February 9, 2011

New Snake in Town

Meet Buddy. Buddy the Bias Constrictor. In the picture above he is posing in front of the Portfolio Gallery in Five Points, Columbia SC with his creators Janet Kozachek and Julia Culler Wolfe and their new violinist friend. The photo was taken downtown after our snake made his debut at the State House earlier that morning.

The idea for this snake emblazoned with the words “Don’t Tread on the Arts” came to me as a creative way to make a sign for the Arts Advocacy Day rally organized by the South Carolina Arts Alliance on February 8 at the South Carolina State House. An annual event, this year’s rally took on a certain urgency on account of the governor’s recent call to end funding for the South Carolina State Arts Commission and Educational Television. . As I understand by reading the allocations in the State Budget, these institutions receive only a very small portion of state funding. By far the lesser funded of these two institutions, The South Carolina State Arts Commission ( counting in at four one hundredths of 1% of total FY2011 state appropriation) is in fact an income generating body due to its affiliations with small businesses and the tourism industry - the major source of revenue for this state.

The worrisome thing about a call to abolish institutions which serve the economic well being of the artists, intellectuals, and educators who serve this state as well as the call to dissolve the vehicles for their expression is that it represents a disproportionate social and economic burden on them as well as on their representative voices in government. An action based on such a call would reflect neither good financial stewardship nor would it reflect a fair and democratic call for sacrifice in the face of fiscal austerity. In fact it is not only artists and educators who will suffer but everyone whose lives are enriched by their presence, their knowledge, and their creativity. It is troublesome, too, that this sets an unhealthy precedent for citing fiscal conservatism as a pretense for making decisions probably motivated more by political agenda or bias rather than financial austerity. The latter would be more believable if the Arts Commission and ETV were called upon to make a financial sacrifice (indeed the Arts Commission’s budget was already cut nearly in half two years ago) on a scale equivalent to other branches of government taking budget cuts. But if other institutions are pared down yet these two are eliminated then the bias is obvious. Hence the appearance of Buddy the Bias Constrictor, snaking his way to the State House to demonstrate so much unfairness.

Buddy is an art snake through and through. His exterior was made with left over muslin that once graced the walls of a retired crafter’s booth. His eyes were made from my one-of-a-kind ceramic buttons. Buddy’s stuffing was made with all the bubble wrap that came in packages of returned paintings and mosaics. At ten and a half feet that was a lot of stuffing. The octagonal bubbles in the wrapping served a dual aesthetic and practical purpose - making Buddy a lightweight snake sign to carry and creating a snake skin like texture in the surface when painted. The tongue was made from one of the red plastic plates I used as a makeshift paint palette for acrylics. Julia and I put Buddy together at her studio in Bamberg - my own unheated one being not quite hospitable these days. In between the gesso coat and the final acrylic painting we watched Episode One of the PBS series on the history of New York City. (I had missed these first few episodes on account of being on the road for my job back when it originally aired and thought that now would be as good a time as any to fill in the blanks. Loved that early New Amsterdam peg-legged governor.) When it came to painting the words on the snake, I was at the ready to paint the line “Don’t Tread on the Arts.” Julia came up with a slight variation which was by far better - substituting “our” for “the” making the phrase truly democratic. Julia then added the perfect finishing touch - a Swiss cow bell to Buddy’s tail that could ring in optimism and determination in the face of nay sayers.

Back home in Orangeburg, Buddy had to be sewn up by hand. But it was a labor of love - or at least a quiet and relaxing experience. Nothing like slow tedious work to sooth the ruffled soul. There wasn’t much time between the exhortation to attend the Arts Advocacy Rally and the making of this snake sign so Buddy was a little rough around the edges. I was concerned that he would make a poor showing among other artist’s signs that were sure to be creative. I could not have been more mistaken. When we entered the great hall of the State House with our snake, we were greeted with smiles, thanks, laughter and numerous requests to have photographs taken underneath our Buddy’s long form.

Then a spontaneous and incredible thing happened. There was a corridor through which the state legislators walked that was between two elevated platforms where the audience could see them walk by. With the head of Buddy held securely by my friend and myself, we threw his tail over the other side of the aisle. This created a giant snake arch. The legislators then proceeded to parade underneath the belly of the snake - a belly which read “Don’t Tread on Our Arts.” Some of them laughed, some only smirked. Others batted their eyes in amusement and disbelief. One legislator looked at Buddy with disdain or loathing - I’m not sure which but it was most certainly disfavor.

Some time later, Governor Haley made an appearance at the concomitant Red Dress rally to raise awareness of vascular and heart disease in women. Many of the gatherers chanted “Have a Heart Save the Arts” at that time, hopefully not aware that there were women with coronary disease present. (I didn't know myself what this second rally was all about until I read about it in The State this morning) Thankfully, I was too sick at the time to participate in chants but I did pass Buddy the Bias Constrictor along through the crowds.

The Governor herself was stunning. Despite the fact that I was painfully aware of being on opposite sides of the political spectrum I could not help but feel a slight wellspring of joy at having an excellent looking woman as governor of this state. Score one point for South Carolina, I thought, for having the best looking governor in the Union. I only hope that she will retain the best looking parts of South Carolina - our arts!


Tamara Gantt said...

Fabulous story! I'm so proud! Wish I could have been there.

harriett said...

Excellent!!Thanks for taking time out to fight for a worthy cause