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Remembering Laura Spong (1926-2018)

The South Carolina Arts Commission notes with sadness the passing of Laura Spong of Columbia, recognized as one of South Carolina’s most prominent painters and the state’s premier abstract expressionist. In 2017, Spong was recipient of the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award Governor's Award for the Arts for Lifetime Achievement, presented annually by SCAC. She began painting in the 1950s, facing all of the obstacles common to women artists, and overcame these barriers through persistence and commitment to her work. She focused on developing her talents, always aiming to create good art rather than quick notoriety. Arts Commission Executive Director Ken May issued the following statement on the agency's behalf:

"Looking back at Laura Spong’s long career as a painter, it is hard to imagine that her recognition as an artist came later in life. The South Carolina Arts Commission was able to purchase two paintings by Laura in 2006 for the State Art Collection.  These works mark important moments in her career – White Flowers from the late 1950s and Dancing Under the Street Light from the early 2000s. White Flowers is unique as it is one of only three works in the collection that pre-date 1960 and it’s even more unique in this group of three – it’s an abstract work by a female artist.

"Laura’s nomination for the 2017 Verner Award for Lifetime Achievement was a packet of  'love letters' from artists, arts professionals and others who thrived under her mentorship and were inspired by her quiet leadership. Yet, even during the Verner Awards activities, which are designed to shine a spotlight, she shrugged off the attention. Her focus was as always, on art as a way of life, and not on the acknowledgement of her extraordinary career."

Details on arrangements can be viewed here. Below, some who knew or worked with Ms. Spong share feelings or anecdotes about her life and work.

From Wim Roefs

“Laura was ready, and so we have to be. I am terribly sad about it, though, and a bit choked up, even though I knew it was coming. Laura simply was one of the greats, as an artist and a human being, and I am very glad that I was part of her life for the past 18 or 20 years, and that she is part of mine. Laura just never disappointed. Great painter, cool person, living in an unusual but so compelling home, funny, quirky, principled, living the opposite of an un-examined life. You name it. Committed, to art and doing right and treating people well. All of it. And so unassuming, as a person and an artist. It took her forever to refer to herself as 'an artist;' for the longest time, she would say 'painter' instead. She never quite got used to being considered such a good artist and, at least within the South Carolina context, an important one. When she won the Verner Award, she looked at me, somewhat sheepishly, and said: ‘I thought that was only for really important people.’ I explained that she was important. "She won’t fade out of people’s memory anytime soon. And when those people and their memories die, there will be hundreds of Laura Spong paintings in hundreds of homes and public and institutional collections. So she’ll live on, and that’s great comfort.”  

Congratulations to the 2017 Verner Award recipients!

Verner Award StatueCongratulations to the recipients of the 2017 Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Awards for the Arts! The S.C. Arts Commission annually presents the awards, the highest honor the state gives in the arts, to recognize outstanding achievement and contributions to the arts in South Carolina. Awards will be presented May 2 (time and location to be announced). Established in 1972, the annual awards recognize outstanding achievement and contributions to the arts in South Carolina. This year’s recipients:

“Each of these Verner Award recipients has contributed greatly to the arts community as an outstanding ambassador for our state," said S.C. Arts Commission Chairman Henry Horowitz. "Their dedication to the arts benefits South Carolinians and materially enhances our state’s economic vitality. As the Arts Commission marks its 50th anniversary, we are honored to recognize these organizations and individuals who embody the service, commitment and passion that helped build our state’s half century of leadership in the arts.” Also on May 2, the S.C. Arts Foundation will honor the recipients and the arts community at the South Carolina Arts Award Luncheon, a fundraiser supporting the programs of the S.C. Arts Commission. An art sale begins at 11 a.m. at the USC Alumni Center, 900 Senate St. in Columbia, with the luncheon following at noon. Tickets are $50 per person and may be purchased online. The 2017 Verner Awards are sponsored by Colonial Life. For more about the Verner Awards or the S.C. Arts Awards Luncheon, call (803) 734-8696 or visit www.SouthCarolinaArts.com. Image: First row, left to right: Laura Spong, Leo Twiggs, Quentin Baxter, Betsy Teter. Second row: Brenda McCutchen, City of Beaufort/USC Beaufort Center for the Arts, S.C. Humanities, Stringer and Rainey Foundations

