Monday, June 26, 2017

Eat With An Local

Provided by EatWith
Provided by EatWith

      My best travel memories are the times I’ve connected with locals: tea at an Arab home in Jerusalem, being a house guest in Peru, joining a camping group in France…Making friends, not just photographs. The burgeoning sharing economy has made these sorts of opportunities as easy as a mouse click. Launched in 2012, EatWith is now the largest global marketplace of communal dining. In just five years, over 80,000 travelers have dined at over 11,000 home cooked meals all over the world. Their colorful website profiles over five hundred home chefs in 150 cities eager to share a seat at their kitchen table. Susan Kim, EatWith’s CEO, describes, “Through communal dining, we’re facilitating meaningful human connections for locals and travelers, while creating economic impact on the lives of the chefs…”
       I’ve made the website part of my travel planning whenever I’m going to a big city. Even arm-chair travelling their menus is fun: how about an Argentine BBQ with Malbec in Buenos Aires, an 8-course “Drunken Vegan Feast” in Montreal, homemade bacon and prosciutto in Croatia, a traditional Sabbath dinner in Jerusalem or a 7-course Cambodian feast in Hong Kong starring banana blossom salad? I’m eager to try them all after the impressive dinner that my mom, sisters and I had in Washington, D.C. at the home of Catherine Nissen. She describes her life as “socializing around food” gained from her cosmopolitan travels and living in Laos where her family owns a farm. “When I cook, I strive to fuse the original four culinary pillars (Chinese, Indian, Ottoman and Italian) into an
alluring, delightful meal.”  The menu we booked, Summer on the Silk Road, is her most popular although she happily made a few adjustments to accommodate my sister’s gluten-free diet We were immediately entranced by her light filled, artistic apartment where she also creates commissioned portraits. A nearly finished one rested on an easel. An array of dignitary-filled travel photos filled a wall. “My philosophy when it comes to food is the fewer ingredients the better,” she explained as she began the four courses and poured us each wine. We perched on stools to watch her confidently cook. All the EatWith hosts have to adhere to safety and cleanliness standards and pass a review process and demonstration before they’re accepted. We began with what she calls a Faux Caesar Salad anointed with her “Elixir of Life” special olive oil. As we munched and chatted, she expertly molded lentil and feta cheese topped with shiitake mushrooms, pomegranate vinegar and walnut oil inside round metal rings. A beautiful presentation resulted when  
she deftly lifted off the rings to reveal colorful round layers of complex tastes and textures. As she seared the fresh salmon, we noticed that she oiled the fish, not the pan and added the glazed sauce after the fish was cooked. “We’re all good cooks but we all learned something,” my mom later commented. After an almond cake dessert, amuse-bouche candies and plenty more wine, we were satiated. We all agreed it was a fun way to spend the evening, so much better than a restaurant.
      Another meal sharing website, Traveling Spoon, provided Jeff, Meryl and their children with a travel highlight in Bali. The patriarch of their host family is a master gardener and began their day by pointing out the provenance of the ingredients as he drove them to his family’s compound. They spent hours around an open fire with generations of family members who live there together. As logs were fed into the flames, they ground, chopped and grated to create an expansive meal. All the while, they chatted with their hosts and learned about their daily lives. Family members don’t typically eat together in the evening, they were told. When they get home from work, they’re too stressed so they eat whenever they’d like and then join together as a family later in the evening. It was a lot of enjoyable work, Meryl said, particularly since one of the family members who was expected to help was away at a “tooth pulling ceremony”. These authentic experiences are the hidden gems of traveling.
      Most EatWith meals are communal and available on advertised dates but you can also request a date to suit your schedule as we did. The menus are the allure but the experiences transcend the food. Travelers get an inside glimpse into the hosts’ lives, meet interesting people, share stories and learn foodie wisdom. Jose, a chef in Mexico, describes the encounters beautifully: “Every time we have an EatWith dinner, our table turns into that very special place in the world where strangers become friends — distances between cultures and countries get reduced across a 28-inch table.”

If You Go:


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Where Did They Come Up With That?

