Picasso believed that artists who live and work with spiritual values should not — cannot — be indifferent to conflicts in which the highest values of humanity and society hang in the balance.
He would have well understood the outpouring of artists’ work in response to the Mother Emanuel AME Church tragedy in Charleston and its inspiring aftermath, for above all else it reminds us of that shared humanity.
“We owe it to the memory of the nine who died, and to their families, to finally address these social justice issues,” says South Carolina poet laureate Marjory Wentworth, whose poem “Holy City” was among the first expressions of grief and hope.
“The creative community is going to be part of that, holding events and doing what we can,” she says. “People all over the country want to do something. But the larger mission is to make a difference and illuminate these issues. We have to find a way to make sense of it and explain it to our children.”
Wentworth will be joined by fellow poet Marcus Amaker, musician-composer Quentin Baxter and other artists for a Unity Concert benefit at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 7 at the Sottile Theatre. A presentation of the Charleston Response Project, the concert is presented free of charge with donations encouraged at the door to one of the city of Charleston-approved funds: Lowcountry Ministries–Reverend Pinckney Fund or Mother Emanuel Hope Fund.
Meanwhile, she, Amaker and Columbia poet Ed Madden have created the website Poems For Charleston and the Aftermath (www.poemsforcharleston.com) to collect new verse that deals with the tragedy. They hope to produce a book, do readings and donate the proceeds.
On Thursday, Robert Lange Studios is coordinating a local artists’ effort that is part of the larger Community United fundraiser spearheaded by Mickey Bakst of Charleston Grill. To be held from 6:30-9:30 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom of the Charleston Place Hotel, the event will showcase more than 100 donated artworks by area artists and galleries.
“We sent out an e-mail a week ago hoping to get 20 donations,” says Megan Lange. “Within two days more than 100 had pledged to donate work for the Community United charity.” That includes Robert Lange’s own painting, “Charleston United.”
Painters, writers, musicians and artists of all stripes have responded, here, throughout the United States and abroad.
The work has taken numerous forms. For Charleston’s Sharon Turk, it was an illustration of a stained-glass panel titled “Mourning Grace.”
“I chose a stained-glass motif because it expresses the idea of illumination, light shining into darkness,” says Turk, who wants to donate the piece to the church or to fundraising efforts for the victims’ families. “I feel the piece represents the dichotomy of good/evil, light/dark, fracture/unity, despair/hope.
“When I read about the murders, I was horrified. When I watched the bond proceeding and heard the statements of forgiveness by the family members, I was humbled and amazed by their grace. It is in response to that grace that I made this piece: to honor the legacy of these murdered people expressed through their loved ones that has extended out into the community and beyond.”
For Savannah folk artist Panhandle Slim, it was portraits of the nine fallen; for graphic artist Gil Shuler of Mount Pleasant, it is the striking artwork “We Shall Overcome,” with white doves rendered on a field of indigo; for Lowcountry artist Phillip Hyman, a plexi-glass and wood sculpture of angels to sustain a focus on the families of those killed; and for Christian singer-songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman, an untitled music video that has drawn more than 6.8 million views since its release on Facebook.
The Rev. Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, co-pastor with husband Bruce of Limestone Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Del., was compelled to touch hearts and minds through a new hymn, “They Met to Read the Bible,” sung June 21 at Presbyterian churches here and nationwide.
“In response to this tragedy, I wanted to write a hymn that is a lament,” says Gillette. Many of her 250 compositions have been sung in an estimated 1,800 churches around the world.
“I wanted to express the sadness and grief that people in this country feel now,” she says. “As a church, we are called on to rejoice with those who are rejoicing and to weep with those who are weeping. When one church suffers, we all suffer together. But it is not just expressing grief alone; it is hearing God’s call to respond to this tragedy by working for justice and a better world, to get rid of gun violence and racism.”
The Gillettes say they have received e-mails from thousands in the U.S. and from more than 20 countries, from every denomination and faith, expressing their shock. But equally touching for her has been the response of South Carolinians.
“It’s been moving to hear of the words of forgiveness from the families in Charleston and to learn of so many participating in prayer services together. I think it does make people look at their own feelings and their own lives. This tragedy, this act of terror, is something people can connect with immediately. It strikes close to home.”