Sense of Place: Picturing West Greenville, South Carolina
June 13 to August 30, 2014
Clemson University Center for Visual Arts - Greenville
1278 Pendleton St
Panel Discussion Tuesday July 15, 7pm-9pm
Book Release Friday August 1, 7pm-9pm (First Friday)
Clemson University’s Art Department has been awarded a $5,000 grant by the South Carolina Arts Commission allowing the Center for Visual Arts at Clemson University to bring the internationally and nationally recognized editor, founder and curator of Fraction Magazine, David Bram to curate the Sense of Place exhibition that will be on display, June 13 - August 30 in its satellite facility, the Center for Visual Arts-Greenville.
Bram invited four photographers to visit The Village of West Greenville to observe, learn and interpret what they discover through an artistic trained eye using the lens of a camera. “It is my sincerest hope that the results of this project will be a collection of works where the creative community as well as the existing neighborhood will share and connect with each other” expresses current program coordinator for the CVA-Greenville, Eugene Ellenberg. “The exhibit will be designed to spark conversations and genuine interactions which will empower the neighborhood while acknowledging their history.”
Art photographers invited to participate in this exhibit have a relevant body of work and strong photography portfolios that will help convey and bring together a relevant exhibit meant to honor its residents and surrounding community. The artists selected to participate in the execution of this exhibit are Leon Alesi, Dustin Chambers, Dawn Roe and Kathleen Robbins.
In 1935, a photography program was added to the Information Division of the Farm Security Agency (FSA) to visually document the living and working conditions of farmers. The agency hired 12 photographers to travel around the United States, meeting and photographing its citizens. Many of these images were published in newspapers and magazines of the day. The idea was to show America to Americans, but it has also served as a historical document of a time and place. Nearly 80 years later, we have a record not only of the geographical appearance of the Great Plains, but the faces of those who lived there as well.
In 2008, I was involved in a large-scale project featuring Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was part of a group of photographers asked to document the town, and the resulting images were included in a book and show entitled, “Through the Lens: Creating Santa Fe”. The largest state-owned museum, The Palace of the Governors, now owns the entire collection of photographs.
When I was approached this spring with the opportunity to curate a show of photographs taken in a small section of Greenville, South Carolina, I was reminded of my previous experience in Santa Fe as well as the FSA photography project. I have never been to Greenville, though I was made aware of the rapid change and growth in the area: new restaurants, coffee shops, art spaces, and loft apartments.
With this in mind, my impulse was to put together a group of photographs that would provide a snapshot of Greenville today and could withstand the passing of time. This collection would create a historic document for the town and its people through the exhibit, “A Sense of Place.”
I selected four photographers for their unique eye and ability to demonstrate the theme of community. Each was given very loose instructions; they could photograph whatever they wanted in the method of their preference as long as they stayed within a certain geographic area. Having previously worked with each photographer either as an advisor or as editor of Fraction Magazine, I trusted their vision and craft would present Greenville in all its beauty and distinctiveness.
Dustin Chambers was the first to arrive in Greenville and dove right into the culture. The resulting portrait work is honest and engaging. Kathleen Robbins spent a day with a youth boxing club, encapsulating their spirit and brazenness in her portraits. Leon Alessi spent time walking around and interacting with people. His quiet portraits show aspects of both new and old Greenville. Dawn Roe took a different approach and worked solely with the architecture and landscape. Her diptychs reflect her unique photographic style while integrating landmarks of Greenville.
Perhaps the most unexpected element of this show is how strongly three of the four selected artists gravitated towards the people of Greenville. This was a pleasant surprise; their faces reflect the past and the future. This collection is meant to do just that: connect our remembrance of the past to hope for the future in a glimpse of the present. “A Sense of Place” creates a snapshot of history that we hope will be of interest for generations to come.
-- David Bram, July 2014
When asked to participate in this project, each artist was given the assignment to develop a "Sense of Place" and to make images in support of that vision. I began my investigation by reading the provided articles about the growth of West Greenville so I wasn't surprised by what I found on Pendleton Street: the rehabbed shops, the new businesses, the art galleries. What was unexpected though was how closely this rubbed up against the established neighborhood and its inhabitants. Having experienced this type of growth in Manhattan and Austin, I was familiar with the challenges that accompany this revitalization process. How does a transitioning city strike a balance between what now exists and the developments that are on the way? Before I met any of the longtime residents, I assumed they would be upset with the quickly changing makeup of their neighborhood strip especially considering that the majority of the new businesses are made up of people who live elsewhere.
Can community be built without new settlers? Will this influx of capital and new establishments bring new residents who will commit to the local community? Overall, my experience was that it is not yet happening. I did not see a lot of interaction between the old and new residents. However, I did meet a few artists who have made the leap and are committing to the neighborhood. Mandy and Joshua just bought their first house. Syprian and Teresa each made a home investment year ago, and Diane Kilgore-Condon and the Art Bomb inhabitants have been working in this location for 12 years. These people were my liaison to the established neighborhood.