            When Thomas Edison needed ideas for his brilliant inventions, he dozed with ball bearings in each hand and pie plates at his feet.  As his fists unclenched, the balls crashed, awakening him to write down what he was thinking at that instant. How do artists come up with their strange and wonderful ideas? In fascinating interviews, I learned some of their secrets.
            The world is full of ideas, they told me.  Picking the right ones is the hard part.  “I have more ideas then I can do in a lifetime.  I wish I could stop it sometimes,” said Mary Edna Fraser, Charleston’s premier batik artist and painter.  She takes hundreds of aerial photographs and might choose just one.  Mark Down whose company Blind Summit Theatre is bringing the show The Table to Spoleto this year said, “Inspiration for a puppet can come from anywhere…a book, a commission, television, in our sleep.  Once it came from a magic tree. Sometimes you have this big puppet and you don’t know why you made it so then you start a journey of discovering what to use it for.”  That was actually the genesis for The Table.  The main puppet character was created for an earlier commission.  Later, it led Mark’s curious mind along a path that meandered from Moses to Samuel Beckett and eventually to this show.

      Sometimes a compelling message is translated through their genre such as in Hillel Kogan’s dance piece     We Love Arabs at the Spoleto Festival.  “Usually I do have an idea before I start the creation.  Through improvisation I discover the way to talk through the body.” His piece is a depiction of how Jews see Arabs and the social codes in Israel. But artistry made it approachable.  “Regarding ethnic conflict, especially in the Middle East, the approach is very serious, melancholic. Humor is a tool to enable us to take some distance. The effect is that it holds down the hard feeling.  Humor is my language.”  After the Mother 
Emanuel tragedy, local artists called Cookie Washington helplessly asking, “What should we do?” “Go make art,” she replied.  She sewed her grief into a provocative quilt. David Boatwright has created.  
      Sometimes commercial interests initiate the project as in many of the commissioned murals.  “My responsibility is to come up with an image that’s not aggressive marketing.” On Queen Street, the mural “Wine” began as an advertisement for a wine distributor but the finished image, a mural David is most proud of, is the result of “being hemmed in by good taste”: the wall backed up to the Gibbes Art Gallery.  A parody of Renoir’s “Boat Party” and an homage to the Charleston’s culinary community was the creative result.  
             Ideas are elusive so the artists need systems to capture them.  Hillel Kogan decries videotaping as he improvises because it “destroys something”.  He trusts what feels right and uses assistants to give feedback.  Charleston’s poet laureate Marcus Amaker always carries a notebook of unfinished poems; Blind Summit puppet theater uses workshops of “brainstormy, anything goes, chaos” to get feedback from colleagues. Despite her excellent visual memory, Mary Edna catalogues every photo and location she shoots.
            And then there’s the hard won element of artistic intuition.  Sometimes too much time is spent on what turns out to be a bad idea.  “My whole life is like that,” quipped Mark Down of Blind Summit Theatre. Cookie Washington calls these “UFO’s:  Unfinished Objects under the bed”.  Hillel Kogan describes the culling process:  “The largest part is the unused parts.  Very little of it will stay.  It’s all about looking for something you don’t know what it is, like fishing.  There is more water than fish.”  As Marcus Amaker edits his poems he’s learned “… to keep those ‘scraps’. There’s beauty in that process.”  Abstract painter Susan Altman said, “I live in a dream state. A lot of art is not making it happen but recognizing when it does. I let the painting direct me.”

            Success often comes from combining ideas.  “The big work is to connect, to link the ideas” said Hillel Kogan.  “The search for unity is much more demanding than the search for good ideas.” Mark Down agreed: “I always know something is good when ideas are kaleidoscoping into each other.”  Marcus Amaker’s poem The New Foundation “…was birthed when I saw a direct parallel between architecture and personal growth. Sometimes a poem will take me where it wants me to go and I just have to be open and listen.”   
            “It’s a discipline,” Greg Tavares of the “The Have Nots” said of his quick-fire ability to instantaneously come up with improv skits.  What audiences enjoy is the result of years spent acquiring skills and honing intuition: competency. Greg describes it as “The difference between learning the steps and waltzing.”

