Each year, the Greater Augusta Arts Counci recognizes outstanding members of the Augusta community for their support and contributions to the arts.
There’s color everywhere, brilliant swaths of oil paint popping from six-foot-by-four-foot canvases standing three rows deep around the perimeter of the studio. “I do like color—guilty as charged,” smiles artist Philip Morsberger, wearing a checkered button-up shirt brushed with errant paint marks. Over the course of a nearly six-decade-long career, Morsberger has held influential teaching positions in both Britain and the United States while developing his distinctive style of abstract expressionism, which has garnered significant critical discussion and has been showcased in museums and galleries in Manhattan, San Francisco, Charleston and Miami. Morsberger settled in Augusta more than 18 years ago, when he accepted the Morris Eminent Scholar in Arts chair at Georgia Regents University (then Augusta State University). Since retiring from that post in 2002, he has remained active as an exhibiting artist, maintaining an iconic status treasured by the local arts community.
“I paint seven days a week unfailingly,” says Morsberger, who studied at the Carnegie Institute and Oxford University, where he was also the Ruskin Master of Drawing—a position from which he developed a full-blown art department at the university. “What I tend to do is start by just shoving paint around. Once I get the canvas kind of covered in marks and blobs of color I start to look at it the way a normal person might look at it. I start to see a turtle or an airplane or a head. So the image starts to present itself. It’s a batty way of going about doing things.” With the bold manifestation of figures, faces and characters comes an impressive body of artwork that integrates realism, abstraction and the American comic-strip tradition.
There’s a story threading through his canvases and a recurring character: a smiling man in a hat that Morsberger says is based on his father, who encouraged him when he started drawing newspaper-inspired comics as a boy. The artist’s childhood memories, palpable energy and charming sense of humor play out in the paint with, in some moments, an entrancing vulnerability and in others an old-soul stoicism. “When it’s really going well I feel like a conduit. You hold on to the brush for dear life and stuff just happens.” Although Morsberger’s paintings are an extension of his imagination and his experiences, his ultimate goal is that these pieces are a gift to the viewer. “A painting isn’t finished until someone is looking at it. No two people will see the same thing in a painting. Every painting is a different thing every time it is being looked at.”
Through the politics and the press, the meetings and negotiations, Mayor Deke Copenhaver has prevailed as a visionary during his nine years in office, attributing his forethought, optimism and effective communication to a type of artistic process. “The great thing about the arts to me is that it’s really helped me to learn creative problem solving, which is something that I use every day in this job,” he says. “It often seems like politics is black and white; it’s one party or the other party.” But, he continues, his resounding appreciation of the arts has allowed him to approach issues from every angle. “I’ve always thought of Augusta as a palette. It’s not either or; it’s, OK, how are we gonna mix these two paints to get the appropriate color? And if we need to mix in a third one, that’s fine,” he adds.
Copenhaver has navigated that palette with an unprecedented dexterity, mediating people’s differences to illuminate what he describes as pieces of blank canvas within the city. “We’ve built the new judicial center, the new library and the new law enforcement center since I’ve been mayor. One of the biggest things for me has been the closure of Broad Street during Arts in the Heart. That was a long effort to get to that point where you could create that kind of space for the festival.” In his leadership, Copenhaver has been candid and steadfast in his support of the arts, remaining diligent in initiatives such as Artspace. Based in Minneapolis, Artspace is a national leader in the field of developing affordable space that meets the needs of artists through the adaptive reuse of historic buildings and new construction. Since Artspace developers visited Augusta in 2012, Copenhaver has been a proponent of the concept and envisions a major public-private partnership to help fund facilities and affordable residential space that will “create an ecosystem where artists can thrive.”
