Artful Escapades and Inspirational Moments: In and Out of the Woods in Thomasville, GA
The vast, longleaf pine forests of southwest Georgia aren't where you want to get lost after dark. This is hunting country, and though best known for its coveys of clucking quails than any apex predators, there’s always a chance for an errant wild hog to come charging out of nowhere.
So when you take a wrong turn out in the woods and accidentally drive your car into a ditch, the sound of spinning wheels might cause a bit of panic among the passengers. Especially when they’re all dolled up for a party and the only weapon on hand is a keychain-sized can of expired pepper spray.
But this was no ordinary band of wayfarers.
Squeezed into my vintage sedan was a fierce collection of Savannah superwomen, starting with my BFF, pastry chef and serial pop-up phenom* Natasha Gaskill, riding shotgun. Cool and collected in the backseat was eagle-eyed gallerist Susan Laney of Laney Contemporary, flanked by cosmopolitan art collector and business mogul Lori Judge.
On Susan’s other side was the celebrated visionary Katherine Sandoz, whom the rest of us were here to fête as the Featured Artist of the 26th annual Wildlife Arts Festival, a ten-day extravaganza of events and workshops and curated “moments” presented by Thomasville Center for the Arts. I had volunteered to chauffer this formidable sum of creative power to the festival's culminating affair, The Bird Dog Bash, being held somewhere on the grounds of nearby Pebble Hill Plantation—if we could ever freaking find it.
Now, there’s no blame here, but Sandoz was the one who’d spent several weeks here communing with the region’s glorious landscape that resulted in a stunning assemblage of new work, and it was she who’d directed us down the dirt road over Siri’s protestations—”a shortcut” she said—that led to a rickety deer stand and left one tire dangling over a furrow big enough to be dug out by Hogzilla.
However, I’ve admired her long enough to know that fearlessness and perspicacity are the primary layers of her multi-dimensional paintings, and I’d trust any of these warrior queens to save me from man or beast.
Besides, it’s not like we hadn’t all been together in the woods before—quite recently, in fact, when Natasha and her genius chef friends put on a sumptuous outdoor dinner at Laney Contemporary that raised $10K for The Lilith Fund For Reproductive Equality. Be it by brain or brawn, this brigade knows how to meet a challenge.
At the first zerrrrrp of an unbudging axle, Sandoz decided that in this moment, it was brawn.
“OK, ladies, get out and push.”
So these valkyries, at the tops of their collective games and dressed in finery, stepped onto the red clay road and shoved. With one tap of the gas, my little old lady Mercedes was again roaring through the trees, whoops and hollers abounding. (If you need a visual, think Sex and The City meets Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.)
We glimpsed lights between the tall timbers and headed in the direction of music, bursting out of the woods at the back of Sugar Hill Barn and thoroughly confusing the parking attendant. Not only did we get a front row spot, it made for an exciting party entrance. Y’all knew Savannah was going to put the “wild” in the Wildlife Arts Festival, right?
Of course, Thomasville Center for the Arts already knows plenty about shaking the trees. The Center—as its called around these parts—has a visionary valkyrie of its own in executive director Michele Arwood, who in the past 13 years has grown the non-profit from a small-town arts association to a regional power broker that brings together artists, donors, and local businesses in a unified effort to make Thomasville one of the most vibrant cultural hotspots in the Southeast.
Like any true leader, Michele will deflect all the credit to her talented team, whose organizational capabilities and collective creative eye rival any big city clout. In addition to its calendar of festivals and events, The Center’s refurbished schoolhouse hums all day long with orchestra rehearsals, ballet classes, and other youth and adult programming, the walls covered floor to ceiling with current exhibitions. Public art has permanent support from the city in The UnVacant Lot’s revolving installations down the street, and performers enjoy a professional theater with a spacious backstage and dressing rooms (which—it should be reminded—that our own new Cultural Arts Center was built without.)
Michele also serves as the executive editor of THOM magazine, the Center’s quarterly arts journal that spotlights area creatives and is printed on actual paper, and ever since she assigned me a piece covering Savannah’s murals back in 2019, I’ve been angling at how do we do this—and by “do” I mean “fund”—such a scene in Savannah?
Granted, Thomasville is a different kind of place. A former mill town surrounded by over 70 former plantations, it’s a tight hub of about 18,000 people where many of those plantation descendants still make a living by stewarding tracts of timber-rich acreage and hosting fox and quail hunts. This landed gentry has no intentions of cutting up their properties for housing developments or hotels, and pride of place informs a unique culture here, evident in everything from historic preservation to local fashion—a particular feathered hat was worn by many of the women at the Big Dog Bash—along with a lot of displayed taxidermy.
The Center winnows these folks’ philanthropic proclivities into generous support for an art magazine and art classes and the artists themselves, providing creative opportunities to participate instead of merely writing a check. There is a sense that every person in this community has a stake in the arts as a citizen regardless of their bearing or background, and that is remarkable.
While tastes run to the traditional, the Center also gently pushes aesthetic sensibilities. The selection of Sandoz’s deeply researched abstract landscapes are a departure from the festival’s requisite hunting retrievers and wild turkeys, and her exquisite Pineland series reflects the palette of the Red Hills region to its stewards in never-seen-before ways. It was breathtaking to see this crowd fall in love with her work as we have, although we kind of already knew it was going to happen.
On our first evening, captivating festival coordinator Mariam Mirabzadeh moderated a momentous panel—everything is a “moment” now, OK?—that included Sandoz, star of HBO’s Full Bloom and flower power preacher Canaan Marshall, and another member of the Savannah squad, stylist and renegade kitchen guru Libbie Summers. We found other Savannah moments at the Friday night gala with artist and former Savannah Arts teacher Trellis Payne and the always effervescent tastemaker Ashley Stamoulis, who’s upcycling vintage jewelry in her Ashley Sparks Collection.
Later in the weekend, Libbie hosted a sumptuous sold-out breakfast on Michele’s front porch in Sandoz’s honor, featuring a floral centerpiece moment by landscape designer Ed Blissard straight out of one of the Pineland series paintings.
One afternoon a former Savannah neighbor of Natasha’s, graphic designer and foxy huntress Leslie Ballenger, led us on a delightful tour of Thomasville’s downtown—shopping at Abode Fine Furniture, The Hare & the Hart, and South Life Supply, with delicious stops at Jonah’s Fish & Grits and Liam’s Cheese Shoppe—and everywhere were those familiar-yet-curiously new Sandoz brushstrokes: Here in on a poster in a shop window, there on the cover of THOM laying on coffee tables, the original canvases in the Center’s gallery catching sunlight.
It was as if a bunch of Savannah moments were sprinkled all over Thomasville, which of course they kind of were.
What would be really wild is if we brought some Thomasville moments home—well, maybe not the taxidermy. But the love of the land, the focused appreciation and support of the arts, a gorgeous quarterly culture magazine happily sponsored by local businesses—I think that would be such a good moment for us.
We’ve got the brains and the brawn, all we need is a push.
Art is for everybody ~ JLL