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New art gallery represents cultural milestone in Savannah

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Residents of Savannah, Georgia, and visitors to the famous historic city generally do not give much consideration to the area known as West Savannah when it comes to deciding which of its many art galleries or exhibitions to check out on a given day. That specific dynamic, however, changed on May 24 when artist Luther E. Vann opened The Barn Studio & Gallery at 114 Millen Street.

One of Savannah’s most iconic artists, Vann enjoyed a triumphant exhibition at the Jepson Center for the Arts in May 2008, during which his art and poetry gift book, ELEMENTAL, The Power of Illuminated Love, also made its debut. In 2009 he received the King-Tisdale Cottage Foundation Award for notable contributions to the fine arts. In 2011, he was honored as the Heritage Days Featured Artist at Penn Center’s York W. Bailey Museum on St. Helena Island, South Carolina. His paintings, photography, and sculpture have since been featured in a number of critically-acclaimed shows.

The Barn Studio & Gallery, located behind the artist’s ancestral family home, has been under construction for nearly a decade. Attendance at the opening was by invitation only. Guests were treated to a selection of works by Vann that included newly-produced canvases, sculptures in progress, digital and mixed media prints, and structures that sat outside the facility itself within the surrounding garden.

An Individual and Community Milestone

The event represents a milestone for Vann, who noted, “It’s like me stepping out from being my basically very private self… which I have to tell you I really enjoy because for me that’s the only way to get the work done and ensure I’m not distracted when doing it.”

It also represents a milestone for the West Savannah community, the history of which author Martha L. Keber documented in her groundbreaking 2008 book, Low Land and the High Road. Considering that the attention of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit Savannah every year is deftly pointed toward the official Historic District in the downtown area, establishing a gallery on what some refer to as the city’s “West Bank” is a gutsy move. It is especially so for an African-American artist.

Vann welcomes this new venture as one that will allow him to interact with collectors and visitors on a more personal level. “This will give me a chance to connect with the public in a space where I will be working at the same.”

His art is often strongly metaphysical in content. It gives visual form to his spiritual vision of existence as layers of reality that human beings experience either consciously or subconsciously. However, like the late Gullah and Savannah artist Allen Fireall, he is also an artist documentarian. In brilliant streaks, waves, and shades of very personal color choices, his canvases capture such everyday scenes as people riding bicycles down neighborhood streets, gatherings in the park, or family members enjoying quiet celebrations.

A Depth of Beauty

A native of Savannah and long-time observer of the city’s thriving cultural arts scene, Joan Simmons was surprised during the gallery’s opening to discover how prolific Vann has been in different art mediums. “There were a lot of canvases and sculpture I had never seen before,” she said. “I was just blown away by the amount of work he’s done.”

She pointed out that the volume of work is particularly notable due to Vann’s successful battle against a serious illness during the past few years. She found both his undiminished passion for his craft and the resulting work deeply inspiring. She was particularly moved by a mixed media digital art piece titled “100 Years Young,” a vibrant depiction of the artist’s late cousin Ozena, whom he also immortalized in ELEMENTAL.

In addition, Simmons observed that the surrounding area added a dimension of experience to the opening that would have been lacking had it been held anywhere else. Because certain sculptures sat in the garden outside the gallery itself, it was much like an installation with the area of West Savannah serving as a giant organic frame.

“There could not have been a more beautiful setting for Luther and his work,” said Simmons. “The art, the architecture, and the street on which Luther lives brought such a depth of beauty to the paintings that would not have been present in a regular museum.”

The Barn Studio & Gallery is now open for visits by appointment on Thursdays through Sundays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. For more information call (912) 376-2056.

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