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Event invites locals of various backgrounds to share stories

A sturdy, inviting chair is playing a major role in a new series of events being held at Aiken Center for the Arts, with emphasis on storytelling by local residents from a variety of backgrounds. 

Stories from a Big Chair started Sept. 16, and featured input from entrepreneur Gary Finnan, equestrian Julie Robins, artist Noble Diller, the Rev. Doug Slaughter and photographer Laura Russo, all speaking their minds on the same theme "Be Prepared to Stop," as illustrated by an orange road sign on display next to the chair in question. They shared their views on such topics as relaxation, traveling, anxiety and stillness.

Adding some liquid refreshment to the occasion was Solo Vino Wine Parlor, with creations from Spain, France, Australia, Oregon and Argentina. 

Personal reflections reached out into areas such as working with traumatized veterans, the idea of having breakfast with Charlie Chaplain and George Burns, and growing up in an Ohio household reminiscent of "Leave It to Beaver." Another exploration touched on the ideas of the writings of Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest and theologian, and another touched on the nominative shift from the Savannah River Plant to the Savannah River Site. 

"I thought it was a great event," said Robins, whose official description was as a "local natural horseman, author and founder of Aiken Horsemanship Academy." She mentioned being impressed with "how interesting it is to pull together people from so many different walks of life."

COVID-19, she noted, entered heavily into the discussion. "Since COVID, we've all been missing that interaction, and I think it also brought on the point of how important the arts are and what a great job the arts center does of connecting people from a variety of backgrounds through creative mediums." 

She added, referring to the various speakers at the Sept. 16 session, "We were all very different individuals, and I just thought it was cool. I ... thought the whole event was amazing." 

Finnan helped generate the Big Chair idea, with help from Caroline Gwinn, the arts center's executive director, based on a similar experience that Finnan had in California, in the midst of a career as an award-winning inspirational author, designer, entrepreneur and creative expression mentor, as summarized in the September Big Chair pamphlet. Plans are for similar events to be held at the arts center Oct. 28 and Dec. 16.

The October assembly is to have a theme of "Reinventing," with input from local residents Heather LaHaise, Casey Maxwell Clair, Christopher Beaumont, Cynthia English and Christopher Emanuel. December's gathering is to focus on the idea of "Emerging." Storytellers are to be Finnan, Mary Sopko, Tom Keran, Karen Brown and a "mystery speaker," according to promotional material. Presentations are to run for about 15 minutes per speaker.

"It's just an effort to bring people together around our exhibitions," said Gwinn. "It brings them an opportunity to see the exhibitions in a new way and also have an engaging time with other people in our community that they may not be around."

Finnan noted, "It aligns with whatever exhibit is going on downstairs, or in the gallery, so we wanted to align the art with a literary and conversational concept, almost taking the art and expanding it out into conversation."

Gwinn made similar comments and added, "The openings of our exhibitions are on a Thursday night, and on the following Thursday night will be Stories from a Big Chair."

The Sept. 16 pamphlet shed some light on the upcoming events, beginning with Oct. 28. "This evening is dedicated to 'Reinventing,' where new tricks are for dogs of any age. This session runs concurrent with the work of our exhibiting artist Heather LaHaise in the main gallery exhibition 'Dogs Interrupted' and 'Hollywood Secrets' in Brooks Gallery (upstairs)," it read.

The Dec. 16 description followed. "This night focuses on forging and the craft of building our lives from the heat of change. In sync, metalwork from the Athens Metal Arts Guild as well as the Metal Arts Guild of Georgia will be on exhibition in the main gallery, stimulating our creative engagement with what it truly means to forge from flame." Finnan is to be the host at both the October and December sessions, as he helped guide the September discussion. 

Seating is limited and reservations are $20 each. The arts center is at 122 Laurens Street S.W. Details are at 803-641-9094. 

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