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The Gibbes' Anna Heyward Taylor: Intrepid Explorer pays tribute to an artistic pioneer

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Sometimes, when presented with the biographical info of historically significant figures, we simply accept the facts and events of their lives without truly appreciating them. Take Anna Heyward Taylor, for example. The artist and printmaker was one of the most revered figures of the Charleston renaissance, a period between the world wars that saw a flood of talented artists, writers, architects, and historical preservationists come together to improve the city.

When we read that during her life, the Columbia-born Taylor traveled to Holland, England, Japan, Korea, and China, we simply accept that as a fact of her life, rather than thinking about how rare it was for a woman, let alone a Southern woman, to be able to do all that adventuring during the years that Taylor lived, 1879-1956.

And when we learn that many of the vivid watercolor paintings, woodblock prints, and textile designs featured in a new exhibition of Taylor's work at the Gibbes Museum of Art were inspired by an extended expedition to British Guiana with respected naturalist William Beebe, we might think she was merely a tourist. But in fact, she was Beebe's staff artist, entrusted with rendering the many species of plants and animals that the expedition uncovered. Indeed, one of Taylor's passions was combining art and science, which the British Guiana expedition gave her the perfect opportunity to do.

We as casual observers may not think about the details behind these facts, but Pam Wall, exhibitions consultant at the Gibbes Museum, certainly does. She studied Taylor extensively while pursuing her master's degree in art history at the University of South Carolina and became a passionate admirer of the boundary-breaking artist.

"She was this woman who studied art and had this great love of art, but also had this love of travel," Wall says. "And was in a situation where she was able to travel. She had a certain amount of wealth and so she was able to go all over the world."

Wall is the key curator of the new Taylor exhibition, called Anna Heyward Taylor: Intrepid Explorer, which focuses almost entirely on the work that Taylor did during the jungle expeditions she took to British Guiana in the 1920s.

Anna Heyward Taylor was a Renaissance woman - WILLIAM MERRITT CHASE/COURTESY GIBBES, CAA
  • William Merritt Chase/courtesy Gibbes, CAA
  • Anna Heyward Taylor was a Renaissance woman

"I think of what that must have been like going to the jungle during that era, and I find it really fascinating," Wall says. "But really, what pushed me to focus on British Guiana was that we found that there was this incredible stash of her paintings from that era at the Charleston Museum that we didn't realize were there until now. That discovery is what led to this exhibition."

Wall and other art historians were aware that Taylor's family had donated a great deal of her work, but they weren't sure exactly where it was, at least until the Charleston Museum's archivist Jennifer McCormick began scanning the paintings and other works.

"It was a thrill," Wall says of discovering Taylor's art. "These are the things that we as art historians hope for. You do a lot of searching and you hope someday you'll have something like this and it's exciting to be able to look through them."

The Charleston Museum archive also includes other region-related works by Taylor, and some of what she created while in Mexico is part of the Gibbes exhibition, as well. But the focus is largely on what she did in British Guiana because it combines two seemingly incompatible disciplines.

"We're really focusing on her interest in both art and science," Wall says, "and this work really brings together her love of both. She was interested in botanical work and collecting plant specimens and at the same time she had this love of art. She found this endless inspiration for artistic work in science. In fact, while she was in the jungle, she says in her letters that she was gathering source material for future work in woodblock prints. So she was thinking about working in different media while she was in the jungle studying these scientific phenomena."

And don't be surprised if there are regionally themed exhibits of Taylor's work at the Gibbes in the future, because Wall is excited about the prospect of exposing Taylor's work in a historical context.

"It's just a thrill to know that others can enjoy her work now as well," she says. "And there's a lot of material out there."

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