Feature Articles

November 2011

Historic Penn Center on St. Helena Island, SC, Offers Annual Celebration and Works by Luther Vann

The Historic Penn Center, located on St. Helena Island, SC, will kick off the 29th Annual Heritage Days Celebration on Nov. 10-12, 2011 and feature an exhibit, Songs of My People, by Luther Vann, on view from Nov. 11 through Dec. 31, 2011. A reception will be held for Vann on Nov. 11, beginning at 5:30pm.

Heritage Days is a time that visitors from all over the country will converge on St. Helena Island to revel in a unique Gullah experience: an exciting three-day event that includes food, music, performances, seminars, arts and crafts, a parade, and cultural demonstrations by the Gullah descendants of former West African slaves in an historic setting, formerly known as the Penn Normal Agricultural and Industrial School. This year’s theme is “Surviving and Thriving: Preserving the Gullah Culture and Traditions.”

The festival will also include more than twenty other African American artists and traditional Gullah artisans who will demonstrate African crafts, such as net making, boat building, indigo dyeing, and basket making, that link the Gullah people to their West African ancestry.

The York W. Bailey Museum at Penn Center will feature an art exhibition of original paintings by renowned artist Luther Vann of Savannah, GA. A student of the masters of the Harlem Renaissance, Vann’s artistic expressiveness encompasses virtually every visual medium—painting, photography, sculpture, and digital creations.

Vann will give a talk about his exhibit on Nov. 11. Admission to this event is $5 for adults and $3 for youth.

Born in 1937 in Savannah, Vann was raised in the dual cultures of his native city, and New York City, which was his parents adopted home. Growing up in the 1940’s and 1950’s in New York, taught by Charles Alston, and exposed to many of the mid-century Harlem Renaissance artists, Vann is one of the few living artists to have a direct connection to that much heralded era of creation.

As a result of the dichotomy of growing up in the dual cultures of the South, where African-Americans then had to sit at the back of the bus, and the popular and hip culture of Harlem, many scenarios were presented for a young man to consider.

Vann’s show, Songs of My People, is the cultural cross-tie between the artists and musicians with whom he was raised in New York, and the history of the Gullah people who used song to communicate among themselves and across the plantations on which they lived. Originally brought to this country by the African-Americans, those “call and response” musical patterns segued into gospel, blues, and jazz. And jazz was where “it was at” in New York City; Vann’s daddy played honkey-tonk on the piano; he sent Vann to the Star Allen Dance Studio on 43rd and Broadway to learn tap dancing and singing. Music, as well as art, was a part of Vann’s soul; he says, “At sixteen, I just had to find the jazz/be-bop.”

Parade, the largest of the paintings in the exhibit, at first glance seems to be a painting of a man playing a trumpet; perhaps a tribute to Vann’s father who bought him a trumpet when he was a young boy. However, upon closer inspection, about ten other images conspire to compose the whole. Spiritual and visionary, this is typical of Vann’s work: image layered upon image; aliens, spiritual beings, halos, athletes, musicians, animals, all brought together and punched with intense color. If you look long enough into his paintings, you cease merely to see and begin to feel, and sense, the lives that surround all of us: past, present and future. One does not doubt that all these beings represent, reminiscent of a dream sequence, the myriad of icons with which Vann was presented as a youth.

The works in this exhibit are acrylic paintings on canvas ranging in size from 16” x 20” to 38” x 69”. Two of the pieces, Franklin Square I, and Magi, have been painted with chopsticks; an experiment Vann tried for awhile when he wanted to expand his progressive horizons based on his wooden sculptural pieces. Fifteen works of art will be displayed, all mesmerizing and thought provoking.

In New York City, Vann studied at the Art Students League, the New School for Social Research, and the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Studio.

A first place prize winner of the 1996 Georgia Arts Festival, his work has been presented in solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Brooklyn Museum of Fine Arts, the Cinque Gallery in New York City, and Urban Arts in Alpharetta, GA. Locally, Vann’s work has been presented at the Telfair Museum of Art, the Beach Institute, and the Indigo Sky Community Gallery in Savannah, GA. After an exhibition in Savannah, his paintings were included in the Hurn Museum’s traveling exhibition in Florence, Italy.

Public collections including Vann’s work are the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, New Jersey; Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York; and the King-Tisdell Cottage and The Telfair Museum, both in Savannah, Georgia. He was also commissioned to create stained glass art by the Abyssinia Baptist Church in Savannah.

Vann’s works are displayed in several private collections including those of historian Carroll Greene of Savannah; documentary filmmaker and jazz historian Salah Abdul-Wahid of Los Angeles, CA; poet Ann T. Green of New York; choreographer Bill T. Jones of New York; critic Gerhard Kraus of Frankfurt, Germany; and Dr. Peter Hughes of London, England.

Vann is the recipient of numerous grants from the New York State Council for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Georgia Council for the Arts.

Recent exhibits and awards are as follows: April to August 2008, The Telfair Museum Jepson Center for the Arts in Savannah, hosted a show of Vann’s work, where he was the first Savannah-born African-American artist to have a one-man exhibit. This show also included the debut of the book Elemental, The Power of Illuminated Love; showcasing Vann’s art with poetry by Aberjhani.

October 2008 to January 2009, Vann was a featured artist at the South Carolina State University’s show, Journey from Africa to Gullah, at their I. P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium.

July 2009, Vann’s work was exhibited at the Telfair Museum’s Friends of African-American Art Show: Savannah Area Artists Fine Art Exhibition at the Beach Institute of Savannah.

September 2009, The King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation honored Vann: “The Foundation recognizes persons who have been consistently noteworthy in their work to make substantial improvements in one of several areas: Historic Preservation, Fine Arts, Public Service, and Education.”

For further information check our SC Institutional Galery listings, call the Center at 843/838-2432 or visit (www.penncenter.com).

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