For More Information:

Spoleto Festival: May 26 to June 11

Marcus Amaker, poet:

Mary Edna Fraser: studio open by appointment

David Boatwright:

Susan Altman:

The Have Nots:

Friday, April 21, 2017

Charleston’s First Arts Renaissance

"Fields Prepared For Planting" by Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, 

courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art

          With apologies to one of my heartfelt heroes, Gian Carlo Menotti, the artistic revitalization of Charleston began long before he got here.  During a walking tour led by Lee Ann Bain for Piccolo Spoleto and the Preservation Society, I learned about some of the visionaries that laid the groundwork for the vibrant creative scene we enjoy today.  Pointing out places in the historic district, she told us stories of how the artistic community of one hundred years ago used their ingenuity to overcome poverty, attract cultural tourists and form institutions that infused the city with creative energy. 
          When Mayor Joe Riley brought us Spoleto, he was not the first one to recognize the power of the arts to create prosperity. After Reconstruction, when the devastating effects of civil war were lingering and the First World War loomed, Charleston’s economy was in shambles. The Charleston Renaissance grew from that necessity, inspiring poets, writers, musicians and artists to boot-strap themselves and the city out of poverty.   
          Alice Ravenel Huger Smith was widowed with no income and an aristocratic background. She became a largely self-taught artist who worked 12 hours a day to support herself.  Experimenting in a variety of media, she became noted for her colorful etchings and later her watercolors. Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, was one of her students.  Alice nostalgically depicted the rural life of the vanishing rice plantations, a past when families like hers reaped prosperity based upon slavery. Talk of romanticizing the past follows her work today but back then she said, “It is useless to try and relive the past just as it is unnecessary to discard everything that came before us.” Together with other women artists, she began the precedent for today’s art walks by printing maps of artists’ studios for patrons to tour on Sunday strolls. Their seductive depictions of the Lowcountry drew tourists, just as similar images do today. The women served tea, entertained the guests and gently sold art. Lee Ann explained that no money could be exchanged on Sundays so patrons had to return the next day to transact the sales.
        Innovative programs like “Engaging Creative Minds” provide arts infusion to schools here today but they owe a debt of gratitude to Laura Bragg. In 1920, she became the first women to run an American museum when she was hired as the director of the Charleston Museum. One year later, against the directive of the museum’s trustees, she welcomed African Americans into the museum. Another of her innovative ideas was “Braggy Boxes”, over 5 dozen hinged crates that opened to display dioramas. They travelled to outlying schools along with instructional materials. Today, her inspiration is evident in the thousands of students who come to festival performances and visit museums, well informed by background information.

           "Boone Hall" by Edwin Harleston" courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art

        Today we celebrate artists like Jonathan Greene who depict colorful Gullah life but that road was paved by African American artist Edwin Harleston. A man of illustrious background, he was valedictorian at Avery Normal Institute and earned degrees in chemistry and sociology under W. E. B. Du Bose at Atlanta University. He was also the first president of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP. He chose to study art rather than accepting admission to Harvard University but joined his family’s funeral home business in Charleston in 1913. Snatching what time he could from his daily obligations, he became a leading portrait painter and portrayer of the rising Black middle class. Despite his talent, he was spurned by the white arts community. DuBose Heyward based a character on him in Mamba’s Daughters without ever meeting him; he lost commissions because of racial prejudice; Laura Bragg was thwarted when she tried to stage an exhibition of his work. But now he is recognized as a cornerstone of the Charleston Renaissance and his portraits are on permanent display at the Gibbes Museum, a change that Lee Ann calls “reclaiming our heritage”.
         Lee Ann’s company began when the Preservation Society asked her and Carol Ezell Gilson to develop a tour about the Grimke sisters three years ago. The popularity of Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Invention of Wings about these suffragists made it quite popular, spurring a company that includes a variety of specialized one-mile walking tours on subjects from graveyards to ironwork to the great earthquake. There’s even an historical treasure hunt for students. Before her extensive research on the Charleston Renaissance Lee Ann “…didn’t know these people existed and what they did for Charleston and what they did to get Charleston back on its feet. There would be no Gibbes or Spoleto without these people,” she pointed out. Now, as I walk the quaint streets of our city, especially during the festival, I am grateful for their contributions.

