On Being Miss Chant, Claude and Minnie
Cameron Art Museum
Independence Blvd and 17th St. Ext
April 7th and 14th; 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.
Tickets: $30, members; $50, non
An art museum’s function isn’t just to present visual works of art to the public for consumption and education. They’re set to inspire, manifest, prompt and formulate ways in which we view our world—whether through an interactive installation which brings us into an artist’s mind or a performance piece which dictates the way we utilize our senses simultaneously.
Cameron Art Museum (CAM) has evolved tremendously over its 50-year existence, but even more so over the last few years, as they’ve begun to incorporate more performance art and installations into their exhibition space. We’ve seen dance from Alban Elved and Forward Motion Dance companies, as well as musical revues from City Stage and even Civil War re-enactments commemorating the historical ground on which the museum rests. Now, in the closing of their exhibition “From Gatehouse to Winehouse: Inside the Artist’s Workplace: Minnie Evans, Elisabeth Chant and Claude Howell,” they’re showcasing the powerful foundations of our own arts scene, thanks to contributions from some of its founding artists, as performed by Tony Rivenbark, Joyce Grear and Cynthia Rogers.
“We decided to look at Wilmington’s artistic ancestry and, ultimately, chose to focus on the work of three artists who, over the past almost 100 years, cultivated much of the course of Wilmington’s aesthetic identity and system of cultural values,” Anne Brennan, executive director, says.
In the exhibition, CAM recreated the working spaces of the 1850s winehouse where Chant taught in the 1920s, as well as Howell’s living quarters in the Carolina Apartments. They even designed a replica of Minnie Evans’s famed gatehouse at Airlie Gardens.
“To populate these three powerful places with actors’ interpretations of Chant, Howell and Evans respectively was a no-brainer,” Brennan continues. “All three actors have previously performed interpretive pieces of these remarkable artists.”
Thalian Hall Executive Director Tony Rivenbark is no stranger to performance art nor to the life of Howell, as Rivenbark befriended the artist before his passing in 1997. “He was one of the most interesting people I have ever met,” Rivenbark says. “There was no such thing as a dull conversation with Claude. He was one the most influential individuals on the cultural life of Wilmington and was recognized as a leader in the arts throughout the state. Founding [UNCW’s] art department and his influence in the development of the Cameron Art Museum, [where he was a board member,] continues to influence the community even after his death.”
Aside from his onslaught of friendly visits during Howell’s life, Rivenbark studied the artist’s original journals years ago for a presentation at WHQR’s Big Room. “Tony wrote his own script, sourced and referenced from his own lifelong rich experiences in Howell’s company and journals,” Brennan notes.
Rivenbark will be playing himself, reliving his exchanges and interaction with Howell. He even found through Howell’s journals that he visited the artist over 200 times at his home in apartment #44.
“There is not a soul living who can represent Claude Howell with greater truth, humor and love than Tony,” Brennan mandates. “His presentation is fabulous and a work of art unto itself.”
CAM relied on local StarNews journalist and dogmatic researcher Ben Steelman to help steer the script for Minnie Evans. However, Joyce Grear presented the dedication of Airlie Garden’s Wright-Frierson’s Bottle House, erected in honor of Evans’ indelible artistic impact, and, so, she, too, conducted research to mold her character. Folk artist Minnie Evans, spirited by her religion, which interrupted her dreams and inspired her work, passed on in 1987 and left more than 400 works to CAM.
“Joyce reaches so deeply inside her character, embracing Minnie’s wonderment about her divine dreams, coupled with her challenges trying to live in a world amongst those so fearful of her otherness, they’d just as soon marginalize her,” Brennan says. “Joyce is a consummate performer. I quietly wept throughout her entire performance last week. The tears kept steadily rolling, her performance so intimate. I am still torn apart (in the very best way) by it.”
Whether being swept away by her watercolors of the English countryside or King Arthur, the mystical power of Elisabeth Chant captivated Cynthia Rogers at the onset. “Her audacity and determination intrigue me,” Rogers explains. “All of us need role models to set pathways; she is one to investigate.”
A docent of CAM, Rogers vastly studied the work of Chant and the artist’s lifelong passion for traveling to prepare. “She said before she was 7 she had sailed the seven seas,” Rogers notes. “This travel opened her mind to the mysteries of the world.”
In response, it also fed her students and all those affected by her art work to find fortitude and inspiration to push forward. Much of her work even broke ground in women’s roles and freedom to explore. In a 1938 editorial to the StarNews, Chant noted reasons the city needed to embrace an art museum. Among them: “wider horizons for the young, new interests for the mature, and for visitors and tourists, a place of intellectual enjoyment.”
“She was different and kept pushing boundaries both in her public and private life,” Rogers explains. “She was forward-thinking in every way. Now, we have the CAM. Some of her students went on to establish Lower Cape Fear Historical Society.”
Rogers worked closely with actress and WHQR radio host Jemila Ericson to craft the Chant story. Ericson already had great resources from a performance she gave of Chant’s story by her gravesite in Oakdale Cemetery, where the artist was buried in 1947. Originally slated to perform the CAM piece, Ericson had to back out due to a family illness.
“Cynthia convincingly portrays the inner and outer worlds of Chant,” Brennan assures, “for she, like Minnie Evans, had to develop ways to navigate everyday life while still cultivating her rich otherworldly communications.”
“On Being Miss Chant, Claude and Minnie” are open to only 20 participants on two dates before “From Gatehouse to Winehouse…” closes on April 14th. Folks can buy tickets for either the April 7th or 14th shows during a 1 p.m. or 3 p.m. slot; $30 for members or $50 for non.