Southen Modern

By Rebekah Jacob

Writers were my ticket out of the South; visual artists, my compass back home.  

Raised in the wide open, languid Mississippi Delta, with pages of expansive porches and miles of two-lane highways for meandering thoughts, I believed that words were a vehicle to see the world. As an English major, my Ole Miss education of bourbon-soaked conversations at the City Grocery bar in Oxford about the romantic lives of Ernest Hemingway’s Havana and Walker Percy’s New York City spurred me to seek out a definition of myself that seemed somehow bigger than my current surroundings in Mississippi would allow. 

So I migrated to New York City to become a writer when art gallery owner--and true Southern gentleman--Hollis Taggart spotted me in a vintage gold coat at one of his openings and hired me on the spot. More fodder for my writing, I thought.  Years of hustle and ambition to learn the subtleties of art and the skills of the deal followed.  

My Alabama-born mother Jacque called my twenties “an era of discernment and Yankee wandering,"  Nestled in my tiny, six floor walk-up, West Village apartment one night, inhaling the moon pies she shipped in bulk while the snow continued to fall, I could no longer deny that the unsettled chill looming in my bones was more than the unfriendly weather.  It was time to go home.  And I shed New York City like an old coat.  

I never intended to live in Charleston but I am grateful for a God of providence.  After fifteen years here, it would take the rapture or a raging hurricane to dislodge me. Had I become a writer, I do not think I would have had the same sense of place or longing to be in this land.  The aging antebellum architecture, cool breeze off the water, and familiar conversational rhythms were and continue to be a salve to the Northern aggression.  Walking the cobblestone streets was a homecoming to a newer version of me that realized home, and particularly Charleston, was perhaps the most romantic destination of all.  

And then:  the art.  I was wholeheartedly seduced by the art of the South, and pioneer in the Southern art market, Rob Hicklin offered me an entirely new and intense level of education at his Charleston Renaissance Gallery in historic downtown Charleston.  I pored over unsung masterpieces and researched an array of artists and their established or burgeoning markets. I was particularly intrigued by the modern artists and photographers who pushed beyond the traditional and explored controversial topics through progressive styles and mediums.  Rob and I spent many afternoons debating the meaning of "Southern modern art" and how it translated into the market. We never came to an agreement, and I eventually turned in my gallery keys on a spring day as nearby St. Philip’s rang noon-thirty.

 

I could not ignore that a new Charleston was emerging in which contemporary did not only mean paintings of palmettos or rainbow row by living artists. Thousands of doodles on a legal pad, plus blood, sweat, and tears—and a generous supply of bourbon—became Rebekah Jacob Gallery over a decade ago.  I seek out artists who stay true to their Southern roots not by solely focusing on the beauty of the landscape but also by exploring the complexities and conundrums of the place we call home.  

The voices of my father who encouraged entrepreneurship and my mother who encouraged the arts intersect and echo in my mind as I foster, exhibit, broker, promote, and champion the artists I believe embody Southern Modern. Controversial subjects ignite me, and I continue to explore art works that deal with race, gender and sexuality. I believe in addressing the unspeakable through the visual with boldness and sophistication.  Easy is overrated.

I have a particular affinity for documentary photography, whether vintage or contemporary, as it integrates a strong, intricate narrative to the visuals that extend where words end.  My favorite WPA authors / photographers like Eudora Welty and Walker Evans traveled the Carolinas, photographing and writing about this land of elegant decay, still struggling to heal from the Civil War. Similarly, many contemporary photographers like Julia Cart and Richard Sexton poignantly capture and document fading structures and archetypal characters in a way that still entrances me.

I started out a writer, but through the visual arts, I found my voice.  I had to go away to come home; to open my eyes--and put down the pen-- in order to see.

Published in CHARLESTON:  CHARLESTON SALT AND IRON (2016), Edited by Wendy Nilsen Pollitzer.