If You Go:

Several Tours will be offered throughout Piccolo Spoleto, May 25 to June 10

Monday, February 13, 2017

Get Lifted at the Savannah Music Festival

            One of the best things about music is that it transcends.  It ignores borders, persists through tragedy, unites crowds and reveals souls.  It fills our ears with beauty.  It shows us other perspectives. The programming at this year’s Savannah Music Festival is an invitation to experience the many ways that music elevates.
            Music allows us to vicariously live in a composer’s mind.  Beethoven wrote 32 piano sonatas.  They are all beautiful.  Many are famous such as The Moonlight Sonata.  But what’s really amazing is that he wrote many of them while he was deaf. As his hearing slowly declined, he was left with just his memory of musical sounds.  Stewart Goodyear was just 5 years old when he spent an entire day listening to recordings of Vladimir Ashkenazy playing all of the sonatas. His astonishment continued to compel him as he studied and became one of the world’s best pianists. Now he has turned the repertoire into a Herculean feat of strength.  He’s performing all 32 of them in a one-day, ten-hour, three-seating “Sonatathon”.  "Physically," he explains, "I trained like an athlete, building up stamina and strength so I could play all 32 in one day. I learned them so thoroughly I could play them in my sleep.” He continues to mine Beethoven’s works for emotional depth. “To me, he represents all human emotions - every layer of humanity is explored and dissected in the sonatas.” Listening, we too, can delve into Beethoven’s mind. 
    Music also transcends time. It evolves on stages like The Savannah Music Festival where shared bills spark new ideas. Composer/multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal is one of the most beloved musical figures in the history of Brazilian music. Miles Davis called him “the most impressive musician in the world.” He’ll debut a new take on choro music with Brazilian mandolinist Danilo Brito and his quintet. At age 80, Pascoal is still passionately creative, "In my head, there is always more stuff. Wouldn't it just be really tedious if a bunch of old guys from my generation all died or fell asleep on the stage? Our primary concern is innovation."

    Music gives us a glimpse of composers’ foibles. It’s not always pretty. “I have played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms,” wrote Pyotr Tchaikovsky in his diary in 1886. “What a giftless bastard!” Johannes Brahms didn’t seem to enjoy Tchaikovsky’s music either. He attended a rehearsal for Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and fell asleep. In the festival’s multimedia production Brahms vs. Tchaikovsky actors will portray the rivalry while masterworks by the two composers are performed. It’s a revelatory and entertaining peek into their social dramas.
      Music is an antidote to the sound-bite culture of fear and intimidation. Audiences will groove to The Sounds of Kolachi, a 10-piece supergroup of vocalists and instrumentalists from Karachi,
Pakistan that blends raga, Western harmony and South Asian melodies. Patrons will succumb to the trance-like meditative performances of Sufi vocalist Sanam Marvi. Exotic instruments will eschew trade embargos: German Lopez of the Canary Islands will play his ukulele-like timple. Haitian drums and dancers will share the stage with a cellist. Fiddles, accordions, harmonicas, guitars, bouzoukis and percussion will energetically showcase Quebecois culture. The gaucho-inspired Che Malambo will strut onto the stage pounding drums and the “ethno-chaos”  band DakhaBrakha from the Ukraine will accompany a silent film. The cacophony of the world: it’s a beautiful thing.
  Music transcends politics. Fireworks are expected at the festival’s “Piano Showdown” as three jazz pianists interpret what Jelly Roll Morton described as his “Spanish tinge” music. Jazz luminaries from Panama, Cuba and the US will combine forces to bring the habanera rhythms of Afro-Cuban music to this Savannah-only concert just as our country’s impediments to travelling to Cuba are lifting.
  If we all literally spoke the “universal language” of music, the world might be a better place.  Meanwhile, we have festivals like this to lift us above the mundane.  From March 23 to April 8 classical music will overflow onto Savannah’s quaint streets, patrons will boogie out of dance parties and musicians will strike a chord in our hearts for a moment of transcendence.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Artistic Adventures to Spark up your Year

Bootsy Collins rocks out at LEAF

            Picasso said that “the purpose of art is to wash away the dust of daily life from our souls.” Who couldn’t use more of that? Here are a few perspective-altering experiences to get onto your calendar now. 

