Spoleto Festival, Charleston, SC, USA

Location: Charleston, SC, USA
Client: Spoleto Festival USA
Status: Completed 1997

The following is an article reprinted from the “Letters to the Editor” in the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier, June 19, 1997:

Plantation Art

Frank W. Clement’s brief letter (“Plantation ‘Art,'” June 1) ended with a question: “How can we call this ‘art'”? I felt compelled to offer an answer.

I was driving north on Folley Road past the McLeod Plantation when I first saw Martha Schwartz’s piece. I had heard it jokingly called “Martha’s Wash,” and I agreed with the title. However, that changed later as I walked through it.

My first clue as to its meaning, at least for me, was its real title “Field Work.” That immediately suggested the cotton fields which at one time surrounded McLeod. But I could not think of any relationship between cotton fields and the large sheets of white fabric that flapped in the wind around me. Had she really meant them to look like wash, which is certainly work, but of another kind, hung out in another kind of field to dry? If so, why?

I found the answer to those two questions when I stood at the bottom of an alley of wash looking up at one of the wooden slave cabins. Weathered whitish grey, it consisted of two rooms, in each of which an entire family had lived. Oddly the grass in the alley was painted white. All of the cabins had similar alleys of white grass between white, flapping sheets.

In African art, white is the color reserved for the spirit world. And as I recalled this, I suddenly found myself in the midst of a spirit world conjured up by Martha Schwartz. Out of the corner of my ear, I could hear the faint voices of black women talking and singing as they hung up and took down the plantation’s wash, day after day, year after year.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the dim shapes of little black girls playing hide–and–seek between the lines and growing up to take their mother’s places. As I watched, even the sheets took on a new meaning. Some became sails of long–gone vessels that had brought the Africans to Charleston as slaves. Others were the ghosts of those who still clung to the site of their suffering, unable to let go.

To me Martha Schwartz’s piece is a moving tribute to the persistent courage of generations of black slave women who humbly worked, gave birth and died in the cabins of McLeod and elsewhere in our beloved South. Like all good art, it points no fingers; it conveys its subtle messages with visual symbols to those of us who try to see.

Wilmer H. Welsh