The Last Stroke in the Masterpieces
Twenty minutes inland of the Georgia coast the city of Savannah beams in humid southern sun. The city greets you with the smell of the paper mill, angry drivers and horse drawn carriages. Spanish moss drips lazily over tree-lined streets and tourists walk around with Nikons and confused expressions, looking upward at tall Victorian homes. Every other building downtown holds a proud SCAD sign at its entrance. The Savannah College of Art & Design has drawn students to the city for the past forty years and harbours them, along with an art scene that spreads through the city like a flood each time it rains.
Five hours north and to the west lies a city trapped in the the Appalachian mountains. You think of it as Savannah’s closest sister city with an equally booming art scene. It greets you will with a graffitied water tank that reads “Good vibes” as you drive over the bridge into downtown. Asheville is younger, and spralls around a small area with vagabond youth and 1920’s Art Deco architecture. Magic mushroom shops and Alice in Wonderland murals paint the city psychedelic, while hipster-y restaurants, bars and art galleries draw in artists to share in whatever they can.
Between both cities lies a similar energy. One that people can sense and either know well, or can't quite place a finger on. So you’ll hang around and get a feel for them, to find a an art scene to settle into that’s not too far from mom and dad, because everyone’s parents end up in Florida. You’ll go to Savannah and you’ll go to Asheville, to see what they’re creating. You know they’re creating a home for artists. But also, simultaneously, you are told they are not.
In the courtyard of the Maté Factor under the shade of a tree you sit with a mango peach tea and talk to one of the owners, Brian Fenster. Four and a half years ago Fenster came to Savannah with the Maté Factor community of thirty looking to open a cafe like this. Maté, a little miracle plant from the jungles of South America, caught their attention, first in their many other communities in Brazil, and now on the corner of East Hall and Habersham. A baker, construction worker, historic preservationist, Fenster runs the cafe with the community, drawing in both locals and tourists everyday. On the other end, Fenster’s connection to Asheville comes about once a month now; it is where the community manufactures their Maté, and soon there will be another cafe there as well. “...We wanna build one. We found a spot. Asheville’s hard to find a spot. Savannah is too, but not as hard as Asheville,” Fenster says. The art scene of both cities comes to Fenster and the community at a distance: through their customers, SCAD students, locals and tourists alike. For Fenster, Savannah has brought home in a way that accepts a community on numerous levels. “There is a real openness in Savannah. I’d like to say that on one level, Savannah, for a southern city, it’s probably one that wouldn’t make people feel like a misfit.”
But you soon learn from him that the city did come with a catch. Despite its many opportunities, where Savannah slips is certainly in housing. His tone changes slightly. You lean in closer, noticing the grey strands in his beard. “Savannah has trouble with affordable housing.” he says flatly. “Because, in my personal opinion, where Savannah really shines, is in the downtown district. But Savannah has really missed it as far as providing for workforce housing. ...Affordable housing, that’s a little bit troublesome here. And so that’s probably a certain barrier.” The words stick in your mind. A barrier. A barrier for many groups who can’t afford it, a barrier for artists.
Savannah certainly attracts artists, but at a price. The artists that SCAD attracts as students start off by paying a minimum of $50,000 to attend the school each year. After that, if they choose to stay in Savannah, they are looking at for rent signs for one bedroom apartments at no less than $1,000 a month. This may not seem like an outrageous amount to all. But for a city as small as Savannah, (so small that most folks don’t even consider it a city), it’s a lot. Particularly, it’s a lot for young artists. For any artist trying to make a living off of their work, it is a hard price to swing.
Northwest, in Asheville’s midsummer mountain-thin air, Kevin Devaney sits under a decorative burgundy tent with his typewriter before him. Small squares of carbon paper are decorated with his poems. He sits along the street amongst the dotted downtown of many of Asheville’s street performers, musicians and other artists. You walk towards him. He asks you your favorite poet, and a word of your choice. You return in fifteen minutes and he has a poem waiting for you. “You pay whatever you think it's worth,” he says. He is visiting, as many artists do here. A year and a half ago he set out on his long tour of the country, hopping from city to city in his equally burgundy van bringing his poems to the public.
He tells you of Asheville’s Buskers guild. In Asheville, the Busker’s Guild brings the city to life, allowing for artists to share their work and talents on the streets with minimal regulations. It’s what makes the city what it is, filled with songs and colours, welcoming artists from far and wide. Being able to share his work with people walking down the streets is a big part of Devaney’s art, but it’s also what kept him from coming to Savannah, he tells you. Savannah’s street performers are limited to locals only, making the street performances in themselves, quite limited. A spot where Asheville shines in it’s art scene in a different way than Savannah.
Asheville’s wild, easy-going art scene attracted Devaney and is leading him back there this Fall. An extremely attractive community for almost any artist, he speaks fondly of his time in the city. “I was impressed by the number of theaters in Asheville, as well as the number of performance opportunities at open mics.” He tells you of bars, music venues, art galleries and places like the Odditorium, which houses all three. “I got a kick out of becoming a ‘member’ at so many of the local bars, and just taking in the Odditorium- that place makes my heart sing.”
Asheville’s art scene, although welcoming and friendly, you soon see also falls where Savannah does, in not-so-friendly housing. Devaney says, “From many of the artists that I spoke to in the area, the challenge wasn't finding places to make art or exhibit work, but rather keeping up with the ever increasing cost of living and the scarcity of housing.” Asheville is able to keep artists coming, for only for a short while. They can’t afford to stay.
