In Savannah, we’re privileged to be surrounded by distinctive art and an abundance of people who make it. Here, we take studio visits with nine of the city’s stars.
Group portrait by Parker Stewart; individual photos by Cedric Smith
Eny Lee Parker
As a furniture designer and a ceramicist, Eny Lee Parker creates functional objects in unconventional forms. Her work eclipses the boundaries of discipline: glass tables with sleek terracotta bases, pendant lamps and geometric mirrors held aloft by interlocking chains of clay, featherweight ceramic earrings in bold, modern shapes.
“For designers today, there is no pressure to specialize in one single thing,” says Parker, who graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design with a B.F.A. in interior design and an M.F.A. in furniture design. “It’s kind of nice that we’re allowed to sell a lifestyle rather than just a product. It’s more holistic.”
Parker’s work takes shape as she throws clay in her shared studio on Sutlive Street, equipped with potter’s wheels and kilns, while listening to Brazilian music reminiscent of her childhood in São Paolo. Her unique process of firing, sandblasting and coating terracotta with beeswax yields the matte sheen of wet stone, though Parker says she can’t always predict the results. Her earrings, made of regionally sourced clay in red, black, bone and sand colorways, are sold in seven boutiques in cities such as Portland, Oregon, Toronto and Byron Bay, Australia.
With a millennial’s hyperawareness for visual culture, Parker designs from the outside in, always with an eye toward how her work will be styled, photographed and shared. After all, much of her audience comes through social media, where she’s built a sizeable following. Her work has been shown at Milan Design Week and Sight Unseen Offsite during the NYCxDESIGN expo, and she’s also been featured in Architectural Digest, Dwell and The New York Times’ T magazine.
Her first solo exhibition, Eny Lee Parker: Firsthand, debuts at Laney Contemporary in January. The show features her collection of mirrors, lighting and upholstered pieces—evidence of the artist’s attraction to “things that are handmade and personal and intimate, versus something so polished, perfected and machine-made,” she says.
“With clay and natural materials, you don’t have to put tons of detail into it,” Parker adds. “The presence of the form is so much stronger.”
A colossal text piece by Michael Porten hangs inside the entrance of Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, featuring a quote by Hillel the Elder: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”
The weighty words are illuminated, each letter rendered in a multicolored print encased in a lightbox. Elsewhere in the stadium, the word “imagine” is surrounded by a halo of splatter shapes—“a constant theme for me lately,” Porten says of his splash pattern.
A painter by training (he earned an M.F.A. in the discipline from SCAD, along with a B.F.A. in illustration), Porten often uses familiar patterns—plaids, stripes, polka dots—in unusual, aesthetically dense combinations, running them through software programs and superimposing them over self-portraits and other subjects. Though Porten’s work is wildly ambitious, he likens it to deejaying. His latest sculptural text experiments are driven by technology, carving frames out of foam board using a newly acquired CNC routing machine, and casting the letter molds in resin. “I don’t know if anyone else is crazy enough to pour urethane in foam,” he says. “They’re not supposed to get along.”
For his first solo show in New York City, he created a text piece called Sleep tight! out of mattresses, items that he’s also repurposed as canvases for paintings. His latest endeavor is mastering the digital sculpting tool, ZBrush, so he can bring his sculptures, quite literally, to new heights; his sights are set on a scale similar to Jaume Plensa’s monumental public art.
Whatever the material or process, Porten’s work is in perpetual demand. He has exhibited from Miami to Hong Kong, and has been featured in Oxford American magazine and the juried exhibition-in-print, New American Paintings. Next up: a collaborative show this spring with studio mate Britt Spencer at Atlanta’s Spalding Nix Fine Art gallery.
In 1985, Cedric Smith was working as a hairdresser in Atlanta and painting in his spare time. Then famed folk artist William Tolliver sat down in his barber chair. They got to talking and Smith learned that, like himself, Tolliver was self-taught. After a visit to Tolliver’s sprawling studio, Smith had a revelation: This could be a career.
Fast-forward to now, and Smith’s work is some of the most recognizable in Savannah. He’s an accomplished photographer (in fact, he shot all nine individual portraits in this feature) and painter whose work has been exhibited at the Jepson Center, as well as galleries in New York, Paris and Atlanta, and sold through private commissions across the country.
With his paintings, Smith says, the goal is to establish an alternative history where African-American stories are told instead of suppressed. It was a line from a Public Enemy song—“most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps”—that pushed him in this direction many years ago. “When you think about postage stamps, you don’t really see a lot of black people,” Smith says. “You might see Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks—the same people they always use.”
And thus, Smith’s first series was born: acrylic and mixed media works featuring “everyday” African Americans like mailmen and schoolteachers as collectible stamps. Since then he’s gone on to paint a collection featuring black Confederate soldiers, and current works in progress riff on vintage advertisements.
Smith’s aesthetic resonates in a big way, and it’s about to get bigger: In February, a 15-piece exhibition of his paintings, titled “Facing History,” will be on display at Curtiss Jacobs Gallery in New York’s Harlem.
