Watercolors inspired by Spoleto Festival and Charleston

Untitled (2006) by Stephen Mueller.

‘The Spoleto Watercolors of Stephen Mueller and Carl Palazzolo,” at the Gibbes Museum, encompasses more than its displayed art. The exhibit’s 34 paintings, 17 from each artist, chronicle a tradition cultivated from the sensory impulses of nearly 20 Spoleto festivals.

The exhibit, which runs through Sept. 15, comes from the collection of David and Carol Rawle. By 1991, Mueller and Palazzolo were already friends of David Rawle, a local collector and founder of the branding agency Rawle Murdy.

Palazzolo had been in the habit of visiting Rawle during Spoleto and suggested after a few years that his friend ought to follow suit.

Mueller and Palazzolo, New York City-based artists, painted nearly every year at the Rawles’ home during the festival. They had distinct routines during the day, departing to separate areas of the house and garden. Mueller engaged with elements that observers said expanded the range of color field painting, while Palazzolo, concerned with loss and memory and grief, incorporated references to artists he admired (such as Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly), post-war Italian cinema and Tennessee Williams, among others.

David Rawle found that their respective processes and works were reactions to their surroundings.

“What a lot of us forget is how the environment of Charleston, especially during Spoleto, can inspire people and catalyze great creativity,” he said.

The artists would paint between six and 15 watercolors per year and each offer one to the Rawles in gratitude for their hospitality. Rawle said he and his wife picked out their favorites privately, only to confer on a final decision afterward. The two chose the same paintings nearly every time. He said it was a difficult process.

“They’re all fabulous,” Rawle said.

In 2011, cancer kept Mueller from coming to Charleston. He died in September of that year. Rawle said that his friend’s death — and the current exhibition that ensued — marked the end of this artistic ritual.

Angela Mack, executive director at the Gibbes, had spoken with Rawle earlier that year about the artists’ annual residency. She immediately started plans to showcase the watercolors in some way, but Mueller died within six months of their conversation.

The current exhibition, part of Spoleto Festival USA’s visual art component, highlights the personal side of the Rawles’ story. Oversize scans of the artists’ ‘Thank You’ letters and photographs are placed on a wall in the space between two opposing circular rooms that contain the watercolors in the museum’s Rotunda Gallery.

Last week, Palazzolo walked through the gallery and remarked that the space gave the collection a “more focused” effect he had not sensed before.

“It was overwhelming,” said Palazzolo, describing the totality of 21 years represented by an art exhibition.

The Rawles had displayed the watercolors in the midst of their extensive art collection, which also included antiquities and photography. Palazzolo worked with the Gibbes to arrange the paintings in a way that would articulate the essence of their relationship to the Spoleto Festival, but also properly showcase the work.

Mack said the exhibit is one of the “few times where visual arts really speak to the festival.”

Palazzolo has continued to paint in Charleston after Mueller’s death. His most recent watercolor in the exhibit was painted in 2012.

For David Rawle, the work of Mueller and Palazzolo takes on new meaning each time he looks at one of their paintings. He said that only last month he noticed new collage details within the collection.

“I hadn’t really explored the technique,” Rawle said. “Even in different light, different times of the day, things look differently. It’s an organic, ever pleasing experience.”

Speaking by phone from his home, Rawle described the morning light of Charleston and the festival’s influence on his friends’ creativity.

“Spoleto’s impact is immeasurable,” he said.

Zach Marschall is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.

Editor’s Note: This story has been changed to reflect the following corrections: Palazzolo came first to Charleston, not Mueller; his artistic influences are not limited to Italian cinema and Tennessee Williams; and plans for the exhibition were initiated before Mueller’s death. The Post and Courier regrets the errors.