Chatham Arts Council board member Lesley Landis has lived in East Tennessee, Durham, and Chapel Hill, but none have had a creative culture like Chatham County. This realization led Landis to ask, “What accounts for the creative culture that Chatham is known for?”
Artistic expression has been present in Chatham County since the time when Native Americans lived in a swath of the county. Fragments of simple stamped pottery near the Haw River have suggested the art belonged to the Sissipahaw. Mandolin player Tony Williamson says he has found thousands of these pottery pieces on his farm.
Williamson says his family has been in the rural Piedmont area since the 1700s, and attributes the creative culture in Chatham to the tradition and purpose of art in the past. He says he remembers playing various instruments, and that while he played, “everybody who didn’t play music would be shuckin’ the corn.”
Because of examples like this, Williamson says that art in the area developed out of its connection with function.
Quilting bees exemplify both the connection and function Williamson talks about. Quilting is a practice rooted in the need for bedcovers for families. Out of this need, quilting bees became an opportunity for women to share their artistry. These gatherings characterized social life of rural Chatham County, especially in the African American population. Williamson says he still has quilts made by his grandmother and great-grandmother.
Musician and Chatham Arts Council member Tommy Edwards says influential figures, like Superintendent Perry Harrison, encouraged art projects in the public school system throughout his tenure starting in the late 60s. Edwards says throughout Harrison’s administration, art teachers travelled to the middle and high schools of Chatham and facilitated activities with students. As an artist himself, Harrison created the artwork in the main entryway of the Perry Harrison Elementary School.
Contemporary growth is partly due to the opportunities in Chatham, said Edwards, whose wife was a director of one of these opportunities – the NC Arts Incubator. The Chatham-based nonprofit was founded in 2002 and its Siler City location provides new artists space to work and exhibit their visual, musical, and sculptural talent.
In addition, organizations like the Chatham Arts Council and the Chatham Arts Guild have supported local artists. According to Landis, kids’ carnival ClydeFEST is held by the Chatham Arts Council and attracts 2,000 visitors a year. Events like the Chatham Studio Tour have also brought visitors to the studios of artists scattered around Chatham County annually since 1992. The Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival is a biannual music festival held by the Shakori Hills Community Arts Center that celebrates music and dance in Pittsboro. According to their 2017 annual report, over 7,000 people attended the spring festival and over 5,000 people attended the fall festival.
Both Edwards and Williamson say location is another reason for Chatham’s creativity. According to Edwards, Chatham’s artistic appeal has been its close proximity to opportunities places like the Triangle for showcasing the artist’s work. Edwards says he remembers playing in Carrboro-based Cat’s Cradle with his own band every week in the 70s and early 80s.
Tony Williamson viewed Chatham’s appeal in its opposite ability to be an inspirational place for artists to do their work. “A lot of artists tend to be refugees from modernization,” Williamson says. In Williamson’s opinion, Chatham gives artists a cheap space to focus.
Pointing to a specific reason for Chatham’s artistic reputation is complicated. But location, history, and tradition all seem to play a role in the development of Chatham’s creative culture. And these elements somehow combine to make a community that attracts visitors to art Williamson describes as a “quilting bee, corn-shuckin’ sensibility”.
“That’s the magic of Chatham County art,” Williamson says. “It’s actually something that comes from another time.”
Information gathered from:
“Because I Needed Some Cover”: Afro-American Quiltmakers of Chatham County, North Carolina by Mary Anne McDonald
“Challenges and Feasibility of Rural Arts-Based Economic Development: A Case Study of Chatham County, North Carolina” by Rachel Fleming
Indian Communities on the North Carolina Piedmont A.D. 1000 to 1700 by H. Trawick Ward and R.P. Stephen Davis Jr.
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