By Tom Poland
May 9, 2014
And We’re the Better for It
Author’s Note: None of the photos here appear in Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. 2. It is not Robert C. Clark’s work.
Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. 2, the new book Robert Clark and I co-authored, is set to debut. Together and alone we estimate we drove 20,000 miles compiling subject matter over the years. Seems worth it. Folks like it a lot. In fact, people keep trying to buy my advance copy. “It’s not for sale,” I told one fellow. That irked this well-heeled Charlestonian who insisted I sell it to him. “The advance copy,” I said, “is one you keep all your life.”
He can get one soon. An early shipment will be available to people attending the South Carolina Book Festival May 17 in Columbia where Robert and I are speaking. It will be released to the general public June 1.
Now the work is done and our trips and adventures are preserved between the covers. Of the book’s rich content, I especially like its artists. Some are writers; some are painters; and some are sculptors and potters. In it you’ll find Pat Conroy, Mary Alice Monroe, and Dorothea Benton Frank, all best-selling New York Times novelists. Mary Whyte and Jonathan Green are renowned painters. They’re in it. Grainger McKoy ranks among the most innovative sculptors of wildlife. He’s in it. All have a passion that drives their creativity, and like many artists, the roots of their art took hold in childhood.
Mary Alice Monroe wrote our foreword, “A State of Awe and Wonder.” She lives on the Isle of Palms. Her creative spark came from her family. Growing up, she and her nine brothers and sisters wrote and performed in their own plays and musicals. Her teachers encouraged her to write, and she pursued nonfiction and studied journalism.
Known today for her intimate portrayals of women’s lives, her writing gained added purpose and depth when she moved to the Lowcountry. An environmentalist, she draws themes for her novels from nature and its parallels with humanity, thus bringing attention to endangered species and our connection to the natural world. In particular, she champions the survival of loggerhead sea turtles. You’ll see her on page viii holding a newly hatched loggerhead.
Mary Alice Monroe helps a hatchling out of its nest.
Grainger McKoy achieved fame as a sculptor for the imaginative way he portrays birds in flight. As a child, he watched his father notching cypress logs for the cabin in which he grew up in the early 1950s. That, along with the mystery of an old decoy his grandmother gave from her attic, fired up something in him. His mother held him up by his belt letting him saw the end of a log from that cabin from which he carved his first bird. Carving a few birds and decoys as a teenager and working as a carpenter’s helper intensified his love for working with wood. You’ll find him on page 134 holding that very first bird he carved from the log cabin.
Pat Conroy credits his love of language to his mom, a beauty from Alabama. Pat needs little introduction other than this: whereas most people hide their family’s mental illness and foibles, Pat has long put his on the page for all to read. His work has explored the conflicts of his childhood, particularly his ambivalence for his violent and abusive father. Painfully exposing his family’s dark secret brought him a time of personal desolation. You’ll find him on page 175, entertaining friends in Beaufort at the Griffin Market, happier times for sure.
After moving from Philadelphia to Johns Island, watercolorist, teacher, and author Mary Whyte found inspiration in the Gullah descendents of coastal Carolina slaves. On page 194 she’s creating a reference work of Tesha, the cashier at the Rosebank Farms vegetable stand at Johns Island. Tesha graces the cover of Whyte’s book, Down Bohicket Road, which offers two decades’ worth of watercolors depicting a select group of Johns Island Gullah women and their stories.
Jonathan Green’s art with its bold colors, women in wide-brimmed hats, and sweeping Lowcountry vistas is unmistakable. He paints the scenes and people he knew as a child, pictures of what may well be a vanishing way of life. His work ranges from scenes of everyday life, such as a girl walking a dog, a woman hanging out laundry, and men picking oysters, to special occasions such as a wedding or a christening.
Being southern is of major importance to him as is coming from West Africa. (He traces his ancestry seven generations back to Senegal.) He was raised in Gardens Corner where he learned to speak the Gullah dialect and developed a strong feeling for his heritage. He wants to take the lead in healing the wounds that issue from slavery. His next project is to see monuments erected on plantations where many unknown slaves lie buried. See him and his art on page 249.
Dorothea Benton Frank wrote our back cover blurb, saying, “This is essential reading for all South Carolinians. Reflections of South Carolina is a gorgeous tour of our state’s endless treasured landscape. The words of Tom Poland and the photographs by Robert Clark will thrill you. It’s that good.” We thank her for her praise.
You’ll find other artists with their own passions in our book. On page is 13 aptly named Nancy Basket, a Cherokee who makes beautiful baskets from kudzu. Ted Travers, page 55, uses a Stihl chainsaw to carve bears and Indian chiefs from stumps and tree trunks. He also appropriately named Ike Carpenter of Edgefield makes rustic beautiful furniture from wood using tools much as Colonial pioneers did. You’ll see him at pioneer reenactments and you’ll find him on page 61.
William Harris, chief of the Catawba Indian Nation, makes Catawba pottery as his forbears did, saying, “The tradition of pottery making among the Catawba, unchanged since before recorded history, links the lives of modern Catawba to our ancestors and symbolizes our connection to the earth and to the land and river we love. Like our pottery, the Catawba people have been created from the earth, and have been shaped and fired over time and so have survived many hardships to provide a living testament to our ancestors and to this place we call home.” See him and his work on pages 70 and 71.
In Mount Pleasant, Elizabeth Eady makes sweetgrass baskets just as her Aunt Katherine taught her long ago. She sits and weaves, working the grass with a filed-down spoon. Slowly a work of art forms whose symmetry, precision, and alternating colors give sweetgrass baskets their classic appearance. See Elizabeth and her beautiful baskets on pages 182, 183, and 184.
Elizabeth Eady along the Sweetgrass Highway
Bluffton potter Jacob Preston, page 211, has been a full-time potter for nearly forty years. He has lived in Bluffton since the mid-1970s, working most of that time in a live-work compound that is a retired church, the Bluffton Tabernacle.
A colleague from my days at South Carolina Wildlife, Ben McC. Moïse, spent close to a quarter-century as a game warden, what we today call a “conservation officer.” Ben’s trudged through mud, through swamps, and over coastal waters protecting natural resources. Now retired and a freelance writer, his work appears in Garden & Gun magazine. He’s the author of Ramblings of a Lowcountry Game Warden. For sure, this Charleston resident with a honey-sweet southern accent is a teller of tales and a knowledgeable outdoorsman. You’ll find him and his decoys and calls on pages 228 and 229.
All in all, these artists make a fine contribution to our book. All have passions that make our lives more enjoyable. And if there’s a lesson here, it’s to encourage children to pursue art. What starts out as an amusement or way to seek healing may well lead to a career of passion and beauty. And we all know this world needs all the passion and beauty it can muster.
Tom Poland is the author of seven books and more than 700 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press will soon release his and Robert Clark’s book, Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture.
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