The Right Place at the Right Time
Five years ago, the Porter Fleming Foundation planted a garden, seeding it generously with rare, exotic flowers, strange ones and familiar ones, some hardy local varieties, all beautiful. They called the garden Westobou.
The seeds came up and the garden bloomed gorgeously. But the flowers came up everywhere, without order, crowded together, one blocking another’s sunlight, all competing for room to bloom and dazzle.
You may have walked through that beautiful disorder during the past four years’ Westobou Festivals. Thousands of people did—10,000 just last year. Too often you were forced to make impossible choices, with equally appealing events scheduled for the same time—this concert, that ballet; this lecture, that movie. It’s as if to get a good look at one flower, you had to stomp on another.
Each 10-day festival was crammed with activities—212 in the first three years—all competing for attention and audiences. This happened because the festival, with funding from the Porter Fleming Foundation, made grants to local artists and organizations whose proposals the Westobou Festival board approved. Those organizations might use their funds to bring in nationally-known performers. The problem was that the organizations then operated independently, keeping their own ticket revenue and doing their own scheduling, often without concern for other groups’ programs. Events overlapped. Audiences were fragmented. Mutual support turned to competition.
R&B soul sensation Janelle Monae will perform in concert on Friday night.
It was time to prune, time to design more orderly rows. Molly McDowell, who has participated in Westobou ever since the first year, knew both the potential and the problems firsthand. The board hired her last year to bring more order to the 2011 festival. She helped create a cohesive feel and look and got the presenters reading from…well, maybe not the same page, but at least the same chapter. But with so many events scheduled at so many venues over so many days, there was still too much for the community to absorb.
Last October, the Westobou board, made up of Cameron Nixon, Barry White, Kelly Brannon, Shell Berry, Indee Few and Ellis Johnson, named McDowell executive director with instructions to continue the pruning and organizing. As a result, this year’s Westobou will be condensed from 10 days to five, October 3-8. To minimize overlap, each of those five days will be anchored by a different genre: Wednesday visual art, Thursday music, Friday words, Saturday dance, Sunday film and fun. The festival will still take place at different venues, but “home base” will be the Old Richmond Academy on Telfair Street.
And this year’s garden will be funky. Over the years, organizers have struggled to find the right focus for Augusta’s arts festival. Augusta is not Charleston (in case you wondered), so Augusta’s festival can’t be Spoleto or Piccolo Spoleto. But who are we? What should our festival celebrate?
Well, musically anyway, McDowell thinks she knows the answer. “We’re funky. We’re fun. We’re the home of James Brown.” The festival will celebrate the Godfather’s legacy with a Janelle Monae concert on Thursday. Brown is Monae’s idol. When McDowell initially couldn’t get the young R&B/soul sensation to respond to phone calls, she sent her an email with “From the home of James Brown” in the subject line. That caught Monae’s attention.
Supporting the James Brown theme will be Lonnie Holley, a folk artist from Alabama, who will build an outdoor sculpture at Paine College, celebrating James Brown.
McDowell is trying to provide some unity among the many arts and artists in the festival by connecting them with “threads.” Think of them as paths from one part of the garden to another. For instance, Monae’s breakthrough hit is titled “Tightrope.” The movie selected for Saturday is Man on Wire, the award-winning documentary about aerialist Philippe Petit’s spectacular and illegal high wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. Petit himself will be here to talk about his feat at Augusta State University. And that will be connected by a thread to sound artist Stephen Vitiello, whose sound recordings at the World Trade Center’s 92nd floor of the building’s swaying and creaking in the winds of Hurricane Floyd will be presented Wednesday. And the transformation of ordinary urban spaces into spectacular works of art through athletic movement will lead to Springfield Village Park Saturday where members of De Trace will demonstrate Parkour—the art/sport of moving with athletic grace around buildings and obstacles by running, jumping, rolling, climbing and vaulting. These and other threads can lead you from one art to another.
Of course, you don’t have to know anything about a garden’s plan to enjoy it and this year’s Westobou crams as much dazzle into five days as you can take in. Let’s just take a quick walk down the main path.
Wednesday we’re at Old Richmond Academy for visual art. There Jackie Sumell will assemble a model of the prison cell where Herman Wallace is incarcerated and of the house he dreams of. Scott Ingram will build an installation made of foam cinder blocks and you can build too. One room will become a black box theater looping films by Janet Biggs and Cao Guimaraes. Another will feature Stephen Vitiello’s World Trade Center Recordings. Joe Walters will create a sculpture inspired by the South Carolina Low Country, constructed of materials he buys at Lowe’s. And that night on the parade ground, Augusta-native Julia Easterlin will give a concert as digital artist Bean Summer creates visual imagery based on her performance.
