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Local artists and poets team up for an influential exhibit

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On a cold winter night five months ago, 10 local contemporary artists gathered with 10 local poets at City Gallery to "cross-pollinate." Some of the artists had never met, while others were well acquainted; some were teachers of art and some were recent students. The one thing they shared was an invitation to participate in this year's Contemporary Charleston exhibit. The names of poets were written on a piece of paper, put into a bowl, and each artist stepped forward to draw a name. Then, like a science experiment, the newly paired duos went off into separate corners to see what they could create.

The idea for the show came from a partnership between City Gallery Coordinator Erin Glaze and local artist Max Miller. The two wanted to bring artists and poets together for the annual Contemporary Charleston show with an interactive exhibit. Part of their criteria was to highlight a selection of local artists working in a variety of mediums. "We wanted a good cross section of emerging and established artists and poets," Miller says.

Glaze and Miller hoped to give each artist the freedom to find inspiration within the poems without any restrictions. Some artists focused on one particular poem, while others were inspired by a certain phrase or an overall theme. Glaze says the exhibit combines past and present: "It's a collaboration through dialogue."

The exhibit includes a 38-minute documentary by filmmaker Austin Nelson. In one clip, Jonathan Sanchez reads poetry while Julio Cotto paints inside a jail cell on the set of Army Wives. Viewers will also get the chance to examine sketches, read the books of poetry on display, and attend artist lectures, demonstrations, and poetry readings.

Julio Cotto says this is "probably the strongest work I've ever done." Paired with Sanchez, Cotto was inspired by seasonal themes within the poems. In "Winter," Sanchez writes of "Winter's absolute last gasp." Cotto took this phrase and created a large portrait of a woman (his ex-girlfriend, as of last winter) wearing an animal hood. "I wanted to combine the beautiful and the fierce," Cotto says.

Artist Scott Debus says he shares a "similar life philosophy" with his partner, poet Brian Penberthy. After meeting for coffee and reading the poems in Penberthy's Lucktown, Debus was inspired to create art in opposition to the dark writing. The end result is 10 paintings and a mural with a carnival theme. "Breathing and Breeding" is done on a loosely stretched canvas inside a 6-by-3 foot shadow box that moves and vibrates like a carnival ride. The colorful images are frenetic and cartoonish with overlapping figures in a graffiti style. A pair of paintings in a funhouse mirror-style are done on warped wood in the size and shape of a full-length mirror, revealing distorted figures. Debus was so intrigued by the process of creating the mirrors that he wants to continue working with this carnival concept.

Paired with poet and College of Charleston professor Paul Allen, Benjamin Hollingsworth, who has been making a name for his art in New York, returned to Charleston to be a part of the show. Influenced by a poem titled "Cliché," Hollingsworth realized that he didn't just want to illustrate Allen's message; he wanted to create art that reflected his response to the poetry. Working in stages, Hollingsworth layered Allen's message with his own response, with the final stage representing a merging of ideas. Using a linear style, Hollingsworth created six large-scale mixed media canvases titled "Shoot the Messenger." Arrows woven throughout the work lead the viewer through the separate panels, ending in an installation piece that is shot through with actual arrows, "like a period at the end of a sentence."

In her poem "Hand," Katherine Williams writes, "Morning seeped in under the door as blue fog." Kat Hastie says she could "imagine that fog filling the space." Hastie took Williams' book of poems home and read them in bed at night, searching for a poem she "could get [her] arms around visually." Hastie wanted to approach the work conceptually, to respond to the structure, rhythm, movement, and beat of the poem. The process has taken her into "a new realm to how [she] approaches work," giving her the freedom to work with different materials such as copper, gold leaf, found boards painted blue, and roofing materials. Using 38 15-by-11-inch canvases, Hastie says, "I wanted to make mine highly structured, to give the sense of opening a book."

Max Miller says there is a "strong visual element" within Morrow Dowdle's poems and that this project "forced new inspiration." Miller gave himself the freedom to approach his work in a different manner. His 15 pieces convey a layering of images resembling double-exposed photographs.

Other artist and poet pairings include Lynne Riding and Ellie Davis, Jocelyn Chateauvert and Carol Peters, Sarah Haynes and Dennis Ward Stiles, Hirona Matsuda and Marcus Amaker, and Timothy Pakron and Carol Ann Davis.

Five months after the initial pairings, spring has arrived, and the Lowcountry is thick with the scent of blossoming jasmine. Inside the City Gallery, these influences have come to fruition. Just in time for Spoleto, Contemporary Charleston will reveal an abundance of talented, homegrown artists. Like gardeners or scientists or simply people with a vision, Glaze and Miller have delivered a unique hybrid of art.

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