“One of my goals since becoming mayor has been to recruit and retain the best and brightest young minds to Augusta,” says Copenhaver, emphasizing that part of achieving that goal is to ensure a vibrant arts scene. “People don’t realize the direct correlation between arts and economic development… Working with the Augusta arts community is something I will probably do for the rest of my life. All the ingredients are there for a major arts renaissance in Augusta and that’s what I want to make happen…I’m not going anywhere. It’s much more than a time in office; it’s more of a life’s work.” u
His biggest pet peeve is a bored person in Augusta. “It kills me when people say that there’s nothing to do,” says Mark Hodges, creative services director for WRDW-TV News 12. “They need to look at my board in the office or at the community calendar on [the station’s] website. There’s something going on every weekend. There are no excuses.” Many events are, of course, arts related and for these Hodges harbors a special fondness, often utilizing his position in local media to focus promotional efforts on the arts community. “I feel like a strong arts community is imperative to establish downtown Augusta as a destination, and it helps local businesses and the city as a whole,” he says. “You look at places like Asheville, Charlotte, Charleston or Savannah, and that’s in part why people want to go there. To me, [arts are] the heart of a city.”
A graduate of the University of Georgia with a degree in telecommunications arts, Hodges has worked in marketing, advertising and video production for the past 20 years in the Augusta area, including WRDW, WAGT NBC 26, and M3 Agency. As director of creative services, Hodges feels he has the ability to positively influence the community like never before, building the department as the face of the station in terms of sponsorships. In tandem with developing WRDW’s sponsorship activities, Hodges has been instrumental in supporting media coverage of the Augusta Players (he has personally been doing their commercials and public service announcements since around 2000), Arts in the Heart, Tuesday’s Music Live, the Augusta Choral Society, the Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival, Garden City Jazz and the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History. “I cover arts events or fundraisers whenever I can or I try to push them to the news department,” says Hodges.
In addition to his role in television, Hodges writes a regular music column for Augusta Magazine, penning updates and commentary on the latest local action in a variety of genres, from Americana and folk to rock and jazz. “Music is the heartbeat of the community. That’s how you cross all barriers and build those bridges; it’s something everybody understands,” says Hodges, who has played guitar for 30 years and is a member of Breaking News, a band featuring employees of local TV stations. “I love all different types of music. That diversity is what creates that common bond. When you expose yourself to something new it gives you that creative energy in a lot ways.”
Georgia Bank & Trust
Daniel Blanton will never forget her voice. He was on the panel for a talent competition at the Augusta Exchange Club’s Georgia-Carolina State Fair. The singer was a student at Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School and her performance was so compelling that she not only won the competition, but she was also hired by the Blantons to entertain at their Christmas party several years in a row. “If it hadn’t been for Davidson she’d be sitting right here in Augusta, Georgia,” says Blanton of the young singer who took her talent to New York City and eventually became an entertainment director for a cruise line, utilizing her creative skills all around the world. “I’m continually amazed with the programs that [Davidson] does. A good education in the arts…is very important as younger children mature; an understanding of the arts is very important.”
As chief executive officer of Southeastern Bank Financial Corporation and Georgia Bank & Trust, Blanton’s leadership has always reflected his passion for supporting the arts and various nonprofit organizations in the community that he has called home his entire life. A graduate of Georgia Military College, Blanton received his B.S. from Clemson University in 1973 and began his banking career in Augusta in 1976. He received further training at the Georgia Banking School in 1982 and graduated from the Graduate School of Banking of the South at Louisiana State University. “As we [GB&T] have grown and prospered in the community our ability to do [sponsorships] has grown,” says Blanton, who has served on the boards and committees of many civic and charitable organizations including the Family Y, Sacred Heart Cultural Center, United Way, the Augusta Museum of History, Historic Augusta, the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Augusta Symphony League.
In 2013, GB&T sponsored 28 arts-related organizations. “…The arts suffer the most with an economic downturn,” says Blanton. But these creative groups, he adds, are important to establishing the overall balance in a community and adding “that polish” to take our city’s attractiveness to the next level. Blanton’s commitment to philanthropic involvement has inspired GB&T staff at all levels to become immersed in volunteer work and serve on different boards. It’s not unusual to see 10 to 15 GB&T employees participating in a given fundraiser or local event. “This is their community and they want to see their bank involved. It’s our opportunity to give back.”