Out of ten of the most expensives places to live in North Carolina, Asheville makes the list. With the average income of about $44,000, the average rent for a one bedroom apartment is over $1,100. This old city, like Savannah, isn’t very large either, something you notice even when you are there. In fact, it’s quite a bit smaller, with it’s total size being just over 45 square miles. This small size doesn’t leave much room for anyone to look for housing in the city, especially on top of hefty rent, and especially for young artists.
Five hours south, along Forsyth Park sits the Grand Bohemian Gallery. A rounded doorway guides you out of the relentless summer heat and into a cool, busy room. It is filled with colorful canvases and twisting sculptures. To your left is a large glass table that leads you through the room and into the Forsyth Inn lobby. Behind the table a lady greets you with a warm smile and offers to answer any questions you may have. You squint at her name tag: Carmen Aguirre. The small room of the gallery beams bright with the afternoon window light. Through the second door the paintings continue into the lobby, which has become part of the gallery itself. The lobby is quiet, with dark wooden floors and the sweet, light scent of peaches that make you walk just a little slower. Extravagant golden frames stamp the walls holding detailed oil paintings, a dazzling chandelier hanging from the middle of the room like a diamond encrusted star, and an extensive collection of antique hats stretches across the entire back wall.
The paintings lead you back around to the small bright room where Aguirre helps a lady decide on one of the feathered bow ties for her husband. You approach the cold glass table and she turns to you, you shake her hand.
Hailing from Miami, Aguirre has been in Savannah for two and half years, joining the Grand Bohemian family long after it opened here in 2005. As she talks you can’t help but stare at the shimmering jewelry beneath the countertop, each hand crafted and riddled with different gems. The light beneath the glass lights up her face.“I’ve lived here now two and a half years, but I’ve been coming up here since 2005. I have a daughter who lives here, who went to SCAD. So I’ve been watching the growth of all the museums and the galleries and everything here.” You try to focus on her words and not the shiny, colourful art sprawling across the wall behind her, glossy dishes and marbled vases.You learn the gallery, part of the Grand Bohemian Hotel, displays the art of local and regional artists, working with them to hold showings and other events that draw in buyers from all over the country.
You ask about what she thinks of the art scene here in Savannah. She tells you what you already know, of SCAD’s influence and how it has helped the city. But she also tells you something you hadn’t given much thought to, how Savannah is a port city, creating a mixing pot of little cultures that make for a great art scene. She tells you more. “Your main ingredients are here. They were here and that’s how it developed. I don’t think you could have gone to another city and done something like what you have here in Savannah.”
A candle on the table catches your eye. It reads: Grand Bohemian Hotel & Gallery along the label in red lettering. You want one but you forgot your wallet. She continues telling you about the artists around the city, and you shake your attention off the candle. “And this city is loaded with artists,” she says. “But you know, you’re never a prophet in your own land” she says, the words rigid in her mouth.
The same candle burns in the Grand Bohemian Gallery in Asheville, one of it’s many locations. Here, Constance Richards is the art director. Both of these galleries bring a fine art scene to the cities, showcasing art from a different perspective than quirky booths and pop up galleries. And you start to see the mix. You see the mix of all different artists and art lovers that come together in both of these cities. “I would describe the scene as quite diverse as far as art-experiences – from walk-in studios in the River Arts District, to art emporiums and large downtown galleries.” She impressively rattled off numerous art experiences that take place in Asheville all year round that encompass everyone. “... Southern Highland Craft Guild, showcases artisans doing incredible traditional and contemporary craft, and the Asheville Area Arts Council is also a leader in showcasing emerging artists and student art.” She clearly knows this city, and it’s art, quite well.
You can tell she is proud of the city. “ The fact that we are so close to the beautiful nature that many artists depict is pretty spectacular. Not just galleries but also cafes and restaurants, shops, even the gas station near our hotel exhibits art for sale!” She’s reminding you of the last time you visited Asheville and making you want to go back.
You know she must be busy, so you ask her one last question. “Do you think Asheville is a place with a lot of opportunities for artists?” She answers: “Yes, but Asheville is not cheap these days. Many emerging artists are moving well-outside of town to find affordable housing and studio space.” And this answer rings with the all-too-familiar disappointment you found in everyone else you spoke to, each winding down their points to: “the city is great, but a lot of artists can’t afford to live here.”
You push through the door of a brightly coloured cafe and order a drink with a long name you’ll never remember. You look up at the art for sale on the walls and think of the paintings hanging in the gallery on Forsyth. The table is tattooed with stickers of small illustrations and the names of their creators. You can’t help but think if any of these artists actually live in the city.
You realize neither of these cities are perfect. They both have flaws. But unfortunately those flaws are the same, and it's frustrating. Cities are where artists go. It’s where they need to go. Being an artist is much easier when you have inspiration and other artists to collaborate with and learn from at your fingertips. Artists need the cities, they needs hubs to produce their work and share it. Savannah and Asheville are small cities. They aren't New York. They’re not San Francisco. And they’re not L.A. They’re not huge, but they have cultivated an art community that works in many ways. They have a booming tourist industry. They have unique local bars, restaurants, music venues, museums and galleries. They have local artists that are ready and willing to share their work, and paint the town with their colours. And each city just needs one last stroke on the canvas to cultivate an even better art community, a solid one. With better housing artists would not only flock to the cities, but they would stay. And so would you.