“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”
In interviewing both artists whose joint show opens this Thursday at the Rebekah Jacob Gallery in Charleston, it struck me how seriously Tom Nakashima and Gary Geboy take inspiration. I’m not talking about the refrigerator magnet affirmation kind of inspiration, but the demanding mistress kind that compels them both to create.
That light bulb moment most of us imagine as how artists “get” inspired — the way the light hits a pile of upended trees or the delicate symmetry of the veins in a single crinkled leaf – that’s the natural, organic part for Nakashima and Geboy. Art is how they make sense of the world around them but transforming that inspiration into paintings and photographs requires less mysterious tools.
For Nakashima, the tool is often a photograph he makes to capture the textures, details and compositional possibilities of an image. Here’s an example he shared with me for the upcoming “Organic Legacies” show:
Other times, inspiration demands that he build a still life to begin the process of transformation.
“Any fool can be happy. It takes a man with real heart to make beauty out of the stuff that makes us weep.”
Nakashima’s Treepile series got its start with a chance encounter: a huge mound of trunks and tree limbs near rural Berryville, VA. “He begins with nature – piles of dead branches silhouetted against the ground or sky,” wrote Joann Moser, Senior Curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, “and transforms them into monumental compositions redolent with meaning.”
For Geboy, the tools of inspiration include the camera and the negative itself – simply starting points for the image he sets out to create. For one collection he took digital snapshots of a different kind of still life: a museum diorama.
For some of work debuting Thursday, he’s framed both the wet glass plate collodion negatives and the final image for patrons to literally see behind the scenes.
“You might not recognize the process by name, but if you’ve ever looked at Civil War images by Matthew Brady’s photographers you’ve seen wet glass plate collodion,” says Rebekah Jacob, gallery owner and southern art historian. “Gary breathes new life into a forgotten process and preserves a part of the South that is truly universal.”
“Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.”
Where other photographers spend thousands of dollars on lenses and cameras, Geboy often shoots with a $20 plastic Holga. Nakashima says his favorite canvass is actually news rag.
“I really don’t have a favorite piece of equipment,” says Geboy. “Each camera I use has a specific purpose and frankly if I could get what’s in my head on a piece of paper without a camera, I’d be a happy guy.”
It’s not surprising, then, that neither artist is fussy about discussing their technique. They know it’s just a tool for expressing something only they can see.
“One eye sees, the other feels.”
There’s a Southern art exhibit opening in Charleston SC next Thursday, but don’t expect the two featured artists to drop blessed hearts or gardens and guns into their art speak. In fact, don’t expect art speak at all. Both painter Tom Nakashima and photographer Gary Geboy would rather discuss just about anything than how you should interpret their work.
It’s not that they’re shy about it. Nakashima exhibits internationally and has work at the Smithsonian and The Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Geboy’s work has shown from London and Barcelona to the CD cover of a Czech Republic country band.
“If I could put what it means in words,” Nakashima says, “I’d try poetry instead of painting.”
Actually, poetic might be the best way to describe both artists’ work. Geboy’s wet plate collodion and platinum palladium photographs are haiku: formal in their sparseness. The complexity and nuance in each work on handmade Japanese paper is evident only up personal and close – in the textures he creates as backdrops, the elegance of the shapes and the nuance of the tones.
Nakashima is more free verse: an Allen Ginsberg howl of color, collage and rhythm. He sees what ordinary people see when we pass a pile of up-dug trees, even hops out of his car and takes photos of them. But then he paints layer upon layer of interpretation, repetition and abstraction until the image is reborn as something only he could see.
Geboy and Nakashima will meet each other for the first time on February 12th, the opening night of their joint show “Organic Legacies.” Geboy lives in Beaufort, SC and Nakashima is the William S. Morris Eminent Scholar in Arts at Augusta State University. Geboy says his work is most influenced by the photographers W. Eugene Smith and Matt Mahurin, where Nakashima returns to Picasso and Matisse for inspiration. They both come from practical, 2nd generation immigrant fathers who couldn’t imagine their sons becoming professional artists and both have spent more years in Washington D.C. than the Deep South they now call home.
So why the pairing at the Rebekah Jacob Gallery in Charleston, curated by a Southern art historian who describes her gallery as focusing on contemporary painters, sculptors & photographers from the American South? Because the South is more than Paula Deen, shrimp boat docks and carefully pruned azaleas. It’s also the burning mattress from which sprung Flannery O’Connor, the muddy Mississippi that floated up William Faulkner. In Nakashima and Geboy, she found seekers of that deeper South.
“Neither artist grew up in the South so both Nakashima and Geboy tend, by default, to strip the nostalgia and find treasured, celebratory beauty in the landscape and architecture in an objective way,” Jacob says. “They highlight and preserve the natural beauty that makes the South so unique: abandoned houses, tree piles, foliage. But they do so with intellect and exploratory richness. Artists who don’t have their intellect and artistic skill-sets could never get what they get.”