Faerie Kin at LEAF
Boogie Down: Join hands in a circle of positivity at the family-friendly LEAF Festival in Black Mountain, N.C.  Stages are tucked around the beautiful lake.  Camping and cabins are perched on the mountainside.  You can start the day with soul stirring Gospel music or join an outdoor yoga class; dance all day to rock, world or Blues bands, sashay into contra lines and drum on the mountaintop until the wee hours. You’ll come home with legs like spaghetti from dancing so much; and with a playlist of favorite bands that you didn’t know you love. Next festival is May 11-14 with the enticing theme of Ignite and Inspire.  Or go for the fall foliage October 19-22. www.theleaf.orgFind more festival ideas see   Need encouragement?  Click here. 

Envelope Yourself in an Art Environment: A stunning renovation of St. EOM’s 7-acre creation, Pasaquan, recently opened to the public in Buena Vista Georgia.  The colorful compound contains 
undulating walls, ceremonial spaces, buildings and shrines that the artist felt compelled to create over the course of 30 years. It had almost crumbled to ruin but after a three year restoration it is now an amazingly odd, inspiring sight and a national treasure.  Open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10 to 5, donation $10.

Show Little Sister some Love:  Don’t compare it to Spoleto.  Savannah has its own cache.  The venues are charming, the crowds are smaller, the prices are reasonable and the music is stellar.  This year’s Savannah Music Festival’s line up includes a feat of strength:  Stewart Goodyear’s “Sonatathon” program where he’ll play all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas in one day as well as a dazzling array of international musicians from Pakistan, Quebec, Canary Islands, Haiti, Brazil that contrast with headliners such as The Avett Brothers, Sarah Jarosz, the Travelin’ McCourys, Marcia Ball and James Cotton, not to mention the broad selection of classical concerts.  March 23 to April 8

Kirkland Smith's portrait of Steve Jobs
 made from computer parts. 
The town that Art Awoke:  Artfields is “the best thing since the invention of grits,” said Lake City gift shop owner Sophia Powell as she wrapped another purchase.  This brainchild of philanthropist Darla Moore has created huge economic impact and launched dozens of art careers. Hundreds of artists apply to exhibit their work in galleries, stores and restaurants. They’ve vying for prizes totaling $120,000.  Patrons flood the town for the free event, transforming sleepy Lake City into an art destination worth the short drive.  April 21 to 29.  Free.

Do it By the Book:  Climb into a book by reading them on location.  Relax on a chaise lounge at the King and Prince Hotel on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia while reading Eugenia Price’s Lighthouse .  Have high tea at Hopsewee Plantation in Georgetown while imagining the carryings-on at the infamous Sunset Lodge brothel featured in Keeper of the House. Reread Pat Conroy’s earliest book The Water is Wide on Daufuskee Island.  In Hot Springs, N.C. you can warm up from reading Cold Mountain or hike the Appalachian Trail to rediscover America as Bill Bryson did. The trail goes right down Main Street. Savannah has experienced a huge influx of visitors seeking out sights from Midnight in the Garden and Good and Evil . And that’s just a few fiction suggestions. 

Make it and Take It:  I surfed a creative wave at John C. Campbell and rode it all week.  The sprawling, beautiful campus north of Atlanta is an art retreat of the highest order, full of hundreds of fun-loving adults. It offers scores of week-long and shorter classes such as photography, cooking, gardening, blacksmithing, painting, dancing; something for everyone.  Beginners are common.  The food is wonderful, the rural setting gorgeous and the teachers couldn’t be more encouraging.  If you need a creative re-boot, this is the place. 

Kiawah is Calling: Since 2004, Earl Klugh has been bringing world-renowned musicians to the five-
Boney James at Kiawah Jazz
star Sanctuary Hotel each November. They’re so popular that many folks book for the following year as they leave. So book your weekend of luxury now. As Sharon Baker, a frequent patron puts it, “Sitting outside along the Atlantic Ocean under starry skies, listening to world class jazz artists like Earl Klugh, Gerald Albright, Jonathan Butler and Michael McDonald, sipping wine...and enjoying the sublime luxury of The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island, that's why my husband Kenny Baker and I return again and again to the Kiawah Jazz Festival each November.” The resort also hosts a yearly Comedy Festival every January.

