FROM STAFF REPORTS
The Sumter County Gallery of Art will open two exhibitions Thursday with a 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. reception at the gallery, 200 Hasell St. The much-anticipated Sumter Artists' Guild Winners Show and a solo exhibition titled "Once in Green Moon" by Columbia artist Laura Spong will remain in the gallery through Feb. 16.
The 91-year-old Spong is known primarily for her abstract expressionistic paintings, although she also painted still lifes, urban landscapes and figurative works, mainly in the 1950s.
In the last several years, Spong has dramatically increased her reputation in South Carolina and beyond with a series of solo exhibitions and several group shows, including a retrospective at the University of South Carolina's McMaster Gallery. Spong's work is in many important institutional collections including the S.C. State Art Collection, Greenville County Museum of Art and the S.C. State Museum as well as many private collections.
In an article in The State newspaper in 2016 on the eve of Spong's 90th birthday and an accompanying exhibition "Laura Spong at 90: Six Decades in Painting," Erin Shaw wrote "Spong has been painting regularly since the 1950s. At nearly 90, she is the grande dame of Vista Studios, a slight yet spry woman who still paints five days a week, usually following a daily walk."
Spong first became interested in art while taking a few drawing courses at Vanderbilt University in her home state of Tennessee. Other than classes here and there, Spong remains largely self-taught. Becoming a full-time artist in her 60s didn't allow time to train under an expert. And that's OK. "Had I had more training, I think I might have ended up painting like someone else," she said. "And the most important thing to me is to feel like I'm painting like myself. I did not have a natural gift, but I just loved doing it," she said.
"Laura never disappoints," said Wim Roefs, if ART owner and Spong's art dealer who curated the "At 90" show. He has written numerous essays about Spong's work over the 10 years he's represented her. He's written of her "arsenal of marks, shapes, forms and scribbles" that "interact at once with ease and tension" in her pieces. Asked what kind of painter she is, he answered simply, "A very good one."
The Sumter County Gallery of Art is working closely with Roefs to bring Spong's work to the gallery. Roefs is no stranger to SCGA having curated "South Carolina Birds" in 2005 and The State Art Collection in 2006 at the gallery. Roefs and perhaps Spong herself will be in attendance the night of the opening reception and will give a gallery talk on Spong's work.
Many of Spong's paintings are bright and bold - swaths of vermilion, turquoise and Kelly greens. She eschews straight lines in favor of squiggles, which she makes in loose strokes wielding a paint pen like an oversized crayon. The challenge of abstraction, she says, is using those non-objective shapes (you might see a face in that yellow blob; someone else might see a boat), to make a pleasing composition that takes the observer on a journey.
When she begins a piece, Spong tries to make her mind as blank as the canvas. Sometimes she doesn't even know what color she is going to use. She picks up a brush and starts smearing. She doesn't like people to watch her paint, so the particulars remain a mystery.
"My best work comes when I don't think too much. If I sit here and think about a problem and what the solution might be, it will be very predictable," she said. "I feel like my intuition is better than my thinking process."
Spong's artist statement is as graceful and evocative as her paintings. It reads, in part:
I am like a child on the floor with blocks.
Delighting in the shapes,
Until the components fall into place
And create a pleasing visual pattern.
I use ancient symbols and phosphenes
To connect with the world in time.
I use bits of forms and shapes I see around me
To connect with the world in space.
But, mostly I play with color.
... is that everything is connected. All is part of the whole. From a magnificent landscape to a few blades of grass, each is part of the whole and is equally important. My artworks are fragments of that whole that catch my eye, emotions, or imagination.
The Sumter Artists' Guild Winners Show, like the Sumter Artists' Guild show, is one of the gallery's most popular exhibitions of the year. The 2018 Guild Winners Show promises to be a strong one. The judge for the Artists' Guild Show was Virginia Scotchie, a ceramic artist and head of ceramics at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, who has exhibited her work extensively throughout the U.S. and abroad and received numerous awards - and she made some excellent choices.
First-place winner was Amanda Cox, former SCGA Art Education director and now the art instructor at Crosswell Drive Elementary, for her large landscape "Bug Spot"; third-place winner Napoleon "Brad" Bradford for his moving mixed-media piece "Vietnamese-American Orphan"; honorable mention winners, Denise L. Greer, Jim Wade and Jeanie Moore; and Peoples' Choice award winner Halimah Shah. Second-place winner Michael Broadway moved to Virginia some months ago and unfortunately will not participate in the Guild Winners Show. The mixture of painting, collage and ceramics promises to be a visually exciting show.
As with all of the gallery's exhibitions, this is a community effort sponsored by Covenant Place Continuing Care Community, Synovus/NBSC and the Sumter Artists' Guild, who will do the reception. Flowers are courtesy of Catherine Blumberg of Poinsett Garden Club and The Council of Garden Clubs of Sumter.
Sumter County Gallery of Art is located at 200 Hasell St., adjacent to Patriot Hall. Regular hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call SCGA director Karen Watson at (803) 775-0543.