” – Alan Webb. 10/19/2011
Yeah. What he said. Maybe that’s why the Smithsonian’s music exhibition “New Harmonies” lined up Kirk and his Side Street Walkers for this Monday’s lunchtime concert at the USC-Beaufort Auditorium. For those blues-lovers too down-on-their luck to drive all the way to Frogmore.
A memorial service for the artist Suzanne Longo is tomorrow morning at ten, at the Beth Israel Synagogue. We’ll be saying goodbye, but all I keep thinking about is the last time we said hello.
I remember that sunny morning because she made me laugh. Gary and I were on our walk, down by the Waterfront Park playground, when she popped out of nowhere. Actually, she popped up from under the bridge to Lady’s Island – a shortcut she cheerily reversed to show the two of us how you can duck under the line of cars waiting for the swing span to close and practically tiptoe over the edge of the Beaufort River.
Normally an artist in her early sixties popping up from under a bridge might startle me, but this was Suzanne Longo. Ever since I met her in the early 90s, she’s been popping up in unexpected places and ways.
I was a rookie reporter just arrived from the West Coast and she was a mysterious artist transplanted from New Orleans. So exotic that she named her gorgeous sons Moon and Star! The occasion was a kerfuffle over one of her sculptures – a bench that prominently featured the mounds of the female form – right across Carteret St. from a church! I don’t know which one of us thought the story was more ridiculous, or funny. Beaufort takes getting used to.
What will be even harder to get used to, is Beaufort without Suzanne.
I had to choose between two parties last night – a bachelorette/lingerie shower for a young woman I’m just beginning to know, and a night-under-South Carolina-Live Oaks pondering a revolution with dear and proven friends.
The feminist in me would have opted for the latter – sick as she is of corporate greed, insane politics and willful disregard for social welfare. The womenist in me jumped into a river and swam with a bride-to-be.
That’s not a typo – womenism is purposefully plural. It’s why I invented the word – to amuse and honor the woman who would adore it most: Byrne Miller. And besides, Womanism is already claimed by fiercely academic women in contemporary African-American theology.
I swam with a bride-to-be because Samantha is getting married and that is what women do. We are meant to be there for each other. We are the rivers that wind through life – tidal and moon-lifted. Sometimes placid and often dangerous. Not always flowing in just one direction.
Alone it is an imaginary solitude. Because even when we think we are the only swimmer in the water, we are not. Other women are all around us. Some, like Samantha’s beautiful and weary mother-in-law, Suzanne, are waiting for the tide to take them home. And still the river flows.
Other women are out in front, swimming against the tide. We cheer them on. Some are on the shores, testing the temperature. We say come on in. And when we’re really lucky, as I am and as Samantha will soon be, we find someone to swim beside. We tie our lives together like a raft and hoist a flag that all can see. Together we become a marker in the river of uncertainty, a Moon to reflect the light of love.
The revolution will have to wait until another night. The tide will turn. Waters will rise. And I will be there swimming in women.