Lesley Landis, president of ChathamArts, a nonprofit arts council in its 27th year, calls Chatham County's artistic treasures an "embarrassment of riches."
The county's 709 square miles includes such riches as pottery by Mark Hewitt, three-dimensional sculptures by Eddie White, Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance at Shakori Hills and theatrical productions by Ellen Bland.
The list could go on, but one thing each of these endeavors has in common is that they all receive support and resources from ChathamArts.
Landis and ChathamArts director, Molly Matlock, believe the creative diversity and tightly woven arts community of Chatham are what appeal to the 30 percent of event attendees driving from outside the county to participate in ChathamArts events.
Among the signature events backed by ChathamArts are ClydeFEST, in its eighth year; Potlucks in the Pasture, an annual fall Bluegrass Experience concert spotlighting bluegrass legend and Chathamite Tommy Edwards; and the Mardi Gras Masquerade Ball, in partnership with the Abundance Foundation, which has the county aglitter and dancing to the zydeco.
For such an organization with an annual budget of $133,000 that supports one full- and one part-timer and about 90 regular volunteers, ChathamArts gets a lot done. "At times we feel like we have a tiger by the tail," said Landis.
Last July, ChathamArts also kicked off the 100 Mile Sustainable Cinema Series. "North Carolina boasts the third-largest film industry in the U.S.," said Matlock. "The North Carolina industry is set apart by its supportive collaborative nature and the exchange of ideas and sharing of talent, shooting local filmmakers to the forefront of the indie scene."
The monthly independent film series was a brainstorm of filmmaker Linda Booker, best known for her award-winning film, Love Lived on Death Row, and Gilda McDaniel, former ChathamArts president and current board member. The idea arose as McDaniel and Booker discussed ways to bring a regular film venue to Chatham County, which has no set theater outlet. "Residents must drive a minimum of 15 miles to reach a cinema and nearly 30 miles to see independent films like the ones we offer," said Matlock.
Booker calls the series an overture to get people to think "outside the multiplex."
"Once people have the opportunity to see the work that is being produced locally, they are amazed," she said.
The cinema series has succeeded, bringing new audiences to Chatham County and to Fearrington Barn.
Brett Ingram, filmmaker and assistant professor of media studies at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, calls the cinema series a "personification of sustainability."
Ingram finds it harder and harder to get to screenings of his films at festivals across the country due to tightened budgets that have festivals cutting back on accommodations and travel expenses for filmmakers. "Being able to actually see my film screened for a receptive audience, is very important to me, and ChathamArts treats us like royalty," he said.
The series features a Q and A with the filmmakers, connecting audiences closely with the creative process.
The 100 Mile Sustainable Series is just one of the many projects ChathamArts has brought to fruition. The organization also allocates over $10,000 annually to local artists and nonprofit organizations through grant money awarded by the N.C. Arts Council. Many ChathamArts projects push the boundaries of art.
Quentin Murray is a member of the Three Rivers Coalition, formed last fall from the Liberty Reunion Choir to empower, educate and assist the community with showcasing its African-American gospel tradition. This past March, Murray performed a cappella gospel at Race in N.C., a two-day film forum sponsored by ChathamArts.
Murray said that prior to his participation in the event, which focused on race and social justice, he was unaware of ChathamArts' diversity and wide reach.
Murray applied to host a gospel music festival. ChathamArts awarded one of its sub-grants, and the Three Rivers Coalition has begun lining up concerts, lectures and festivities for the first Gospel Music Festival in Chatham in 2010. "It's a dream for us," said Murray, "and ChathamArts has been so supportive."
ChathamArts supports artists by highlighting individual work in themed exhibits held bimonthly at the recently renovated ChathamArts Gallery. The brightly lit, colorful gallery features over 90 Chatham County artists working at all levels.
"The gallery is the bricks-and-mortar face of ChathamArts," said Landis. As a retail space, Matlock says, the gallery provides an economic benefit: 65 to 70 percent of sale proceeds are paid directly to the artists. "ChathamArts events and gallery have helped build our county's reputation as the best place to find fun and authentic local culture off the beaten path," said Matlock. "We've noticed, especially over the past year, that more people travel to Chatham for day trips and special occasions."
The gallery is the face of the arts council, but another face is brought to local schools through artists in residencies. "Arts in Education programming was developed so that all students, who don't learn the same way, could learn more effectively," said Matlock. "Students who experience such residencies are four times less likely to drop out of school and four times more likely to excel academically."
This past year, ChathamArts reached 3,000 students by placing 12 artists in residencies.
Emma Skurnick, a local artist specializing in natural science illustrations and who designed the artwork for Pittsboro's new local currency, the PLENTY, said she jumped at the chance to be a resident artist with ChathamArts at Jordan Matthews High School in Siler City.
"The residencies in the school system are vital," said Skurnick. "They can be so validating for the kid that has never been told they could pursue their art as a career."
Charity Alston was one of those students who had not been encouraged to pursue her art until she entered her lifesize paintings in the annual student show at the gallery two years ago. "We were stunned at how intense and layered her paintings were," said Matlock.
Alston graduated from Northwood High School in 2007, and is enrolled in college. "After entering the show I found a family of people, who genuinely cared about me and my art," she said. "I was living in a house in the middle of nowhere, and ChathamArts gave me the opportunity to branch out and in many ways gave me a safe haven," said Alston.
Alston has shown her works in several exhibits since her ChathamArts debut. Her story is unique, but there are hundreds like it.
Bringing a balanced presentation of Chatham County's riches to the public and highlighting the county's heritage and identity is a tall order, but for the ChathamArts board and director, it's just another day on the job for a grassroots organization.
"It's so gratifying to know you can make a difference," said Landis. "ChathamArts enables us to do that here in our community, and that's a tremendous reward."