Vista Studios celebrates 25 years of anchoring arts district

From The State Article by Erin Shaw; photos by Matt Walsh

[caption id="attachment_23493" align="alignright" width="300"]Laurie McIntosh Laurie McIntosh works on a piece at Vista Studios[/caption] For 25 years, Vista Studios has been a place for art, where art was talked about, created, and spilled out into the community that grew around – and because of – it. This month, Vista Studios is celebrating its artists and the vital role they’ve played in revitalizing the Vista. The thriving arts hub that Columbians know today, which was just designated a state cultural district, would not exist without the early action of pro-arts visionaries – and might not exist in the future without safeguards against commercial encroachment, the artists say. “Vista Studios really helped establish an arts presence in that area when it was trying to create an identity for itself,” said Harriett Green, director of visual arts for the S.C. Arts Commission. The story starts in the late 1980s, when a group of artists, arts administrators and city leaders began searching among the defunct warehouses in the Vista for a spot to house affordable artist studios. Several artists already had trickled into the former industrial neighborhood, but there still wasn’t much going on. Hardly anyone lived there, and you could count the number of restaurants on one hand. The group first set its sights on the old Confederate Printing Plant – now a Publix – at Huger and Gervais streets. Construction and financial issues prevented that project from moving forward, but eventually, the warehouse behind Molten-Lamar Architects on Lady Street was selected for the studios. Through a joint partnership of the S.C. Arts Commission, the Columbia Development Corp. and Molten-Lamar Architects, which owns the building, Vista Studios was born. The opening exhibition of the original 13 studio artists took place in February 1990. “We used to keep the doors locked all the time. You didn’t want to be here at night at all,” said Laura Spong, a longtime artist at Vista Studios. “The whole area has changed completely.” Today, there are nearly 30 arts organizations, galleries and performing groups in the Vista, along with 12 arts-oriented festivals a year. The area is also home to more than 80 public pieces of artwork including paintings, sculptures and monuments. That art couldn’t have been created if artists didn’t have space to work. “For years, the biggest need artists had was for studio space – affordable studio space,” said Kirkland Smith, an artist at Vista Studios. Smith used to work in a spare bedroom that she converted into a studio. Moving to Vista Studios has given her visibility that she didn’t have working from home, she said. For artist Michel McNinch, Vista Studios was a place to be inspired by other artists. McNinch came to Vista Studios 10 years ago because she loved the work of fellow artist David Yaghjian. “I wanted to be around people creating that kind of work. It’s made me a better artist,” she said. “And I think it’s made Columbia a better art town, to have this kind of collaboration around.” The gallery space is an invaluable addition to the 13 studios, which any artist in the community can rent for a nominal fee. Rather than squeeze their art into a working studio, artists can properly display their work in a well-lit space with enough room for viewers to stand back and observe it. “We probably have some of the best exhibition space in town besides the museums, and that’s a jewel that people need to know about,” artist Sharon Licata said. The Vista Studios artists say they’ve done their job helping revitalize the area. Maybe a little too well. Businesses are attracted to the Vista because it is funky and artsy. Yet the explosive growth of business has raised the property costs so much that artists fear being forced out financially. “You’ve got to be careful not to kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” artist Laurie McIntosh said. “Artists are sort of like priests. They’re supposed to bring something to the community … because they’re driven to,” added artist Yaghjian. “They offer insight and inspiration. And when a country or community doesn’t value that, it’s in danger of going all the way to commerce, all the way to business.” One alternative is to create a new artist colony on Pendleton Street down by the Congaree River, Columbia Development Corp. Executive Director Fred Delk said. Plans already are underway for Stormwater Studios, a space where only artists can own the studios. The development follows artist Clark Ellefson’s move to the Vista’s western fringe several years ago. “The idea is to create additional activity near the river, next to the future riverfront park,” Delk said. S.C. Arts Commission director Ken May said he hopes the Vista’s recent designation as an arts district will act as a sort of check on the increasing bar and restaurant scene in the core of the district. “Part of the reason for doing that is to remind people the roots and focus is still as a cultural and entertainment district. An entity like Vista Studios is very important to the identity of the neighborhood,” he said. But is it enough? More safeguards need to be put in place to maintain the Vista’s cultural heritage, said Vista Studios artist Stephen Chesley. “Do that, and we will stand alone 50 years from now. If we don’t do it, we will just disappear.” Image above: Kirkland Smith displays a piece she made for the Richland County Library at Vista Studios.