When someone from Congaree National Park called Columbia College looking for help in selecting among artist-in-residence applications, Mary Bentz Gilkerson begged off the assignment.
“I told her, ‘I don’t think I should jury it because I wanted to apply,’” said Gilkerson, an arts professor at the college.
She did more than apply; she was selected for the second artist-in-residence slot at the park. For the past few weeks, Gilkerson has been working on a mural in the Harry Hampton Visitor Center.
Park staffers told her some visitors who can’t physically handle the trails and boardwalk wait on the benches in that small area while friends or family members tour the park. When she’s finished, what used to be a plain waiting area will give the people sitting on those benches a sense of the trees and waterways at a certain spot where the trails intersect with Cedar Creek.
“I want this to be a place where people who can’t get out there can experience the immersion of nature,” Gilkerson said.
Her work illustrates the park through the four seasons. There are only three wall sections, so the large center section features the meld from spring to summer. “I’m most interested in color and light and how it moves across the surfaces,” Gilkerson said.
She’s having a blast as the artist-in-residence. In fact, Gilkerson has been romping around in the woods in this area since her childhood, when her family owned land just across the Congaree River in Calhoun County. She now owns a horse that she boards with a friend just a few miles from the park’s entrance on Old Bluff Road.
“I remember being turned loose to play in these woods as a kid,” she said. “It smelled so good, all the different spices of the woods.”
Now, as part of the artist-in-residence program, she’s guiding hikes through the park, helping others see the colors and shadows and smell the special aroma.