While the azalea blossom peaked, sculpture students wearing safety glasses chiseled their stones on the porch of the Sea Islands Center Gallery.
The gallery is on Bellamy Curve with rustling palm trees, a wide view of the tidal river, and a little cafè where people ate outside under umbrellas and watched the students, one of whom was sitting on a joggling board and sketching.
This gallery is part of the studio arts department of the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, and Kim Keats is the new gallery director.
“I’m the gallery girl,” she quipped.
She also teaches studio arts for non-majors at the university’s Bluffton campus.
“Learning the foundations of design will help them in their careers, in how they present themselves” she said. “All my years of arts integration have come full circle. It’s been my lifelong dream to teach in higher education.”
In her career, Keats has taught thousands of public school students, run the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, and woven collectible art — baskets unlike any preconceived notion of the useful object. She titles her works with words like “relic” and “armor” and “reliquary,” indications of how the pieces transcend their simple function. I’ve come across her work in private collections, in the Contemporary Carolina Collection in Charleston, and even in promotion materials from festivals trying to lure crowds.
“A liberal arts degree means that you can think on your feet, and take criticism,” said Brian Glaze, a sculptor and assistant professor whose office is on the second floor of the Sea Islands gallery.
His office is full of vintage metal objects into which he integrates technology. His newest piece combines a crumpled crab pot with casts of osage oranges, the softball-sized fruits from a nearby tree.
Reclaiming objects for art is a lot like the old house these artists are working in — the Conant House. It was built around 1870, and has been an ice house, a bed and breakfast, an antique store, and the chamber’s visitor center.
Inside it’s bigger than it looks.
In addition to the gallery and reception space, it includes a classroom, offices, and studio spaces that are sprouting installations created by the students.
The students were preparing for a juried show, the 18th Annual Student Exhibition. Their work was judged by Jeremy Moorshead, a former professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Judge and jury can be harsh terms.
However this annual show is an easy way for young artists to learn how to handle rejection, because from Bay Street to London “No” is often the reply as artists compete for collectors and space on gallery walls.
“There’s a way out of mistakes,” Keats said, citing corporations that use theater games and improv to help employees move on gracefully.
Composure, then, is a tool, too. Liberal arts students can acquire it through critiques.
“Criticism is the test,” Glaze said.
In this case, criticism takes the form of a group discussion, both for a grade and for communicating and absorbing that whole “constructive” thing.
New student-artists are put on the spot, like a young man having to present his work first on the first day of class.
“He was gun shy,” Glaze said, “but he learned.”
“I have a lesson on the empathetic art criticism process, all the vocabulary and foundations,” Keats said. “It’s visual arts literacy.”
Speaking the same language as your colleagues is almost as important as knowing what it’s like to bruise your knuckles while carving stones.
Class time and the annual exhibition are not the only opportunities the students have for critiques.
Glaze is working with Hank Herring who owns Salt Gallery on Bay Street. Herring has invited students to fill the display window. They will rotate installations between First Friday events.
For April, it’s a video mapping project on the theme of texture and time lapse.
“It puts video into the place,” Glaze said. “rather than a square on the wall. These students are learning the ways of the materials and getting a broader sense of tools, technique and subject matter– why we’re using those mechanisms, why we’re bringing them together. It’s not only a concept.”
Lisa Annelouise Rentz lives in Beaufort