Archive for February, 2011

You Can’t Go Home

Having grown up in Charleston, with much of my identity shaped by the customs and unique character of the land and the people, I care deeply about the welfare of the place.

My first exposure to art was at the Gibbes, and I remember anticipating the classes in the Queen Street annex with great pleasure. So when the Industrial Scars project reached a point of maturity, one of the first people to whom I showed it was Angela Mack, Executive Director at the Gibbes. She liked it and understood my intentions immediately, and suggested that an exhibit focused on the southeast would be particularly relevant and timely.

Of course, it took several years to go from planning to execution, which turned out to be a good thing as I used the interim to do some aerial shoots of the industries around Charleston. My intention in making these pictures is to make beautiful images that move people and stimulate dialog about these threats to us and our children. I do not aim to vilify any given company, because they are, as a rule, acting within the law.

Agent Orange, 2009, by J. Henry Fair

As the show evolved, my research showed that my home town was besieged with millions of pounds of highly toxic pollutants that are affecting our health, lifestyle, and our ability to think clearly. Several photographs in the exhibition illustrate the waste from nearby coal-fired power plants impacting our natural resources (remember that these facilities are all operating within the law). Agent Orange depicts fly ash slurry from a coal-fired electrical generation station. When ash comes into contact with water, contaminants including arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium and others can migrate into groundwater, lakes, and streams.1

I discovered that the industries within a 100 mile radius of the Holy City emit almost 1000 pounds of mercury into the air annually. According to the EPA, “Symptoms of mercury poisoning include: tremors; emotional changes (e.g., mood swings, irritability, nervousness, excessive shyness); insomnia; neuromuscular changes (such as weakness, muscle atrophy, twitching); headaches; disturbances in sensations; changes in nerve responses; performance deficits on tests of cognitive function. At higher exposures there may be kidney effects, respiratory failure and death.” 2 And if you thought that 1000 pounds of this element is not so much to worry about, symptoms appear with as small a dose as 0.025 mg. I am often amazed by the willingness to class “the environment” as a special interest, when in fact, it is nothing more than the set of natural systems that sustain life on this planet.

Coal Slurry (Residue stream of water and chemicals resulting from coal washing, Kayford Mountain, WV), 2005, by J. Henry Fair

Coal Slurry, 2005, by J. Henry Fair

Coal Slurry captures waste impoundments in West Virginia. Coal must be washed with water and processed with a variety of chemicals before it is used. This creates tremendous volumes of “slurry” which are stored in impoundments created by building earthen dams across the edges of valleys. On numerous occasions impoundments have failed, releasing large quantities of the toxic mixture to devastate the valley below.3

I take issue with the oft repeated mantra that we cannot do anything about the environment as it will cost jobs. My experience is exactly the opposite: in West Virginia, where coal mining is king, the shift to extraction by mountain-top removal, a much more damaging technique than traditional deep mines has simultaneously obviated 90% of the coal mining jobs due to mechanization.

Is saving a few pennies per kilowatt of electricity worth these results?

—J. Henry Fair, photographer and guest blogger

Fair will be at the Gibbes at noon on Saturday, February 26, to sign copies of his new book The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis.

J. Henry Fair: Industrial Scars is on view at the Gibbes Museum through March 27. His photographs are also on view at the The Cooper Union in New York City.

For more information on the state of the environment where you live, visit the United States Environmental Protection Agency homepage and enter your ZIP code in the text field labeled MyEnvironment.

1 Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice. Coal Ash Waste Contamination Study – 31 New Water Pollution Cases | Earthjustice. Earthjustice: Environmental Law: Because the Earth Needs a Good Lawyer | Earthjustice. 24 Feb. 2010. Web. 25 Feb. 2011.

2 “Health Effects | Mercury | US EPA.” US Environmental Protection Agency. Web. 24 Feb. 2011

3 United States of America. Environmental Protection Agency. Office of Solid Waste. Coal Combustion Waste Damage Assesment. United States Environmental Protection Agency, 9 July 2007. Web. 25 Feb. 2011. (PDF).

