Cinelle Barnes draws the layout of her childhood home on the board, adding in a few details, explaining that the exercise permits one to revisit formative moments and recall early emotions.
“Can you guess what this is?” she asks.
“A chandelier?” one of the students ventures.
Another room is drawn.
“Can you guess what this is?”
“A disco ball!” comes the reply.
“Is it a bar?”
Now the students are curious about this house in the Philippines that contains such things. Barnes continues, drawing a fancy chair at the head of a large table otherwise surrounded by stools. It’s the chair her mother sat in, she explains.
“Can you guess what this is?”
“A secret door!”
Yes. A secret door. If you push on the right spot it opens to a basement full of mannequins, a wardrobe of clothes and shoes... It leads Barnes to a repository of memory.
The diagram opened the vault, and the vault provided Barnes with the material for her memoir, “Monsoon Mansion,” published in May 2018. Now she is asking these students in Shannon Boyd’s art class at Goose Creek High School to diagram their own homes, plumb their own memories, recall their own childhoods, then use words to express a particular moment that stands out. She wants them to create a portrait of their place and time.
Place and time. These are the concerns of the far-reaching project organized by the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, “Southbound: Photographs Of and About the New South,” which includes an exhibition of 220 works by 56 artists displayed in two Charleston venues, along with an array of related programming. The show remains on view in the Halsey galleries and at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park through March 2.
Barnes is Southbound's writer-in-residence and part of the Halsey’s "Capturing #MySouth" education outreach initiative, which has deployed her, along with three of the show’s featured photographers, Titus Brooks Heagins, Rachel Boillot and John Lusk Hathaway.
The artists have visited seven area schools and worked with students to help them cultivate their sense of the South — of the people and places that comprise home — through picture-taking and writing. Cameras acquired to facilitate the outreach efforts will be donated to the respective schools, according to Lizz Biswell, Halsey’s director of public affairs.
Heagins, a documentary portrait photographer based in Durham, N.C., visited Burke High School, Fort Dorchester High School and the Palmetto Scholars Academy. He said the experience hit home. Burke students, in particular, reminded him of his own childhood growing up poor and black, he said.
“Students at Burke had never really considered the power of the photographic image,” how it reflects the way we live and the way we think of ourselves, Heagins said.
So he spoke of portraiture and beauty.
His comment that one of the male students was “beautiful” elicited embarrassed “Aws” and smiles, which only motivated Heagins to emphasize the importance of recognizing beauty, naming it and capturing it — and defining it broadly. Beauty is not limited only to what is familiar, he said.
“So I took it upon myself to change the context of the conversation, to talk about photography and beauty.” He was more concerned with how we see ourselves than with the technical aspects of “seeing” through the camera lens.
At each of the schools he described his work, how he would spend time with his subjects, get to know them before making their portraits. And he encouraged the students to create their own images that speak to their experiences growing up in the Lowcountry.
Rachel Boillot, a New York-born, Tennessee-based photographer whose projects include visual portraits of North Carolina and Tennessee communities, visited Haut Gap Middle School and St. John’s High School.
John Lusk Hathaway, a Memphis-born photography teacher at the College of Charleston, has made images throughout the Lowcountry and in Upper East Tennessee. He visited Goose Creek High School and Rollings Middle School.
The outreach effort, funded by two grants and inspired in part by the Halsey’s 2016 show “Correspondence Art,” kicked off last September, Biswell said. The previous show displayed a variety of letters that, in their own way, conveyed a strong sense of place and purpose.
The “Southbound” project is meant to reflect “how young people conceive of the South,” she said. It was important, therefore, to work with a diverse sampling of local students — whites, blacks, Latinos and others — in order to examine “what the next group of Southerners are focusing on, what they care about.”
The school sessions were enhanced by organized student visits to the galleries in which the “Southbound” photographs are on display. This exposure to the huge range of images in the show helped to spark the creative impulse among young people, some of whom rarely, if ever, venture downtown, said Katie Lesser, the Halsey’s education coordinator.
“We want them to know that being an artist is a feasible goal,” she said. “All the artists really inspired students to see their lives in a different way.”
Back in Boyd’s classroom, her students embrace the chance to excavate their memories by drawing floor plans and writing a paragraph describing their experiences.
Barnes explains how a narrative can be strengthened by elements that employ all five senses, and how smell is particularly evocative. Before long, the students are sharing their stories.
Iris recalls her grandparents’ house in Puerto Rico, the barking dogs, clatter of dominoes, fizz of Sprite, activity in the plaza below and the banana trees thumping against the building.
Treasure tells of the smell of rain when Hurricane Irma passed through in 2017, the power outage, heat and crack of the tree as it careened toward the house and landed on her car. It rained so much that two retention ponds nearby merged into one, she said.
Jasmine remembers the cat that was trapped for a month in a spare bedroom, the smell of cardboard boxes under which the cat hid, and the sagging shelf in another room that held her artwork for so many years — until it was removed unceremoniously.
These are the building blocks of memoir, Barnes tells the students. These are the details that contextualize a life and define a place. These are the stories of the new South.