This year the Savannah Art Association (SAA), initially called the Savannah Art Club, is celebrating its centennial anniversary. In conjunction with the milestone, the Jepson Center for the Arts has created the exhibition “Launching Savannah’s Art Scene: Founders of the Savannah Art Club,” which is up at the museum through July 28th. Furthermore, SAA members Darla Elam and Sarah Bernzott have brought the group’s vision to Starland as the current On::View Artists in Residence at Sulfur Studios.
Elam, along with additional associates Carol Anderson, Ed Eckstrand, and Carolyne Graham, joined me in the studio for this week’s episode of Art on the Air, where we talked about the group’s history, philosophy, and current activities.
“What’s kind of unique,” Eckstrand began, “We’re a hundred years old, but that’s a hundred years of continuous operation, and as far as we know we’re the oldest operating art association in Georgia.”
The first meeting of the Savannah Art Club took place in the basement of the home of Mills B. Lane. His wife, Mary Comer Lane, was a founding member. Other notable founders included Lila Cabaniss, Hattie Saussy, and Juliette Gordon Low, all of whom have works in the Jepson Center exhibition.
The organization also has a copy of the original 1920 document where “they signed their names and their addresses,” Elam told me, adding, “it’s so neat to see their actual signature on this page and what their address was a hundred years ago, these people that so many things are named after.”
“Savannah has always had a very vibrant art community,” noted Eckstrand, “and a very large and a very diverse one. And we still do.”
Given the current state of the visual arts in our community, it’s hard not to agree with Eckstrand’s assessment. But based on Elam’s research, while the population of Savannah has about doubled in the last hundred years, the number of artists seems to have multiplied many times over.
“In one of the books I read you could probably count the number of artists by the dozens [in 1920],” she said, “But now, the author mentioned that we could possibly be Savannah’s largest voting block, because there’s so many artists in Savannah. And why wouldn’t there be? It’s a beautiful city and it attracts artists.”
Today, the Savannah Art Association offers a number of services to those artists and would-be artists, in the form of exhibitions, workshops, and “playshops,” a term coined by Graham when she was head of the organization.
“I said ‘Workshop? That sounds really tedious! Let’s call it a playshop!’” She said with a laugh.” Recently, Eckstrand conducted a “playshop” on calligraphy, which Graham described as being more “lighthearted” than some of the more formal workshops, which can often involve bringing in high-profile artisans from outside of the area.
“Just this year they’ve had a Chinese watercolorist do a workshop,” added Elam, “and an acrylic artist from Maine” visited as well.
It’s this range of opportunities that appealed to Anderson, who came to art later in life.
“I had always wanted to be able to be something artsy,” she said, “But because of a career and life I didn’t until I concluded my all day long career. And the Art Association has been very supportive [of] what I have done. There are excellent professional skilled trained artists and then there [are] people that just started yesterday.”
“You want to encourage everyone to do art, because we all have creative ability,” she said, “And to me Savannah Art Association has been so unique because it provides people of all skill levels to have their work on display.”
One such opportunity is their upcoming “Paint Out Savannah” event, an “En Plein Air” painting competition set to take place March 19-21. Plein Air painting is a longstanding tradition with the Savannah Art Association, and the 2020 version offers not only the chance for both members and non-members to have their work seen, but also over $2500 in cash and prizes.
That said, SAA members practice varied artistic disciplines. “There’s a lot of diversity,” said Anderson.
“It’s not just painters.” Eckstrand concurred, “It’s not just photographers. It’s fabric artists. It jewelers. It’s sculptors. It’s woodworkers. We do a wide range of things with just about every form of art you can imagine.”
“Basically there is no division at all,” he added, “The Savannah Art Association considers itself an organization of independent artists and we do things like instruction, but what we mainly do is exhibition. What we give to our members basically is the opportunity to exhibit.”
Listen to my entire conversation with members of the Savannah Art Association embedded here. Included in the audio are Field Note interviews with Tate Ellington of the new Washed Ashore Collective, Bradley Collins talking about his new exhibition “Work Order” at Moodright’s, and photographer Parker Stewart giving the details about his “Love Thy Neighborhood” show at Starland Yard.
Tune in to “Art on the Air” every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org. Next week we’ll have Suzy Hokanson in the studio!
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show “Art on the Air.”
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.