Artistic inspiration can find berth in the grittiest of places, including construction sites, but there could be no more promising construction site for an art project than that of a building that, once complete, will be Charleston’s premier performing arts venue.

Over the next year a group of local students will use construction of the new Gaillard Center as point of departure for a visual arts project whose goal is to help develop the students’ artistic talent, plant the seeds for a long-lasting connection with the arts, and inaugurate what organizers hope will become a regular program rooting children to their community through the visual arts.

During the length of the project, students will visit the building site, have workshops with local artists who will mentor them, and hone into a vision or a concept of the building and its future that inspires them to draw, paint, or sculpt.

“The building is going to be an important change in the community and to be a part of that is going to be a major experience for them,” said Art Gilliard, founder of Art Forms & Theatre Concepts, Inc., who conceived of the student art project in partnership with the Gaillard Center’s contractors, Skanska-Trident and their minority partner, Freeland Construction, the city of Charleston’s cultural affairs office, and internationally celebrated Charleston painter Jonathan Green, who is serving as a guiding light on the project. “I hope this will become a regular thing and I hope it will help establish relationships in the community, with Skanska, the city, and the Gaillard Performance Hall Foundation.”

Art Forms and Theatre Concepts, Charleston’s premier African American theater company, founded to preserve black culture through the theater and to give home to African Americans working in performance, was one focused solely on the performing arts, said Gillard. Recently, however, the group has branched out to other art forms, including the visual arts.

In his work teaching drama at the Charleston Development Academy, a predominantly African American charter school, Gilliard has the opportunity to notice the doodles and spontaneous sketches of his students. Their work inspired the idea. “I thought, they are just brilliant,” he said. “These youngsters are very creative; what they need is someone to help guide them on how to relate their sketches and drawings to the time period and the world they are living in.”

In conversation with Scott Watson, head of Charleston’s Office of Cultural Affairs, and Kyle Taylor, who works for Skanska-Trident-Freeland in several community-oriented capacities and who is also a theater actor, the concept arose of using construction of the Gaillard Center—the greatest municipal project of its kind in the city’s history and the city’s future state-of-the art performance hall—as a springboard for a youth arts project. Drawings and paintings will be inspired by what students envision the building to look like when complete or what they imagine will take place there on stage, Gilliard said.

Students chosen for the project toured the construction site earlier this month with Gilliard, Green, the contractors, and officials from the city.

“They were instructed to visualize everything they were experiencing, where the stage will be, where the lobbies will be, and what they imagine will happen on stage,” said Gilliard.

In receiving instruction and guidance for the project, the students were also exposed to Green’s work—celebrated, colorful images of Gullah life and South Carolina landscapes—and “Off the Wall & Onto the Stage,” a dance work produced last year by the Columbia (S.C.) City Ballet that used Green’s work as a point of departure for a dance. The scenes of Green’s paintings are part of the stage action, and the work is a brilliant example of the symbiotic relationship between visual and performing arts. Students participating in the Gaillard project may use Green’s work and imagery as inspiration as well.

As an African American artist, Green hopes this project will give this group of African American students a small but significant exposure to the arts and specifically the arts about their own culture. “Most African American kids don’t understand their own culture and most other kids don’t understand the culture of African American kids,” said Green. They also lack exposure to visual arts and imagery that relates to the African American culture and experience, Green said.

“No matter what level of society we look at, the visual arts are diminished, are left out of the African American experience,” Green said. “You don’t see African American people in museums. You go onto the hundreds of plantation sites you would never know that African people had anything to do with it. Where do you see any imagery, anything reminiscent of West Africa?” asked Green. “In terms of the imagery and the mores and the religious beliefs, all these things that were going on with the West African community and culture related to the trade of rice … our African American students know very little about that because it has not been printed in our scholastic books … so they know little about their culture.”

With his work as a starting point, he said, “now that they have a memory of a visual experience and an experience with someone who is from the region, it compels them to have more of an inspiration.”

“I think it is a little step in the right direction,” Green said.

The Gaillard project will involve ten to twenty students from the Charleston Development Academy, Buist Academy, the School of the Arts, and Sanders-Clyde, Mitchell, Memminger, and James Simmons elementary schools. Students will work on the project during the 2013-2014 school year and present their works at a public event before the Gaillard Center’s scheduled opening.

“African American youth having the opportunity to be exposed at an early age to a building that will be a major monument in their city while under construction is a great opportunity for them,” said Gilliard, a Charleston native. “It is also a great opportunity for them to learn the discipline of expressing themselves. Drawing and sketching … some of them think it is just a hobby, but one of the goals is to help them understand that the sketching can lead to different career choices and opportunities as well.”                                 S.F.

Check here next week for more on the Making of the new Gaillard Center.