When Spoleto Festival USA organized a public art exhibition in 1997 called "Human/Nature: Art and Landscape in Charleston and the Low Country," one of the participating artists, Martha Jackson Jarvis, seized the opportunity to create a work that made reference to the city's controversial history and its magnificent natural environment.
Jarvis, a Washington, D.C., artist who specializes in outdoor installations and work inspired by nature, created two stylized oyster-shell houses and four mosaic water basins. She decorated the objects with sculpted redfish, images of rice stalks and mosquitoes, colorful pieces of glass and stone and swirls that indicated the flow of water or time or energy.
The ensemble of objects, titled "Rice, Rattlesnakes and Rainwater," was installed at St. Luke's Reformed Episcopal Church on Charleston's in East Side neighborhood and drew attention from residents and passersby interested in the way Jarvis made tangible the link between her art and their heritage.
On Wednesday, the installation was relocated to the garden of the Spoleto Festival USA building on George Street. The church no longer could accommodate it, but festival General Director Nigel Redden wanted to ensure it remained available to the public.
"I wanted the piece to remain in Charleston - and, fortunately, Martha agreed that it should remain in Charleston," Redden said.
Jarvis, long interested in the interplay between nature and art, and curious to discover the secrets of the past, said her oyster-shell houses referred directly to slavery and rice cultivation in the Lowcountry, to the mosquito-infested coast and the malaria-resistant West Africans whose experience and technical know-how enabled Charleston's landowners to establish an important cash crop and grow rich in the process.
"This is like a living, breathing archaeological dig," she said, as she supervised three men positioning the objects in the garden.
The use of shells, stone, glass and other natural materials was meant to mimic the natural environment, allude to its manipulation and pay tribute to the enslaved Africans (and others) whose labor transformed it, she said.
"It's important to articulate this legacy," she said.
Redden said today's landscape deceives contemporary residents and visitors, and the original show, "Human/Nature," was meant to highlight this fact.
"Charleston is a manmade environment ... there's nothing that's really original, or very little that's original to South Carolina," he said. "So what we wanted to do is reveal it in different ways."
Now Jarvis' installation has found a new home where it can continue to remind viewers of the culture from which it sprung and the significance of creative human endeavor.
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