In my experience, the crowd who most often frequent the "new" West Greenville businesses are just passing through. From what I can see the locals remain customers at their familiar haunts. Another question that doesn't yet have an answer, will any of these new enterprises provide for the already existing community? With different economic means and tastes they don't seem to want to currently engage. After speaking with several residents I repeatedly heard the same thing, "We are glad that now the neighborhood is safer." One of my portrait sitters, Dottie said she was pleased she could lie down in bed now without fear of hearing gunshots. Clarence, another sitter was glad the drugs and prostitution were no longer in his neighborhood. These were the current needs of the residents being met and the upshot of the boom.
The Sense of Place I experienced, while exploring The Village of West Greenville was a place that is metamorphosing, friendly and giving. What the future holds for this transitional place is currently unwritten yet quickly unfolding.
I arrived in the old mill neighborhood of Brandon in West Greenville at night. It felt like an alien place. I could tell it was very deep-rooted by observing the old business signs and massive spring trees lining the streets. At one point, I found myself on what I’d later find was 2nd St. in Woodside. I didn’t know what it was really like; it was so dark I had no idea who lived on the street, what age, what color. I felt gravity in the air on that street.
When I finally explored the area in the light, I was pleased with what I found which was a neighborhood rich with kind and welcoming individuals. The idea of “gentrification” or any sort of economic change in the area had barely crossed their mind and was generally dismissed when I brought it up. So instead, I just worked on getting to know the people. Spending as much time with them as I could and listening to whatever they had to say in hopes of creating a truly honest photographic document of the neighbors and their environment.
After a couple days, it got to a point where I would be in a different part of the neighborhood than where I’d met someone and they’d walk by and say “hi.” The relationship between the neighborhood, while brief, provided me with some deep, unforgettable moments. That I can just walk up to someone and talk to him or her and eventually photograph them for hours, kind of blows me away. Certainly, no one has any obligation to talking to me or wanting to get his or her photo taken. Every time it happens, I’m in awe and honored. I hope these photos feel real to the people were in them. I can’t thank the residents of West Greenville enough.
There was a certain inner comfort in knowing he could knock down anybody who was snooty to him, although, being very shy and a thoroughly nice boy, he never fought except in the gym.
-Ernest Hemingway, from The Sun Also Rises
Ms. Williams was gardening in her yard across from the church when I arrived in the neighborhood. I inquired about what I might photograph, and she suggested that I not focus my attention on anything “not up to par.” Joseph shared that he began writing poetry in the third grade and he asked if I was a mother.
Young boys trickled in to the Center for Educational Equity and filed downstairs to study and finish homework. The ritual of wrapping hands and stretching followed, and then circuit training and sprints. Finally, kids surrounded the ring and entered two-by-two. The sparring is why they come here, but the interactions that precede it are perhaps more meaningful. The atmosphere is charged. There is a deep sense of community here.
Joyce Carol Oates expressed that “to write about boxing is to write about oneself- however elliptically, and unintentionally. And to write about boxing is to be forced to contemplate not only boxing, but the perimeters of civilization- what it is, or should be, to be ‘human.’” I discovered that to photograph these young fighters taps into similar emotions. I encountered the kids at the Center for Educational Equity somewhat by accident and was profoundly moved by the experience, recognizing my own son in the restless spirit and intensity of the boys.
I use the camera to investigate discrepancies between temporality, memory and history with a focus on optical experience. Drawing upon our collective response to recognizable sites and scenes has been a focus of my practice for several years. The Sense of Place study looks to both recent and long-passed imaginings of the mill culture in Greenville through a process that combines a documentary approach with direct intervention in the landscape. Constructed scenarios are presented alongside seemingly ordinary views, calling the authenticity of both into question. These methods make visible the complex process of knowing and understanding both space and place and of distinguishing between the two. We cannot know things in time, but only through recollection, which can be temporally very near or very far. Isolated frames translate to instants that become both particular and transitory.
Unable to seize either instance or moment, I emphasize the assumed stability of built structures in relation to the constant flux of the surrounding natural environment, while strands and swaths of cotton fabric engage with plants and concrete, referring to the raw material of the textile mills. Relying upon a segmented form, I have created split-frame photographs that stress the fragmentary nature of perceptual response. This structure purposefully unravels the act of presentation, emphasizing the nature of the camera image as always already a representation. Each depiction contributes to Greenville’s traditions and mythology, and the delicate beauty within.
The Center for Visual Arts--Greenville and the Art Department of Clemson University wish to thank the following for their support of this project:
The South Carolina Arts Commission
The Community Foundation of Greenville
Richard and Gwen Heusel