In the art-buying world that translates into a shared collector base — those who have wide knowledge of art through collecting and global travels yet have some connection to the South. And most likely a sense of humor. Both Nakashima and Geboy have poked fun at what it means to be a “Southern” artist. Geboy uses quirky, dark narratives to accompany images in his decidedly unsentimental “Carry Me Home” collection.
“Some of these things actually happened,” Geboy insists. “The stories have just been changed to protect innocent names.”
And when Nakashima set out to make his first deliberately “Southern” painting, he picked a dilapidated building he imagines the Devil would call home.
“It’s a big hit in Georgia,” Nakashima says. “Smart people like to laugh at themselves.”
So here I am, writhing in the agony of finding the perfect title for the Byrne Miller book, when Gary hands me the poster for a photography show this Friday. It seems C. Steve Johnson, the genre-crossing artist and Fantastic Nobodies performer, has no such trouble with titles. He’s rented a small studio space across from the Piggly Wiggly and the Beaufort Police headquarters and the inaugural “First Friday” opening at 1815 A Boundary Street is this Friday, December 7th.
The headline title across the top of the poster for the opening is “A Cabinet of Curiosities” – a perfect description of what to expect when you pair Gary’s fascination with beautiful dead things and Steve’s eclectic artistic interests. I got a sneak peek while they were hanging the show and can tell you this. Gary’s fixation-since-childhood with natural history museum dioramas will be evidenced on the walls. Some of these giant-sized assemblages have never been exhibited. The same goes for Steve’s work – it’s a fascinating glimpse into what makes someone as creative as he is stop and capture an image on film. And for lovers of moonscapes, a woman I’ve never met is presenting a series of misty, evocative risings and settings to balance the male energy of the evening.
“An Elastic Photography Exhibition” is the show’s evocative subtitle – think flexible and mind-bending. Again, perfect in my opinion, but just in case there was any confusion Steve added a humble descriptor just to the left of the poster’s eye-popping image of an eyeball: “The Most Original Art for All Types of People!”
In the lower eyelashes of the image there’s a classic call to action: “Enjoy the Holidays! Give Someone You Love a Work of Art.” Smart – given that the three photographers in the show are competing with Beaufort’s annual “Night on the Town” celebration, a Christmas Cabaret at Artworks and a photography club show at the library. No worries, Steve’s got that conflict covered too. The inaugural show of Steve’s Independent International Art studio runs from six to eight(ish) Friday night – long after the shops downtown run out of punch and cookies. Call it the Late Night on the Town, or at least late-er, and come prepared for an intimate celebration of creativity.
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.
When we set out for a Mississippi Blues Highway road trip this winter, it’s not like I was expecting the “Summertime,” and the livin’-is-easy version of the Deep South. You know — fish are jumping and the cotton is high and all that. I knew the Mississippi Delta would have a rough kind of beauty, if at all, which is exactly why Gary wanted to photograph it for his project (http://carrymehomeproject.blogspot.com)
I just wasn’t ready for images like this one: a sharecropper’s shack on Highway 1 just south of where Muddy Waters was born. We found it on a day that didn’t get past 16 degrees. The wind whipped through my bones and I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live inside this home – winter or summer – never making enough money to move away. You couldn’t even make a run for it. The fields around it are ankle-breaking troughs of defoliated cotton plants. The horizon is so flat and far away you might as well be adrift at sea.
Which is how I felt, driving through this landscape of leftovers. It might be prettier when the cotton is high, but after the harvest the fields look like the stubble of a cheap shave. Plastic Wal-Mart bags catch and snare on stumps – pockets of trash biding their time, flying the colors of the poor. The dirt roads beat down hard here, cutting through the flatness like scars. Even the trees are stripped, nakedly twisting in the wind.
I’ve seen this kind of forgotten before, on our drive through the Altiplano of Bolivia and Peru. That Mississippi is our own corner of the Third World was no surprise, witness Hurricane Katrina. What did surprise me, threw me really, was the hope that floated up between waves of despair. Here in the Mississippi Delta, where the human spirit had every right to sink, it didn’t. People had the strength to shout it out – from back porches, on curbs outside gas stations, in Devil-guarded crossroads and under the cover of dimly-lit juke joints. They gave voice to what would have been a void. They freed what could not be stolen. Mississippi Delta Blues was a gift to the entire world. We, who didn’t even ask, got Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Elvis, Sam Cooke, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King and countless others.
This embarrassment of talent is no coincidence. But it has as much to do with the will of the tree growing up through that sharecropper shack on the side of Highway One as the misery of the shack itself. We do learn from those who went before. I don’t remember Byrne Miller ever quoting Blues lyrics, but her favorite Nietzsche saying would be right at home in the Delta. “Life is hard to bear. But do not affect to be so delicate. We are all of us fine sumpter asses and asseses.” Beasts of burden – yes, we surely are. Capable of so much more — uh huh.