MARY GILKERSON’S MINERVAVILLE LIGHT By Quitman Marshall
Mary Gilkerson wants to use the dirt of Lower Richland to make paint. As she drove us, on the second day of spring, through a landscape she loves, she explained the ease of that process, the mortar and pestle of it, and her delight in the range of ochres in the clay and even the lavenders it shares with the trees just greening above it. Our movement wasn’t really a drive in the country; it was more a weaving through the background, subject matter, affection, context, and intention of her art. All these things, with the skills accumulated from moving paint around for decades, transfer onto the paintings she’s made along Minervaville, Elm Savannah, Weston, and other small back roads in the suddenly and surprisingly rural country south of Columbia.
Drained by Cabin Branch, Cedar Creek, and Dry Branch, Gilkerson’s subject terrain leans toward the Congaree Swamp, and she has made paintings there that catch the many strains of light that the great trees break and gather to themselves. Capping a recent residency, she painted three walls of an alcove in the swamp’s visitor’s center with a mural depicting seasonal changes in that vast shelter of the imagination. Benches are also there along the walls to rest a visitor’s body and perhaps to thrill his heart and mind with what he will or has seen.
Good art often delivers a thrill, a jolt, which might be followed by a challenge. “Take care of what you see” might be one. “Respect your eyes prior to your mind’s first impression or projection” could be another challenge. “Save your world” is perhaps one more. You can add your own. The challenge to the first landscape architects of Lower Richland was how to preserve their vast system of forced labor and their fortunes made in slaves and cotton. They had little time for any art native to their circumstances. They preferred portraits of themselves in dark, formal costumes, pictures that reinforced their fragile positions atop an unsustainable food chain. They come down to us as ghosts, would-be aristocrats who briefly controlled their time.
The history of putting pigment on some surface in order to commemorate events —to give them a longer life than ours—goes back at least as far as the Lascaux cave painters. The pictures may include people, how she or he or an odd clutch of Spanish royalty or a group of Dutch burghers were seen by an artist at a certain time. The events may have seemed terribly important, and sometimes a genre called historical painting elevates or seeks to preserve that importance. The artist might hope to be elevated along with the event depicted. Sometimes the people and the events are myths, products of the imagination, fantasies, gods and goddesses, nymphs and satyrs. In our time, the events can be the paintings themselves: how colors, lines, forms, and gestures interact.
The material of life transferred onto a surface is open to interpretation or left to the imagination of the viewer. Actually, this has always been so.
Edward Ball, who has notably revealed himself as the scion of a slaveholding family, recently wrote in The New York Times that “in white memory the plantations of the antebellum South were like a necklace of country clubs strewn across the land.” The “p” word still spells success in real estate, or it would have gone out of use long ago. But, as Ball goes on, “In reality, [plantations] were a chain of work camps in which four million were imprisoned,” and he observes a continuing “resonance” of slavery across our country. Where I live now on the coast, residents of St. Helena Island, black and white, still identify themselves as living on ground named for plantations such as Orange Grove or Oaks or Scott or Tombee. The so-called “power of place” in the South, the pull of the region, cannot be separated from its painful history, and that history profoundly separates the region from American exceptionalism. As I write, another anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is passing. How many visitors to Manhattan, perhaps on their way to the 9/11 memorials, linger over that shameful tragedy of 1911, that leaping from windows to escape the flames? Actually, there are no exceptions.
Lower Richland County, in the half century before the Civil War, was defined by a dozen or more large plantations whose owners brooked no towns. Some, like James Hopkins Adams, could send their children away to be educated in the capitals of Europe. Others, like Keziah Hopkins Brevard, childless, widowed by another Southern man with a drinking problem, and left, a woman alone, responsible for huge holdings and hundreds of inherited slaves, were afraid of places where other people, including slaves, might congregate. They were terrified of what might happen with any slippage in white social control. To this day, Richland County south of Columbia contains no incorporated towns but Eastover, whose population at the last census was only 813. All that said, this history has bequeathed advantages: beautiful rural retreats close by tired city dwellers; landscapes that time held long enough for preservation as Congaree National Park, the Cowasee Basin, and in the many easements gathered by the Congaree Land Trust. Artists have a worthy and weighty subject down there.