“There are lots of rules in a school setting,” says Fran Kaminsky, former chief academic officer of South University. “You’re managing students and teachers and schedules, you’ve got accreditation you’ve got to think about, and whether you’re meeting standards. That’s very different than: ‘Here’s a lump of clay: What are you going to do with it?’”
It wasn’t until after her retirement in 2001 that Kaminsky’s new passion began to take form. An admirer and collector of Glenna Goodacre and Frank Hart, she was drawn to the medium by her love of portraits. But where to start? A college art class seemed too intimidating. A workshop, however, she could handle.
First encouraged and mentored by renowned Savannah-based sculptor Susie Chisholm, known locally for the Johnny Mercer sculpture in Ellis Square, and the late Judy Mooney, Kaminsky now focuses on her figures during weeklong retreats several times a year in North Carolina.
These retreats are where most of her clay sculptures, imbued with movement and mystery, spring to life. Her work is often based on photographs that catch her eye and seem to have a story behind them: a girl hoisting herself out of the swimming pool, a couple doing the G.I. Jive, a child jumping rope or a woman about to be carried away by a bundle of balloons. With every piece, Kaminsky carefully plans what the viewer can and cannot see.
Unlike the more fragile and particular ceramics she started with, oil-based clay allows her to tweak and bend and shift until she’s content. “I’m trying to not be quite so clean and neat. I like the look of the rougher surfaces, but I tend to smooth it. So I have to stop myself.”
When Kaminsky decides she likes a work enough to cast it in bronze, it’s time to think about patina. She typically considers texture and light, though sometimes the sculptures decide for themselves: A woman twirling in a dress in a piece called Gorgeous could only be wearing red, Kaminsky reasoned, so that’s the shade in which she was cast.
“When you’re painting, it’s really about color and getting color right to make it look real,” Kaminsky says. “When you’re sculpting, you’re making a three-dimensional object that is real. You don’t have to worry about color for eyes and skin and hair. I just create the illusion, and you’ll do the rest.”
In the backyard of the grand Starland District Victorian that McKenzie Smith shares with friends, pots of water line a long table like cauldrons. Yarn is tucked into each one, steeped by various objects—rosemary from the garden, acorns from across the street, goldenrod from a park on East Broad, eucalyptus from Duffy Street. Smith adds iron to one pot to deepen a hue, vinegar to another to brighten it.
“I enjoy exotic colors but they’re not really found in nature here,” says Smith, who graduated from SCAD in 2015 with a degree in fibers. “I try to gather materials without disturbing anything. I’d rather find something that’s already fallen, like moss or lichen.”
Natural dyeing is integral to Smith’s work, which she creates inside her home’s light-filled parlor on a pair of 8-shaft looms. One, she says, is easy to use and transportable. The other weighs 500 pounds and “behaves like an old man—it’s very particular.” Both have a grounding effect on her. Here, Smith claims she can sit for 24 hours, with barely an interruption, to finish a complicated piece. Smith counts Anni Albers and Eva Hesse among her muses, yet she tends to look to painters—Frank Stella and Willem de Kooning, especially—for their color work.
Raised in a military family, Smith has a peripatetic upbringing that stretches from Washington state to Thailand. She currently works as a weaver and textile designer at OoLaLoom, custom making luxurious, one-of-a-kind baby carriers using combinations of silk, cotton, bamboo and merino wool. Her private work features handwoven fine art, including a series of paintings on vellum that she transformed into weavings, as well as rugs, blankets, garments and accessories. Once complete, the pieces, she admits, are difficult to part with.
“You should want to keep every piece—that’s the goal, right?” she asks. “I want my whole self in my work.”
Growing up on a farm in southern Ontario, Will Penny dreamed of making animated films for Pixar. He went on to earn two consecutive degrees in painting at SCAD, but his love for computer art remained. As part of his graduate studies, Penny researched projection mapping, rendering, and augmented and virtual reality, looking for ways to incorporate them into his work.
For his thesis show, his goal was to create something handmade that appeared digitally rendered. He built three-dimensional canvases from wood, painting them with an automotive spray gun to mimic light. He made the next series from layers of epoxy resin and putty, then switched to carved aluminum, polished to a mirror finish. Penny says some viewers are fooled by his visual trickery. “People don’t realize the canvases stick out from the wall so they bump into them,” he says with a laugh. “I’m very used to my publicly installed work getting damaged.”
Luckily, that’s not the case with his latest project, an ongoing series of software-generated projection mapping. Merging elements of painting, sculpture and projection, this process-driven work is at once high art and high tech. The video loops combine renderings, lighting effects and found footage from the internet. Some of the content evolves over time so, Penny says, “you never feel like you missed out on anything.”
In addition to public art installations at Judge Realty in Savannah and a major collaboration with his studio mates, Michael Porten and Britt Spencer, in Boston, Penny’s work has been exhibited at the Jepson Center and during SCAD’s deFINE Art festival. At every turn, he says, his mission is to learn new things, while creating entertaining experiences for people along the way.
“I’m envisioning a ton of projects with interactive coding, but I still don’t know how to code,” Penny says. “I think this year I’m going to sit down and finally figure it out.”
