What images come to mind when you think of the Savannah waterfront?
Ships? Tourists? The bridge? The water itself?
What you think of this historic ribbon of water and land is going to be as individual as you are.
And so an art exhibit focused on the waterfront is going to be as broad and diverse as the artists who’ve called Savannah home.
“Port City” is Telfair Museums’ walk through more than three centuries of art along the river. In it, you get a good understanding of just how a place can be seen in so many different ways.
The waterfront has inspired all kinds of art – and not only in terms of media (prints, paintings, photographs, and the like) but in terms of styles.
The works are serious and playful. They are real and imagined. They are light and dark. But they all flow down to that magical place that, I fear, too many locals now relegate to another country, one owned by visitors.
In this fast-moving, 67-minute talk, Harry DeLorme, Telfair Museums’ Senior Curator of Education, explains how the river has served as a creative muse from even before the time of the English settlers.
He starts with the creativity of Native Americans, who built mounds where a thriving port now towers. And he talks about an iconic colonial image, the much-used 1734 Peter Gordon depiction of squares and homes. But is it really Gordon’s? And is it true-to life?
“The mystery remains who the original artist was,” DeLorme says. “It’s also embellished a bit from what one would really have encountered a year after [Savannah’s] founding.”
In the 19th Century, a lot of waterfront art took a more documentary form. Especially during the Civil War, artists were interested in putting viewers in the action, as best they could.
You’d think that would be with photographs. But photography back then was bulky and not good with action. Artists and engravers filled the void.
“We’re very happy to get for this show some of the most beautiful drawings done on the Savannah River during the Civil War,” DeLorme says.
The drawings in question depict a fleet of ships arriving for a prisoner exchange shortly before Sherman marched into Savannah in 1864.
“I love the billowing smoke,” DeLorme says.
Moving into the 20th Century, the stories get even move active.
DeLorme spins tales of an artist who was kidnapped (African-American sailor and self-taught painter William Golding) and a pair of artists (Andree Ruellan and her husband John Taylor) who were mistaken for spies during World War II.
Alexander Brook was a revelation for me. A well-regarded realist painter of his era, originally from New York, Brook lived and worked on Factors Walk for ten years, beginning in 1938.
And for a half-century after him, there was a thriving community of artists along the waterfront.
“Brook became the galvanizing force for the Savannah art community,” DeLorme says. “He inspired a lot of local artists. He encouraged his friends from the north to come down and visit Savannah.”
The long-lived and vibrant artist colony that Brook started helped to shape the local art scene. But it vanished when the waterfront went from “dump” to “revitalized” in the 1980’s.
Anne Osteen’s studio is one of the exceptions.
“Her work blends realism and abstraction,” DeLorme says. “Anne is a terrific painter and I’m just so happy that she’s still there and still working in her riverfront studio.”
And so “Port City: The Savannah Riverfront through Artists’ Eyes” brings us from the past to the present.
Listen to the stories and then go see the works themselves. They’re at the Jepson Center on Telfair Square. And keep in mind that this lecture was just one of five related programs taking place now through the end of the exhibit in January.
Read more about it here.