Mary Gilkerson has made the fields and treelines along Minervaville Road and the nearby lanes between Cedar Creek and Cabin Branch her great subject. She has painted them over and over again. Roman goddess of wisdom and the arts, Minerva was often borrowed for the naming of schools, and a Minervaville Academy, with the village that grew around it, was born around 1800 in Lower Richland. That smudge of civitas lasted but a few years. Inherent troubles needed a place to gather and expend themselves; Minervaville developed a reputation for rowdiness that doomed it as a town and took the school down with it. The whole place was plowed under, and today Minervaville Road traverses one of the widest single expanses of cultivated farmland in the county. While nothing remains of the town and school but a historical marker, a better spirit of Minerva continues there in Gilkerson’s painting the changing light across the fields. The art that comes of it is a song of praise and—Gilkerson knows this well—a kind of redemption of the past and of passing time.
Decades of apprenticeship to the engagements of oil paint, eye, and hand come to bear on her paintings, some no bigger than a modem or a paperback novel, some completed en plein air in one day, paintings applied to a landscape through all its subtle seasonal shifts, under the often dramatic changes of weather and light and time of day, a landscape that has also been cultivated for at least three centuries. The weather in Minervaville—Afternoon Clouds mounts toward the viewer in clouds whose high whiteness tries to corral the mauve and lavender underbellies threatening to dissolve into blue. The golden field seems to have forced this drifting, and the deep green line of trees in the distance keeps pulling clouds from the western horizon. Already the dark eastern faces of the three “tree islands” with their “sky holes” (Gilkerson’s phrases) tell us of the coming night. Summer Backroad with its deep, cool shadows is a nearby shelter from the sun, reminding us of our bare feet in the red dirt of the road, which looks good enough to eat, or to make paint.
Gilkerson’s daily practice with oils in the landscape fed and was fed by her mastery of monotypes, whose making is a one-time, rapid process—paint laid down on Plexiglas and run through a press. Perhaps monotypes share something with Rorschach tests: in Gilkerson’s hands they certainly pack a psychological punch and often a visionary quality reminiscent of Charles Burchfield. Blue Road, for example, quivers with swampy melancholy. (In Lower Richland, all roads lead to swamp.) It’s part of the monotype process that the colors seem to have been stopped just on the verge of bleeding into one another. Controlled by this artist, the process offers one revelation after another. In Cabin Creek with Poles, Spring anxious tree forms, penetrated by the negative white space of the sky, dwarf cross-tied Golgotha telephone poles even as the branches strain to touch the swirling blue oval above it all. The excitements and pleasures of her monotypes come together in Storm Over Grove, in the slashing horizontals of the field, the huddled but sturdy grove (tree islands, again, with holes), and the heaving cloud mass that seems torn by a dilemma: whether to whirl down into the trees from which it has taken its colors or to simply tear the lower half of the picture plane apart.
The fields and roads that Gilkerson paints are often the same road, the same field, painted again and again. She has written, “Painting a subject [over and over] helps you to see [it] in a deeper way. And seeing deeply is a way of knowing deeply…I’m very interested in a sense of place, in our connection to geographic, physical space and how it grounds us not just as humans, but as animals who live in an environment.” Her dynamic compressions of time, space, nature, and human effort start compelling stories that the forceful compositions, chromatic brio, and overall lush visual delight of her work carries on and completes. Her responses to places and to time passing around a vanished Minervaville, its earth and sky, both portray and become significant events.
Columbia, S.C., native Quitman Marshall (b. 1951) is a poet and author who has thought and written extensively about the Lower Richland area of Richland County, S.C., including the Congaree swamp. His book-length manuscript Swampitude: Escapes With the Congaree is "the story of the swamp at the center of all of us and some escapes back into it." His book of poems You Were Born One Time (Ninety-Six Press, Furman University, 2014) was the winner of the 2013 South Carolina Poetry Archives Book Prize. He lives in Beaufort, S.C.