It wasn’t until after the blues and yellows hit the canvases in her most recent painting collection, that Shea Slemmer understood the colors’ origin: the water taxis gliding down the East River outside her Brooklyn studio, where she spends much of her time.
“I look at my work now and I think, ‘Oh, it crept in,’” says Slemmer, who has lived in Savannah since 2003. “It happens that way. I’ll see the answer later down the road. There’s never a preconceived idea of what the painting is going to look like. It all happens on the palette—that’s where I sketch.”
Whether she’s working from New York City or her Savannah studio overlooking Crawford Square, Slemmer paints with a keen sense of detail and ritual, layering lines and washes of color, and working on multiple paintings at once so “they can talk to each other,” she says. Self-imposed boundaries guide the gestural brushstrokes in her most recent works.
“If there’s something fuzzy or if there’s a dot showing somewhere, I’ve done that on purpose,” Slemmer says. “Even when I pour paint on the canvas, I control it. I shim it, I move it, I’ll let it dry, I’ll put a fan on it—I control everything about it.”
After spending much of the year working this way, she takes a step back and recognizes the theme that allows her to curate a cohesive body of work. Then, every April, Slemmer hosts an independent show for her private collectors, including clients like Lily Brown Interiors and Hultman Interiors. Her monumental oil paintings are too large for most downtown Savannah galleries, so she mounts them in unconventional spaces such as warehouses or empty buildings.
In the spring, Slemmer will showcase two solo exhibitions: one at a still-to-be-determined location in Savannah and a second at the Sweet Lorraine Gallery in Brooklyn. As she moves from here to there and back again, painting is where the artist finds her moments of balance, peace and calm: “This is my Zen, my yoga. This is what frees my mind.”
Marcus Kenney describes his childhood on the Louisiana bayou as “idyllic,” and he’s trying to recreate it for his own four children on Isle of Hope. But try as he might, there’s no stopping the march of time, or technology: “My 6-year-old does homework on a MacBook,” he says. “And I’m still all about using paper.”
Kenney has built a prolific career out of his obsession with discarded and vintage artifacts—everything from bingo tickets to wooden toys, fishing nets to lighting—to create his layered, largescale assemblages of Americana.
“I’ve always been fascinated by what’s going on in politics, religion and culture,” Kenney says. “I try not to be overt and instead let my work speak for itself.”
He first began using found objects for art—“like making gumbo,” as he puts it—when he moved to Savannah to study photography at SCAD in the late 1990s. During that time, much of downtown was undergoing a massive revival, so as the contents of historic buildings were emptied into dumpsters and onto curbs, Kenney snatched some of them up. Now, his sourcing takes him from roadside to beachside, from garage sales to thrift stores, transforming relics into intricate, densely packed paintings, sculptures and taxidermy. Recent installations involve animal cages and crab traps draped in costume jewelry and neon-lit signage—every bit of it reclaimed.
Today, Kenney’s art is showcased across Savannah and beyond. Major pieces decorate SCAD academic buildings, and a collage-painting hangs above a booth in The Grey’s dining room. He has exhibited at art fairs including Art Basel Miami Beach, and in group and solo shows from Minneapolis to Tel Aviv. His work is in the permanent collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, and a self-titled book, distributed by D.A.P., features a survey of his compositions.
It’s not surprising that Kenney describes the world as his art store. He reverentially handles each discovery, considering its history and the person who made it. “The materials I use are things that people in the future might not have access to,” Kenney says. “Certain objects, like vinyl records, end up experiencing a resurgence, but most things that disappear do not come back.”
Looking back to the 24 years she spent as a fibers professor at SCAD, Pamela Wiley says she loved being part of her students’ “creative metamorphosis.” Since retiring four years ago, Wiley has experienced her own about-face, returning to her roots as a studio artist.
She creates fine art and functional pieces, striving to redefine traditional quiltmaking and textiles by combining heirloom techniques with digital technology. Looking to a mélange of inspirations—from her own early adventures as a Broadway prop designer to Albert Einstein’s quantum theory to Agnes Martin’s paintings— Wiley manipulates volume, focus, light and shadow. In Now the Once, her latest body of work, currently on exhibit at Laney Contemporary gallery, variations in pattern and plane invite a closer look: wavy stitchwork creates optical illusions, and reflective fibers shimmer through layers of fabric.
“I’m trying to create a multidimensional experience,” says Wiley. “I like it when something looks like it could levitate or slide off the surface or fly away.”
Wiley’s process might be best described as fine-tuned happenstance. When she programs her designs in her quilting machine, she takes measures to “hack” the automated system. She often begins at a random spot in the fabric rather than the customary upper left-hand corner, or returns to various sections to add pigment with overlapping stitches. “The machine is like a pencil to me,” notes Wiley. “It has a robotic element but I’m working so hard to make it do what I want that the whole process feels like it’s done by hand.”
Wiley’s art takes her to residencies and workshops across the world, and she recently spent a month in New York City designing a private commission. When home, she lives and works on Tybee Island, a place of constant inspiration. “A lot of my work addresses different ways of seeing,” says Wiley. “We need quiet spaces where we can float in on our terms and connect our own lines and dots.”