Although it can properly claim a greater number of T-shirt shops and miniature golf courses per square mile than any other town in South Carolina, Myrtle Beach offers the more discerning visitor at least one attraction that rivals those in more traditional cultural meccas. It has something that one would never expect to see in a heavily commercialized beach resort; Myrtle Beach has its own art museum.
Now more than a decade old – its doors opened in 1997 – the Franklin G. Burroughs-Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum is located on Ocean Boulevard, about a mile south of the giant Ferris wheel that dominates the downtown skyline. What a difference that one mile makes!
Nestled on a plot of land once owned by Myrtle Beach Farms – Burroughs and Chapin were the founders of that enterprise, which donated the land to the museum – is a beach villa built originally for textile mogul Eugene Cannon and subsequently acquired by Elliott White Springs, one of our state’s most successful entrepreneurs.
A World War I flying ace – with 11 confirmed “kills,” he was the fifth ranking American ace of the war – Springs became a popular author, penning numerous short stories and other works about his military experience in England and France. In 1931, he inherited the family textile business; and over the next 20 years, he modernized the company, which eventually became the world’s largest manufacturer of sheets and pillowcases. Under his leadership, the label “Springmaid” became a household word.
The term also was used to designate his new beach house, Springmaid Villa, which he purchased as a retreat for his executives. The structure, however, was eventually destined for demolition until a local group of community-minded citizens raised enough money to save it. Over the course of three days, two flat-bed trucks transported the 150-ton building eight miles from the Cabana neighborhood to its present location at the bottom of Ocean Boulevard.
The former home now houses six galleries on the first floor and four on the second; there is also a library, classrooms, a reception room with a baby grand piano, and an L-shaped “tea porch” with great views of the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, it was in the latter space that the South Carolina Academy of Authors held a reception last spring during the weekend-long celebration honoring the 2012 induction of four new members of the state’s literary hall of fame: Marian Wright Edelman, Mickey Spillane, Charles Joyner and Franklin Burroughs. As board chair, I had to welcome guests and say a few words about the work of the Academy, one eye on the crowd and the other on the splendid ocean view.
Two weeks ago, I was back in Myrtle Beach – this time shepherding three of my students – Brianna Arnone, Jennifer Gilmore and Tayler Rodgers, who were presenting their research at a statewide conference; I devoted a little of my free time to revisiting the museum. The focus of my second visit was the current exhibition entitled “Mullen, 2009-2012.”
On view until April 25, the show consists of more than 30 paintings by one of South Carolina’s most important artists, Philip Mullen. When I first moved to South Carolina 36 years ago to take a faculty position at USC Aiken, Philip Mullen was already an established force in the visual arts in our state; in fact, he was to become the youngest member of the USC art department to earn the rank of full professor, based, in large part, on the fact that his work was already being featured in solo exhibitions in galleries in New York and Los Angeles.
I remember well Mullen’s work from the 1970s. In their delineation of the human figure, as a whole or in parts, from a variety of perspectives, his early paintings and drawings reminded me of the work of Larry Rivers. In the current exhibition, the figure can still sometimes be seen, as in three works bearing the title “Artist and Model,” but most of the new pieces are predominantly studies in surface texture, as in the pattern made by a set of shutters or a louvered door.
Most striking are the works, like “Jane’s Wall #2,” that combine the representative – in this case, a chest of drawers with a green vase behind which a section of blood orange wallpaper is revealed – with the abstract – blocks of heavily applied paint, layers upon layers of largely monochromatic color. In these pieces, Mullen, like a visual archaeologist, appears to uncover the figurative elements on the canvas by “digging” beneath the impasto. The resulting image is mesmerizing; I wanted to sit and stare at each painting, to delve deeper and deeper through the painting’s outer layers to its core.
The Burroughs-Chapin Art Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m.; admission is free, but donations are encouraged. For more information, call 843-238-2510 or visit www.myrtlebeachartmuseum.org.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship, Dr. Tom Mack currently holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His latest book “Hidden History of Aiken County” (Charleston, SC and London, UK: The History Press) is available online and at local retail outlets.