Frances “Panny” Force
Some things just run in your blood. Frances “Panny” Force claims a lineage of volunteer artists whose impact on Augusta continues to be remembered and realized to this day. Her father was a “community worker emeritus” who drafted the architectural blueprints for some of the old school buildings in Richmond County and her mother an artist who offered lessons to neighborhood children and painted portraits of Augusta College presidents that have remained with the institution through its evolution. After retiring in 2002 from teaching elementary school in Richmond County, Force signed up for classes at the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art and further immersed herself in fundraising for various organizations. Now she is leaving footprints from her own philanthropic journey in sharing, celebrating and supporting the arts.
“Knowing what a pleasure it was for [my mother] to have her things put in places where she knew they’d be kept and treasured—that’s why I’ve enjoyed giving my originals to St. James United Methodist Church, Trinity on the Hill and Sacred Heart,” says Force. Skilled in watercolor and collage, the Sacred Heart Guild member’s work includes still life, landscape and depictions of Augusta’s historic buildings. Although she has been a featured artist in local exhibitions, Force is not so much focused on showcasing her talent as she is being generous with it. Each year, she donates pieces to the Undercover Artists Show for the Walton Foundation for Independence, Aquinas High School’s annual fundraiser and the Greater Augusta Arts Council’s Wet Paint Party and Show.
In addition to painting, Force serves as the president of the board of directors for the Augusta Choral Society, a group she believes reflects the vibrancy of the arts in Augusta and engenders joy through its celebration of community music. Fervently maintaining an active role at the helm of the organization, Force has demonstrated dynamic leadership by participating as a player and co-chair for all six of the society’s golf tournament fundraisers. She says she overcomes the challenges of fundraising by remembering her days at the Augusta chapter of the American Red Cross. “I learned from Mary Lou Reynolds [former Red Cross executive director] and Nancy Anderson [fellow Red Cross volunteer] about volunteering and how to work with volunteers to encourage them to stick with it while having fun at the same time,” she says. “It was an experience that helped me get a real good idea about what volunteering should be like.”
Arts Professional Award
Peace, love, dance. For Ferneasa Cutno, founder of Cutno Dance and the non-profit Cutno Artist Group, that’s a personal motto that has dropped a baseline beat to her dance career of more than 20 years and joyously counting. “I dance for freedom. It’s a connection to God; it’s my connection to the earth…it encompasses all of the arts,” says Cutno. “I have really found a purpose in a life of dance.” The Louisiana native adds that she was blessed to answer that call at such a young age—at 14 she began dancing professionally and at 16 she taught classes in her family’s basement, going on to study with the Ailey School and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. After performing and touring with companies such as Garth Fagan Dance of New York, the New Orleans Ballet Ensemble and the Lula Elzy Dance Ensemble, Cutno felt that something was missing—but she soon found it in Augusta.
“I enjoyed the process, performance and touring, but I really missed teaching,” says Cutno. “When you’re teaching you don’t have to wait for the applause or for the critics…you have instant gratification in the classroom because you’re changing people’s lives—truly.” Recognizing an absence of classical modern dance education and performances in Augusta, Cutno felt she could add to the fabric of the community. Upon arrival 20 years ago, she immediately began carving out her niche by starting Cutno Dance, developing a pilot dance program for the Jessye Norman School of the Arts and teaching at Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School, the Augusta Mini Theatre, the Augusta Ballet Company and the Boys and Girls Club of Augusta.
Although Cutno still continues to travel to study and perform, her primary passion is helping students of all ages find their inner dancer. “When a child is born, one of the first things they do is rock when they hear music. It’s natural to dance,” says Cutno. “Dance increases an awareness of the body; it helps you in communication. As Martha Graham says, ‘Movement doesn’t lie.’” At Cutno Dance, the innovative founder has coined a very holistic approach to “art making” through a process of critical thinking, understanding the body and discovering the genesis of inspiration and how that translates into poignant movement, whether it’s tap, hip hop, jazz, African dance, modern or ballet. “We’re not necessarily trying to make [the students] dancers,” says Cutno. “We want to make arts advocates, philanthropic contributors. We want them to know that, whatever your heart desires, you can do.”