The State House was under an umbrella of creativity Monday evening as hundreds of arts supporters met on the grounds to oppose Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto of the South Carolina Arts Commission budget.
The storm that had threatened the rally moved through the area, bringing the kind of rain that doesn’t fall sideways, meaning it was easier for the prepared to share their shelter with the less fortunate.
The event was more of a gathering than a rally because there was no discernible rhythm. Drummers stood in circles banging their hands, while others played guitar and violin on the State House steps in the vicinity of a person dressed as the Grim Reaper. There was a jam session held on the landing by George Washington’s statue. Art was wherever the head turned, like a farmers market for performance artists.
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Natalie Brown, the organizer who created the Facebook event, didn’t want a traditional rally where talking heads strain for their talking points to be heard. People could pay attention to what drew their attention.
“I’d like to keep the focus on the artist,” Brown, a founder of the local arts troupe Alternacirque, said. “I kind of like the idea of free-form chaos and letting everybody have an equal voice.”
The Arts Commission grants money for arts projects statewide and oversees the state art collection. Haley’s veto eliminated $1.9 million in state funding and $500,000 in Arts Commission grants.
Ken May, the Arts Commission’s executive director, objected to reports that grants are “handed out” by the agency.
“It’s a really rigorous, transparent and fair process,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons you have a professional agency do it or it would turn into pork.”
Today, lawmakers will begin voting on which vetoes to override.
David Phillips set up his easel away from the gathering. It was an example of both an artist’s independence and, by showing up, an artist’s sense of community. By painting the State House over an unfinished portrait, Phillips was also displaying an artist’s sense of thrift.
“Artists are great recyclers of things,” he said.
Ashley Berendzen, Sarah Brown, Anna Velicky and Eli Armstrong held a picnic basket tea party on the lawn. Sitting on pillows and blankets, they served a guest a mug of coffee from what was once a Patron bottle.
“Do you take sugar?” Berendzen asked. “We’ve always wanted to do this. This was the perfect time.”
As they sat, the sign carried by Velicky, who has purple or blue hair, depending on the observer, was being dotted by raindrops. “Art is a universal language” was written in marker.
“That’s OK. It’s waterproof marker,” she said.
People dodged umbrellas in an effort to not make eye contact with the parasol’s end cleat. The umbrellas themselves were an artistic expression for some. William Starrett, artistic director of the Columbia City Ballet, cradled a Louis Vuitton as he chatted with people.
Mayor Steve Benjamin, talking under an umbrella held by visual artist Billy Guess, was being interviewed by musician and filmmaker Tom Hall for a documentary on the Confederate flag. Benjamin made his arts stance in an op-ed published Sunday in The State, saying, among other things, “that reducing the arts to sketch artists and ballet dancers is like saying all Dell builds are expensive calculators.”
Jasper magazine, an arts publication that is woven into the fabric of the local arts scene, was handed out. Its wet and wrinkled cover became a canvas for painter Lucas Sams.
“That looks like me,” said Catherine Hunsinger, whose braided hair was remarkably replicated, when given her portrait. “That’s so cool.”
Sams snapped it back from her.
“I have to add freckles,” he said.
A flash mob choir sang “I Know Where I’ve Been,” a song from “Hairspray.” Three people wearing mascot heads were overheard discussing dinner at Mellow Mushroom, and there were plenty of cameras pointed in the direction of bikini-clad arts supporters. Portrait artists need models, right?
The arts community has rallied around the Arts Commission since its future was clouded when the vetoes were announced July 6. On Friday, bumper stickers with the phrase “Hey Governor! Kiss my arts” were being sold for $3 in the Five Points bar Goatfeathers.