Spoleto 2013 » Visual Arts

City Gallery show features a musical dog, Flannery O'Connor, and historic Gullah architecture

Story Time

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Bartholomeux is a lonely little dog. He tries playing the trombone, but it doesn't stick. Then he discovers the piccolo, which, it turns out, he loves. He practices and practices, and one day a bird hears him and tells him how good he sounds. The bird tells other birds, and suddenly Bartholomeux is playing for flocks of them. He isn't lonely anymore.

This is a loose outline of the story that Nathan Durfee tells in the 24 paintings he'll display in Piccolo Spoleto's Tales Transposed: A Celebration of the Imagination, which will hang in the City Gallery. The series grew out of the Piccolo Spoleto poster Durfee created for this year's festival. It depicts a befeathered Bartholomeux playing his piccolo for an appreciative animal audience, many of whom seem to be joining in with their own instruments. "The idea behind the work is that you need to find what you love to do, but as an artist you need to also find your audience," Durfee says. "And that's what Piccolo does."

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It's a different approach for Durfee — although his paintings nearly always imply some sort of narrative, this is the first time that he's devoted a show to a single protagonist. "So often my shows are done kind of by the spaghetti method," he says, referring to the multitude of usually unconnected characters, scenes, and stories that he includes in a single exhibit. "It wasn't as important that the story arc was fleshed out. With this series, I wanted to do my best to tell a whole story. It's a different exploration for me, thinking of the show as a story."

That way of thinking, along with the amount of space offered by the City Gallery, has given him some interesting artistic challenges as well as opportunities. For one, this show will feature the largest painting he's ever done — an eight-by-three-foot dreamscape. It features an expanse of feathers that slowly grow into trees in an M.C. Escher-like progression. That's something Durfee hasn't tried before.

Collectors and fans of his work will notice other new stylistic touches as well, like tree trunks that look like stained glass and thicker, heavier lines. He also plays with different color palettes in this series. There's a lot to be excited about here, as Durfee seems to be both adding tools to his artistic toolbox, and continuing to develop the humorous, poignant, fantastical narrative approach that he's become so well-known for.

Durfee will be joined for Tales Tranposed by two other Southeastern artists, paper artist Lillian Trettin and sculptor Judy Mooney. In keeping with the imaginative storytelling theme of the exhibit, Trettin's paper collages and free-standing paper figures are inspired by Southern literature, especially the works of Flannery O'Connor. The pieces are intricate, colorful, and darkly cartoonish, very like the stories that inspired them. "O'Connor ... wrote stories of dark humor and vernacular color about eccentric characters, often placing them in uncomfortable or dangerous situations of their own making," says exhibit curator Eleanor Smythe. "These stories are transposed into Trettin's visual images like 'Tattoo Trash,' 'Judgement Day,' and 'Family Feud.'

Mooney, who works in clay and bronze, will show a collection of interpretations of Gullah vernacular architecture, like praise houses, one-room cabins, and tabby cabins. Mooney became interested in exploring Gullah buildings after meeting a Gullah woman at one of her shows several years ago. "One of the sculptures was of an African-American woman with two children named The Story Teller," she says. "[This woman] was attracted to the sculpture. She told me she was a Gullah storyteller and invited me to come visit her. The rest is history."

Each type of structure that Mooney creates tells a story about the community's history, she says. The praise houses, for example, are where enslaved Africans were able to maintain some of their spiritual traditions, which have been carried on through today by their descendants. The tiny cabins, which housed enslaved Africans on plantations, carry literal stories within them. "The chimneys held tales of local ghosts that were told nightly as the family gathered near the fire," Mooney says.

We just hope those ghost stories don't scare Bartholomeux.

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