Get out your calendar and plan an artistic escape. Your soul will thank you for it. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Fruitcakes and Santa Claus

      My friend Sharon couldn’t restrain herself as we approached Claxton, Georgia on a road trip last December. “I bought some fruitcake once,” Sharon quipped. “I sent it overseas to guys in the army.”
      “How nice of you,” I said.
      “They dropped them instead of bombs,” she giggled. “They’re also good to use to balance a wobbly table leg, or as sand bags during hurricanes, or as speed bumps.” Fruitcakes are the most maligned of treats. But our preconceived notions of what some call “the worst gift ever” was dispelled when we got to the Claxton Bakery where employees were bustling to ship 90,000 pounds of cakes a day to places all over the world. Obviously, there are plenty of people who crave them. Claxton Bakery also the biggest industry in this central Georgia agricultural town.
      It began in 1910 when Savino Tos, an Italian immigrant and pastry chef, visited the town and was struck by the friendly people and lack of a bakery. He opened a small storefront where the aroma of fresh baked goods and his excellent ice cream earned him a loyal clientele. During the holidays he made his family’s fruitcake. One day an 11 year old boy wandered in looking for work and Savino gave him some chores to do. Albert Parker hustled to the bakery before school to light the ovens and prepare the dough and returned to work until dark. He did it for years. So when Savino wanted to retire in 1945, he sold the business to Albert who ran for 50 years. Today, his four children run the business which has prospered due to the company’s innovative strategies. Civic Clubs throughout North America use the cakes for fundraisers. They are featured in elaborate floats in televised parades.                                                                                                             

      “I feel obliged to buy some,” I whispered to Sharon. “At least for journalistic research.” So bought a few and we carried on to our next stop. Side trips are essential to long road trips, I believe. Our final destination was the outsider art sight Pasaquan near Columbus but I’d checked my favorite website and come up with a few ideas en route. The Vidalia Onion Museum was intriguing. “See a hand-painted 3-D mural of the onion in culinary action, marvel at the World’s Smallest Onion Field…Best of all, you’ll get to see the Vidalia “Yumion”, one of the more terrifying mascots ever created,” it touted. “A terrifying mascot?! I’m in!” I goaded. But somehow it didn’t make the cut. Neither did the “U.S. National Tick Collection” in Statesboro which hosts the world’s largest collection of ticks and a machine that freeze dries them and coats them with gold, a suggestion to which Sharon simply responded “EEW!”
    But up the road was a must-see destination for Christmastime: Santa Claus, Geora. I was surprised to learn that there are many towns in the U.S. named for Christmas. There are North Poles in New York, Colorado and Alaska; a Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and another Santa Claus in Indiana. This one is tiny, only a fifth of a square mile. It looks more like the gussied-up entrance to a fancy subdivision then a town. The tinseled-bedecked visitor’s center was locked but Sue Grisham walked across the courtyard from Town Hall when she saw us and unlocked the door. She said that they call themselves “The Town that Loves Children”. Decorations are up all year and the 200 residents live on streets like Candy Cane Lane and Reindeer Way. When the town was incorporated from a pecan grove in 1941, State representative Tom Fuller declared it to have “Ten people, 40 dogs and no reindeer.” Back then tons of north-south traffic passed nearby and it seemed like a good way to lure tourists. That all changed when I-95 was built. Today, the town attracts thousands of postal customers instead who want their Christmas cards stamped in Santa Claus. As we chatted with Sue, she was busy stamping 200 envelopes she’d received from Austria.

      Back in the car I wondered what to do with the fruitcakes I’d bought. One appealing possibility was to take it to Manitou Springs’ Great Fruitcake Toss in Colorado Springs where we could join enthusiasts from around the world in contests that “launch the hapless dessert into space with a variety of mechanical and pneumatic devises”. That sounded like the makings of another great road trip to us. But in the end, I slipped them under trees at holiday parties, put one in the mailbox for the postman and gave them as hostess presents. I’m worried though. I might receive the same cakes back in gifts to me this year. I guess I could just wrap them up again and wait for next Christmas.

