Opening April 21 at the Jepson Center, Telfair Museums presents a treasured selection of work from its permanent collection in "Kahlil Gibran and the Feminine Divine."

Gibran was a visionary artist and poet whose philosophy was and still is ahead of its time. Born in 1883 in the town of Bsharri in what is now known as northern Lebanon, Gibran immigrated to the United States near the turn of the century with his mother and siblings to settle in the Syrian-Lebanese-American community of Boston's South End.

Over the course of the following decades, Gibran would establish himself as one of the most beloved and best-selling poets of all time, as well as an accomplished artist with a singular vision of all humanity and all religions united as one.

Gibran's most celebrated English-language work is "The Prophet," a book of prose-poetry published in 1923 that eloquently distills the writer/artist's vision into 26 fable-like meditations on the human condition. The text is accompanied by a series of illustrations by the author which Auguste Rodin once compared to the work of William Blake. "The Prophet" has since been translated into more than 40 different languages and has never been out of print.

"The Prophet," however, was only a fraction of Gibran's prodigious output as a writer and only one component of his creative whole. Over the course of his life in the United States, Gibran became friends with some of the most influential writers, artists and intellectuals of his time. He was also a sculptor, instrument builder, furniture designer and general polymath who was part of the Greenwich Village scene of the early 1900s during his time in New York, and is still considered a literary hero in the Arab world as well as the west.

One of Gibran's earliest supporters was Mary Elizabeth Haskell (later Mary Haskell Minis), who he met in Boston. She eventually became his biggest patron and lifelong friend. Originally from South Carolina, Minis was Gibran's philosophical soulmate and was instrumental in championing Gibran and his artistic vision to the larger world. In 1950, Minis donated nearly 100 works of Gibran's to Telfair Museums, the first art museum she had ever visited as a child (she is in fact buried in Savannah at Laurel Grove Cemetery).

Nearly all the works in "Kahlil Gibran and the Feminine Divine" are drawn from Minis' gift to Telfair.

"This show is really unique for us," says Telfair's chief curator of collections and exhibitions, Courtney McNeil. "We've had this collection since 1950, but as far as I know, this is the first time we've done a presentation with this specific focus, which was something that was important to Gibran.

"There are a lot of universal themes in his work, in both his poetry and visual art. Ideas of the universality of religion, this beautiful way of looking at the world where all religions are one, all people are one, and this mindset really pervaded all of his work.

"This is also a strong theme within our holdings. This idea of the image of the feminine divine, these very spiritual works sometimes with a mystical quality where the spiritual elements are given human form and the all-powerful goddess form takes the shape of a woman."

The images are universally appealing, she says.

"Gibran was interested in studying ancient mythology, in studying religions around the world, and he was interested in sort of blurring those lines between what was to him contemporary religion and ancient religions," McNeil says.

"Some of these images could literally look like Mary holding Jesus, but they're universal images of a universal mother⦠And it's not just abstract images of the female form in religion that influenced him, but also real women in his life that influenced his career."

McNeil also points out that Telfair holds the largest collection of Gibran's visual art in the country.

"The thinking behind this show really is that we have this collection of about 100 works and most of them are works on paper, so those are very fragile and can only be exposed to light for a couple of months and then they have to 'rest' for a couple of years, which is why we can't have this work out all the time.

"But it's incredibly popular. The artist has a following all over the world. We get inquiries about this more than any other single thing in our collection⦠He's had a passionate following for a very long time."

"Kahlil Gibran and the Feminine Divine" will be on view through the end of the year, so there's more than enough time to view the work of a true visionary until his work is safely tucked away again.


What: "Kahlil Gibran and the Feminine Divine"

When: April 21-Jan. 2; preview gallery talk by Courtney McNeil at 2 p.m. April 20

Where: Jepson Center, 207 W. York St.

Cost: Varies