It's 7:17PM on Saturday, October 13. The pink-orange sunset sky over the marshes is darkening and a golden crecent moon is ascendant in the eastern sky. These are the days of wonder in the Lowcountry. Fresh breezes, seventy degree highs, blue skies and little puffer clouds; the whirring engine of a small plane as it leaves the unique Frogmore Intranational Airport; smiling faces (just like our license tags say) and mine, all the more content because of the last five hours spent at the Arts Council of Beaufort's "Chalk On The Walk" celebration on the green field in the middle of what is fast becoming Beaufort Town Center on Boundary Street.
Throughout the day, there were never more than a couple of hundred people at this event and there should have been thousands. It’s too bad so many missed it. This may well have been the first time that a major Beaufort festival-style happening occurred somewhere other than the waterfront park; proving, for now at least, that Beaufort Town Center is still just a concept and a place name. Let’s hope it can become a focal point and a gathering place and not just a new commercial and retail center. Sitting on bales of hay toe-tapping and singing along with a great band called “In Cahoots”, in the middle of a perfect green field overlooking the Beaufort River, with the new hotel going up on one side, the new commercial buildings underway in the K-Mart center on another and the old Ramada that could become a USCB dorm on yet another, made me feel caught in a time warp and it made me wonder. Will this green field be a parking lot surrounded by as much rentable square footage as the codes allow; or will it be a wonderful quadrangle; a people place with outdoor terraces and a path along the marshes and river?
Today, at least, the new asphalt roadway into the still-abuilding complex served as a singularly non-urban canvas. Scores of artists did street art, using colored chalk in formats that looked to be about 4’-5’ square. Some were done by school kids, some by “community artists” and some by seasoned masters. Folks strolled through the art, looking down at fabulously uplifting colors and fanciful expressions of everything from lighthouses to lilies to lovers and the Arts Council awarded some pretty impressive scholarship prizes to the winners of the judged competition. The encounter between humans and art is vital and it is very much alive in Beaufort.
Performance art abounded too. A man named Glenn Singer, “El Gleno Grande” to the rest of us, dressed in a checked zoot-suit, had the audience in stitches with a horse-jumping routine and since he “volunteered” me to assist him, I excuse myself for hamming it up on stage so much. His website is www.horseguy.com.
But the piece de resistance was the incredible marriage of the musical and culinary arts by the Sauce Boss himself, Bill Wharton, a slide guitarist as accomplished as Ry Cooder and, by all accounts, the Gumbo King. Here’s the deal, He and his drummer and bassist play and sing these incredible blues, country and R&B tunes while making an amazing chicken, shrimp, oyster, crawfish gumbo at the same time and conclude by serving it free to the audience. Like I said, too bad you missed it. A different kind of art for a different kind of palate. But wait, there’s more. These guys are on the road 40 weeks a year and in addition to earning their living this way they make sure that in every town, they feed the homeless; sometimes as many 200 at a time. They have raised over $250,000 for their Planet Gumbo non-profit (almost everyone in the audience today threw $5s , $10s and $20s into the big blue gumbo pot on stage) so when they go to play music and serve gumbo at the homeless shelters, they are also able to pass out socks and t-shirts and the necessities of life. Get his recipes and music at www.sauceboss.com and learn more about the way they walk the walk at www.planetgumbo.org
Art, music, dance, the theater and cinema all work to bring people together. It happened in a massive way today for a too small group of people but, as one of those people and one whose residency in Beaufort has now extended to two whole years, it was not just gumbo for my belly, but food for thought.
I am still pretty unfamiliar with the alphabet soup of organizations that support and drive the arts in Beaufort but I would have to say that they’re all doing a remarkable job. Was today’s turnout sparse because it was just a week after the Shrimp Festival? Was there a competing event in Bluffton or Hilton Head? Does anyone keep a master calendar of who’s doing what and when? Does our newspaper do enough to give free publicity to these events? Does the city of Beaufort have the arts as a line item in its budget? Can USCB retain its focus on the needs of the community north of the Broad while also focusing so much attention on its new New River Campus? Is the self-interest that always permeates every organization concerned with the arts and/or culture and/or business, “enlightened” self-interest and, is there actual intra-organizational cooperation or just lip service to the notion?
The questions are naïve and maybe some are a bit provocative but they may be significant. Our area is under the pressure of change and growth. Things called Beaufort Town Center can actually become centers for people and their activities or they can become like so many developments, where the name has nothing to do with the reality.
Want an example: Think about that treeless resort in Cancun that gets named “Las Palmas”.
One hopes that the vision for Beaufort Town Center is such that “Chalk on the Walk” can blossom and grow there every year. One hopes that everyone who lives around here stays aware that more and more American towns are looking like cookie-cutter versions of some architect’s impression of what a village should be and that Beaufort still doesn’t look that way and doesn’t have to.
But, most of all, one hopes that those engaged in the support and promotion of the arts remain not only fierce in their passions, but also dedicated to greater cooperation among themselves and their organizations.
“Ars gratia artis” (art for art’s sake) is the slogan under the MGM roaring lion, but many attribute its meaning to the following work by Edgar Allen Poe:
We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem's sake and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force: — but the simple fact is that would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem, this poem per se, this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem's sake.
Yes, the poem, the painting, the dance, the song, the book, the film. Each for its own sake; and all, because they improve us.