On the northwest corner of Bull and 41st Streets you’ll find Savannah’s most celebrated recent public art installation, the Starland Mural Project. One of the eight large-scale works, done by my guest on this week’s Art on the Air, Amiri Geuka Farris, is an explosion of colors and stars featuring a vintage Starland sign, a cow, and a number of less noticeable Adinkra symbols and references to Gullah Geechee culture.
Just a couple of blocks down, at Sulfur Studios, you’ll find Farris’ Savannah workspace. The adjacent hallway features a number of pieces from his Brown Bag series, which is a collection of mixed media portraits referencing a skin color test once used by African Americans to judge beauty, where lighter skin was preferred.
Heading a little further downtown to the Jepson Center, the museum’s Barnard Street windows display yet another of Farris’ projects, "Breakout!," collages of cardboard and other reclaimed materials shown in conjunction with this year’s Boxed In/Break Out project. And soon you’ll be able to find a ‘zine he’s producing in the museum’s store, featuring not only his artwork, but his music and poetry as well.
Plus, there are his murals at the Savannah Children’s Museum and at the new elementary school on Broad Street. Did I happen to mention that he’s getting ready to open a second studio in Bluffton at 71 Calhoun Street with the help of his good friend Matt Cunningham?
Suffice it to say, Amiri Geuka Farris is a busy man.
And yet, it’s his non-profit organization SLAY (Support Lowcountry Artists Y’all) rather than his incredible artistic output that prompted me to reach out to him for a conversation.
"Right when COVID had started, everything was getting cancelled, and there was so much uncertainty about the upcoming shows, festivals, and everything that we, as artists, do," Farris told me when I asked him how the group started. "And we were like we need to do something. Because all of those different support units have just completely stopped."
Along with co-founder and eventual Executive Director Heather Bruemmer, the two quickly decided to create a non-profit and began brainstorming about what they might call it.
"We kind of came up with the name SLAY because we wanted to incorporate more of the Lowcountry aspect in it," said Farris. "And kind of really support the artists in the Lowcountry, because I think the artists here are so strong and there’s a certain energy here that you just don’t find anywhere else."
They decided that the best thing that they could do initially was to help raise money for local artists who were losing income due to the shutdown. SLAY began soliciting donations with the intention of doling the cash out in $500 relief payments based on a simple application process. Since March 25, they’ve been able to pay out over $7000 to artists in need.
"It was just a really motivating and… emotional thing that we were able to do that and get it started so quickly," recalled Farris. "And just the support that we had from the community was just amazing."
As of writing this column, SLAY is still seeking donations and providing relief via their website slayart.org. But their mission has expanded to offer additional services to local creatives.
"We’re trying to get more into a role of mentoring artists," he said. "So artists that want to get to that next level, and they need kind of a mentorship like where do I go from here? Maybe I’m just graduating. How do I connect with different galleries, or different organizations?"
Now more than ever young artists need all of the support that they can get, and with the success that Farris has been able to garner in a relatively short period of time, he and the other professionals involved in SLAY are well positioned to do just that.
"It’s just such an uncertain time," acknowledged Farris. "And us being artists we really rely on all these different exhibits and shows and getting people to actually see the work. So at times what do we do?"
"I think it’s about finding new ways of being creative and new ways of doing things," he added. "And I think us as artists, we aren’t scared to do that."
Listen to my entire conversation with Amiri Geuka Farris embedded here, which includes a performance of the song "Night of Summer" and a reading of his poem "Black Squares." Next week I’ll be speaking with Halie Hall about the history of art making during previous worldwide health crises.
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.
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.