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Local galleries present shows featuring neighborhoods North of Calhoun

History Lesson



You're in a gallery, looking at two beautiful paintings. One is called "The Wind-Up," painted by Andrée Ruellan. It depicts a group of children playing baseball near some railroad tracks, with industrial smokestacks in the background. The other, called "Charleston Slum," painted by Edward Hopper, is a more somber work, showing dilapidated homes and an abandoned field. Both paintings are by highly regarded artists, both in their typical respective styles: Ruellan's is warmer, more sentimental, and filled with people. Hopper's is more bleak and focused on the structures themselves.

After taking both paintings in, you might start to notice some similarities. The roofs on the main buildings in each painting are different colors, but the structures look the same. The smaller houses in each painting look even more similar. The fields, one empty, one with children playing, are alike enough that it might be what finally brings the surprise home: These two paintings are of the same place in Charleston, created seven years apart. Hopper painted his in 1929 — Ruellan in 1936.

"It's really a couple of snapshots of a single city block in Charleston," says Sara Arnold, Curator of Collections at the Gibbes Museum of Art where both paintings are being shown as part of an exhibition called Perspectives On Place. "And the artists interpreted the site based on their individual styles."

This is the first time the two works have been brought together, for a collection that focuses on different paintings of the same neighborhood on the east side of the Charleston peninsula, above Calhoun Street. Other artists featured include Prentiss Taylor, Charles W. Smith, and Francis Benjamin Johnson.

There was a time when Ruellan's painting wouldn't have been part of a collection like this. In fact, it's only recently that historians and experts realized that Ruellan's painting was based on a Charleston location at all.

"In 2006, we did an exhibition bringing together all of Hopper's paintings of Charleston," Arnold says. "And 'Charleston Slum' was part of that exhibition. We were able, with the help of historians and archivists to identify the structures in Hopper's painting of being 54 and 56 Washington St., and we were able to isolate the block where he was working. And then we discovered that two paintings by Ruellan were of the same block. It's been published that it's about a Savannah scene. It's been called a general American factory town, but given the time she spent in Charleston, we can say for certain that this lot played a role in forming her painting."

What's even more interesting is that Ruellan and Hopper knew each other and were friends, but there's no evidence to suggest that they ever spoke about the place or their respective paintings with each other.

"We don't know if it was coincidental," Arnold says. "What we do know is that Andrée knew Hopper. Hopper came to Charleston for three weeks in 1929, she came in 1936, and they both went to the same area, which was a little bit of a suburb which was largely industrial. But it's interesting that they were both drawn to that area."

Arnold did some research on what was going on in that area of town in 1929 and 1936, and she found some information that might explain why Hopper's work is so much more somber than Ruellan's, other than their differing styles.

"They show the scene in very different ways," she says. "In Hopper's scene, there are no figures, it's very desolate, a little bit lonely. Whereas Ruellan depicts it as a much more lively place, and the central feature of her painting is a baseball game. That led me to look for what was on that block back then, and it turns out that in 1932, the city set aside a parcel of land that was owned by the Charleston Dry Dock & Machine Company as a segregated playground for African Americans. In 1929 it was a vacant lot, and in 1936 it was a playground. Baseball had become hugely popular, and around that time you see articles in the local papers saying that baseball had taken over every vacant lot in town. So that explains some of the difference between the paintings."

Ultimately, though, Arnold says the paintings are perfect examples of different artistic perspectives. "Ruellan liked showing everyday life and leisure activities," she says. "With Hopper, you see scenes that are more industrial and lonely. Hopper was known to look for these more off-the-beaten-path, more desolate parts of a city. It's a story of discovery because it allows us to focus on what was going on in that block at a certain time. But it's also a story of how each artist approached it based on their interests and their styles."

"Seat me by a window," by Laurie Meyer is inspired by the neighborhoods of Radcliffeborough and Cannonborough/Elliotborough - COURTESY MEYER VOGL GALLERY
  • Courtesy Meyer Vogl Gallery
  • "Seat me by a window," by Laurie Meyer is inspired by the neighborhoods of Radcliffeborough and Cannonborough/Elliotborough

In her new exhibition, North of Calhoun, painter Laurie Meyer takes us on a tour through the past while pointing towards Charleston's future. Using the neighborhoods of Radcliffeborough and Cannonborough/Elliotborough as her inspiration, Meyer has created blurred, almost dreamlike portraits of homes, street corners, and restaurants that mix the old (Dave's Seafood and Hominy Grill) and the new (Xiao Bao Biscuit). It's a collection meant to show the value of preserving parts of the city's history while also acknowledging the inevitable tide of change.

"Charleston has an enviable status of being one of the most beautiful historic cities in the world," Meyer says. "Preservation, gentrification, and growth are energies that work together and are also at odds with each other. In the neighborhoods I depict in the show, I feel a sense of awe at the responsible and honorable growth in Radcliffeborough and Elliottborough. This is the reason for the show: my admiration for those who choose not to lose the essence of the structures."

It's a crystal-clear aesthetic when Meyer speaks about it, but finding her subjects is a less precise process. Often she's led by her less straightforward instincts. "As an artist, I'm drawn to abstract shapes in logical situations," she says. "I may see a layering of structures with glowing sunlight and beautiful colors and know the composition is right. There's a gut feeling or intuition that is inherent. It's hard to describe, but once I know the theme of a show, the last thing I look for are obvious subjects."

One of the most moving paintings in North Of Calhoun is a portrait called "Alexander Ham." An African-American man, perhaps in his 50s or 60s, stares out from the painting with a passive but haunted look, his eyes conveying resignation, hesitation, suspicion — and a powerful inner strength. There's a sense of dignity in the painting that Meyer sees throughout her subjects, whether they're human or structural.

"I felt that dignity with the renovation of the Westendorff Hardware Store (now Stella's), which was honorable," she says. "Xiao Bao Biscuit kept the feel of the original structure while offering a fabulous new interior. Another highlight was the dignified restoration of the home of a 70-year Cannon Street resident. In the midst of all the change, this home stands beautiful and proud, as does the owner."

Meyer's inspiration for these paintings first came during the construction of the Ravenel Bridge. "I'd often sit in standstill traffic on streets off of East Bay while trying to cross over to Mt. Pleasant," she says. "To me, the inconvenience was an opportunity to stop and observe the interesting and mysterious structures there, many of which were derelict. I knew that once the bridge was complete and traffic patterns were reestablished, I'd never see these scenes again. So I painted them. The theme came back to haunt me as I saw the rapid changes occurring on Spring and Cannon streets. What was will no longer be. I guess I felt the need to record history as it is now, because in a few years, it could be very different."

That might be the ultimate message of North of Calhoun: slow down and take a look at the history in Charleston's people and places before they disappear.

"I hope that people see that I have found beauty where they may think beauty doesn't exist," she says. "I want them to know that Charleston is beautiful North of Calhoun but change is coming fast. This show truly is a love letter to the city of Charleston and the families who have inhabited these neighborhoods for generations."

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