Outside Perspectives: Visiting Artists in Charleston

Charleston, South Carolina has long been a tourist destination for those seeking warm weather, picturesque landscape, and the charm of a historic city. Artists are no exception to the rule, and a number of well-known names have visited the city and translated their experiences into works of art. Included among this group are such twentieth-century masters as Edward Hopper, Childe Hassam, George Biddle, and the photographer Walker Evans. Between the years of 1910 to 1945 in particular, Charleston flourished as a Mecca for artists, a period described today as the Charleston Renaissance.

The Charleston Renaissance was largely the result of a small community of resident artists who discovered in Charleston’s timeworn alleyways and weathered facades a visual beauty that spoke of an extraordinary architectural and cultural past. Centered on the work of Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Anna Heyward Taylor, and Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, this time period engendered civic pride among Charlestonians and brought national attention to the rich cultural and architectural heritage of the city.

In many cases, the extent of interaction between the resident and visiting artists in Charleston during this time period is unclear. However, artists from each group depicted similar subject matter, and a sharing of subject matter suggests a sharing of ideas. Like the local artists, many of the artists who made shorter stays were captivated with the architecture of Charleston. Childe Hassam, Colin Campell Cooper, and Walker Evans all created work featuring the city’s structures. Edward Hopper focused on atmospheric impressions of the architecture and surrounding landscape. Artists such as Anthony Thieme captured the surrounding Lowcountry marshlands, while New York artists George Biddle and Palmer Schoppe turned their attention to the African-American inhabitants of the city. These artists are part of a long tradition of cultural exchange in Charleston, a tradition that remains very much alive today.

Sara Arnold, Curator of Collections, Gibbes Museum of Art, and Pamela Wall, Curator of Exhibitions, Gibbes Museum of Art

Excerpted from Antiques & Fine Art, Volume X, Issue 6. To read the full article, please visit

Old Friends Gather to Hear About New Plans

The first day of the February brought a lovely gathering of those who had participated in the former Gibbes Studio of Art School. The quirky, quaint house on Queen Street is now the location of the much-talked-about restaurant, Husk. Past instructors and students gathered to see what had been done to the building, and to reconnect and share memories of times at the Studio. Instructors such as Manning Williams (painting), Rhett Thurman (painting), Larry Workman (photography), Bill McCullough (painting), Mary Walker (printmaking), Kristi Ryba (printmaking), Yvette Dede (printmaking), Linda Fantuzzo (painting), Carol Ezell (drawing), Mary Nicholson (clay), Peggy Howe (printmaking), Barclay McCurdy (clay), and Elizabeth McKeever (painting) were present, as were staff and board members from the museum.

It was fun to notice that many of the former students of the Gibbes Studio are now artists showing and selling their creative works. Angela Mack, the museum’s director, presented the new plans for the first floor of the museum which will have classrooms and studios. The excited reaction from the group showed how much the school has been missed. I call the plans “new” but they are truly a return to the old which should please those who pine for the “old building” that was such a draw to students.

One summer I spent a week counting how many people entered the Studio building on Queen, so I know that those present at the reunion were but a few of the thousands who walked through the doors of the Studio school. Students brought their hopes for talent, their dreams for expanding their children’s horizons, and their faith that the instructors and staff would show them respite from the daily structure of life. There are also the many who took classes from Corrie McCallum, William Halsey, and Willard Hirsch in the museum itself. And we should not forget the off-site programs in the schools taught by Gibbes instructors and docents for over forty plus years. The energy of all those past and present was so apparent to anyone listening in the upstairs room we called the “nursery” (red carpet was put down at one point to make it a “quiet” room!).

The smart renovations at 76 Queen Street may take some getting used to for those who practically lived in the building over the years, taking or teaching classes. The clay studio—formerly the bookbindery—is now a cold storage for the delicacies served at Husk. Jean Smith, a long-time director of the Studio, always said that the buildings needed to rest during the month of August. Jean has since gone on to the land of permanent rest, and after a long rest the studio building has come back to life. Filled with the sounds of memories and many creative people, the Gibbes “reunion” was abuzz with great energy and the guests seemed ready for a new decade of Gibbes history to be made.

—Lese Corrigan, owner Corrigan Gallery, artist, and still a Gibbes instructor