Thursday, funky music night: Janelle Monae will perform along with two of the world’s best horn players, Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker, and local funk band Funk You.
Friday is for words. High wire artist Philippe Petit will speak at ASU’s Maxwell Theater. Then Man on Wire, the prize-winning documentary that tells his story will be shown on campus at ASU.
Saturday is all about dance and movement. Benjamin Millepied’s LA Dance Project will perform at the Imperial Theater. Millepied, choreographer for Natalie Portman’s Black Swan, formed the LA Dance Project to tour for one year. Augusta is the group’s third stop; their next is Paris. Arriving in Augusta Tuesday, they will be in rehearsal all week, creating a work specifically for Augusta. An utterly different form of movement will be demonstrated at Springfield Village Park where the members of De Trace will demonstrate Parkour. Amazing.
Sunday is for film and fun, a day about all things Westobou. The afternoon belongs to the kids, with Tara Scheyer and the Mud Puppies performing and children’s book author Jarrett Krosoczka teaching kids how to write and illustrate their own stories. Then at 5 p.m. the Kovacs Brothers, owners of a California vineyard and authors of The Young and the Thirsty, will talk about their book and lead an early evening of wine tasting. And with a toast at about 8 p.m., Westobou 2012 will finish at the Imperial Theater with a Southern premiere of I’m Fine, Thanks, a new feature-length documentary about complacency. It’s a collection of stories about life, the choices we all make and the paths we ultimately decide to follow.
This quick tour focuses on the evenings. During the day, Augusta’s own artists and institutions will present concerts, exhibitions and lectures as in years past. McDowell thinks they may be able to shine more brightly in this year’s Westobou. That’s because many of the out-of-town artists coming to Augusta will be staying all week. “They will be going to concerts, mingling with our artists, visiting our schools,” McDowell says. “This community is amazingly rich with artistic talent. They’re going to be impressed with the caliber of our musicians and artists. They’re going to go out and talk about Augusta. It’s our opportunity to show off.” She believes they will spread the word that Augusta is home to more than one kind of Masters.
Fred Wesley will perform with fellow horn player Maceo Parker and musician Janelle Monae.
photo by Heinrich Buttler
The Porter Fleming trustees committed to support the Westobou Festival with $500,000 for five years, after which the festival was to support itself. This is year five. But in previous years ticket revenues went to the various arts organizations sponsoring performances rather than to Westobou itself. “There was no way to be self-sustaining,” McDowell says. This year’s festival is organized in such a way that Westobou will retain ticket revenue. The Porter Fleming Foundation has extended its support for another five years, scaling it back each year. Westobou will seek sponsors both in and out of Augusta to replace the foundation’s funds.
No one should be surprised that figuring out Westobou has taken some time. Gardens, each planted in a particular soil and climate, require years of successes and failures to get it just right. ““We’ve studied festivals all over the country to find our own voice, discover what makes us unique,” McDowell says. “We’re now getting our grounding on who we are.”
McDowell herself is a visual artist, with a fine arts degree from UGA and years of art gallery experience, first at the McIntosh Gallery in Atlanta, then at her own Mary Pauline Gallery on Broad Street in Augusta, which opened in 1998. She loved the town, the artists she represented and the art business, but after 10 years she decided to close down the gallery and devote full time to being a wife and mother.
While serving on the board of the Augusta Ballet, she helped bring the mesmerizing Slow Dancing exhibit to the Augusta Common for the first Westobou Festival in 2008. A year later, with GHSU’s new Cancer Center nearing completion, she was asked to identify and commission local artists to create 100 works to be displayed in the center—and she was given three months to do it.
“They said, ‘Here’s the budget, here’s the timetable. We want these to be soothing, uplifting.’ It was a huge undertaking. I met with a patient advisory group and with doctors, I showed them slides and heard their comments about imagery and style. All this drew me back into the local art scene, working with other galleries and artists.” She was hooked again.
“Little Top to the Big Top,” sculpture by Lonnie Holley
So for Westobou 2010 she curated The Augusta-Columbia Connection, an exhibition of works by artists from Augusta and Columbia at the Old Richmond Academy. That went so well that the Westobou board made her artistic coordinator of the festival in 2011. Now she is executive director.
McDowell is proud of the gallery she ran for 10 years with her Mary Pauline Gallery. “But Westobou is a living art gallery. It’s like breaking out of the white box and creating a movable feast of all the arts for five days all over Augusta. I’ve had to bust out of just knowing the visual arts to learn about dance, music, film, writing. They are all so different. It’s an unnerving challenge, but it’s fascinating at the same time.
“I couldn’t have done this in 1998. But this is the right time and the right place for it to happen—for me and for Augusta.”