If You Go

Claxton Fruit Cake:

Santa Claus, Georgia:

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

A.K.A. Culigangy

            On a peaceful bike ride on Jekyll Island the other day, a plaque on a soaring beach memorial intrigued me: “Please help me.  In 1859 I was brought to this country when I was a child…One year ago it was revealed to me to go home back to Africa…And now I beg every one who will please help me…I am an Old African.”  It was a plea written to neighbors in 1904 by “Ward Lee”, known as Cilucangy in West Africa.  He’d survived the Middle Passage on The Wanderer, the last ship to bring slaves to this country.  Slave importing had been outlawed for over 40 years by then but Charles Lamar disguised his ship as a pleasure craft and brought about 500 captured Africans to the Georgia coast.  Over a third died along the way.  Cilucangy was bought by an Edgefield, S.C. landowner where his ability to speak several dialects made him a valuable interpreter.  He was also a master sweetgrass basket weaver.  All of the plantation’s cotton was gathered in his baskets.  Throughout his life, he yearned to see his homeland again.  “…it was revealed to me to go home back to Africa and I have been praying to know if it was God’s will and the more I pray the more it presses on me to go… I am trying to get ready if God be with me…”  The memorial is beautiful and the story is poignant but what struck me the most was that it reminded me of my friend Nakia Wigfall’s story. 

            She too is a master sweetgrass basket weaver, the fifth generation in her Mt. Pleasant family, as well as a tireless advocate for the history of her craft. Her ancestors were also brought here as slaves from West Africa and like Cilucangy she too had a compelling desire to go there.  “I began to think more about my ancestors and the land in which they lived.  In my early 30’s I became more and more obsessed and dreamed of what African would be like,” she remembers.  Like Cilucangy, Nakia sought support to realize her vision.  But she used a Go Fund Me page.  In short order she raised over $3,000.  Then during one of her frequent educational talks “I shared that I longed to go to West Africa to see the land and descendants of my people.  A woman was there with her mother.  The mother came to me afterwards and told me about her daughter who is an airline attendant. ‘You have a ticket!’” Nakia was told.  She was astonished. So in May, 2016 she joined a group of professors and traveled to Senegal.  It was a revelation.  “The tour guide looked like one of my nephews and his cousin looked like another one.”  She saw living conditions and culture “very similar to mine as a child and through my adulthood.” Her basket making wove cultural connections.  One day when her group went sight seeing she stayed behind where some Senegalese women were selling fruits and nuts in the marketplace.  “The baskets they had were used to display their merchandise. They were not basket makers.  Just like here, not all African Americans from Charleston are sweetgrass basket makers.  So I got out my materials…and started telling the women about my baskets.  She didn’t speak English but she was excited to see that my basket looked similar to the ones the basket makers make there.  We now share a special bond because I gave her a sweetgrass bracelet to remember out time together.” 

            After the Civil War Cilucangy became a farmer, married and had four children. He continued to weave his masterful baskets and pass down the skill.   Three of his sons still own land in the area and recently hosted their extended family’s 9th biannual reunion which always begin by reciting the names of those who have passed and introducing the new children and spouses who’ve joined the family.  “We have a wonderful family, said Mrs. Mitchell, who is one of Ward Lee’s three surviving grandchildren. “ The children are our tomorrow.  We want them to understand.” 

            Cilucangy’s great-great grandson Michael Higgins celebrated the family legacy when he carried a photo of him into the voting booth in 2008.  “I carried it with me as I cast a vote for a son of Africa, who will be this country’s first African-American president.”  It was around the time of Obama’s first inauguration that the family convened on Jekyll Island to dedicate the memorial.  Cilucangy’s yearning for his homeland was never realized.  He died in 1914.  But Darrel Higgins added an uplifting addendum to his great-great grandfather’s life story:  “Here we are, 150 years after Lee comes ashore in cuffs and Obama is going to the White House.  It says so much about where the nation is and was.  It’s profound.” 
For more about Nakia Wigfall: