In an issue dedicated to leadership, it was easy for me to think of two young people at the forefront of making Savannah both an arts destination and a vibrant place in which to live and work as an artist. Both fully dedicated to the nonprofit Arts Southeast, photographer Emily Earl serves as Executive Director, and her partner, painter and educator Jon Witzky serves as Program Director.
Along with fellow SCAD graduates Jennifer Moss and A.J. Perez, Emily Earl founded Sulfur Studios in 2014. Seven years later, the decision was made to reorganize as the 501c3 non-profit Arts Southeast, with the name Sulfur Studios retained for the flagship programs housed at 2301 Bull Street.
Emily, I know you are a stellar photographer who, amongst other accomplishments, has had a solo show at Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center. Can you share some background and explain why you started Sulfur Studios.
"I am the daughter of artists who met as participants of the Ossabaw Island Project of the 1970’s. I was born in Savannah in 1985, attended Savannah Arts Academy, and graduated with a BFA in Photography from SCAD in 2007.
When Jennifer, A.J., and I started the studio back in 2014 we saw a need in Savannah‘s artistic community for a home base for local artists. From the beginning, we wanted to be able to provide very affordable studio space, exhibition space, and a place for artists and art appreciators to come together, a place where creative collaborations could happen and artists could take risks, a place for the public to interact with art and to learn about art directly from the artists. And we wanted to bolster Savannah’s reputation as an art destination. It’s incredible to look back to when we started ten years ago and see how that vision has come to fruition."
Jon, can you share a little about your background and how/why you stepped up to get involved with ARTS Southeast?
"I’m originally from Columbus, Ohio, where I spent a lot of time in bands and selling records before receiving my BFA in painting from OSU. I moved to Southern Illinois for my MFA and then began teaching. In 2018, I came to Savannah to teach at Armstrong, immediately got a studio at Sulfur, and very quickly made it my home. I knew there was something special happening - something that I cared about - and I wanted to be part of it.
Once the pandemic hit, my situation changed at Georgia Southern and Sulfur had to close for a bit - luckily, we have a very generous landlord who gave us a major break during that time! Emily and I began very seriously discussing the idea of becoming a nonprofit. We also knew that Jennifer Moss was soon to be teaching full-time, so it just made sense for me to take on some new roles and provide direction and perspective as we became ARTS Southeast."
Emily, what are you most proud of so far?
"I’m really gratified to make it to ten years with this wild idea we had and to see how much it’s grown, matured, and been able to pivot to welcome in new ideas, programs, and people to make things happen. I’m really proud of IMPACT Magazine as I feel that is another instance where we saw a need for Savannah to have a dedicated arts and culture publication and then we were able to create one - it’s such a great way to highlight all of the amazing talent we have here and then bring in artists from other cities and introduce their work to our local readers, and it’s a great tool for really putting Savannah on the map as an arts and culture destination.
And I’m super proud of the ON::View Residency and how we’ve grown it from just a space in our lobby for local artists, to an international program (the only program of its kind in Savannah!) where we bring artists from all around the world to live here."
And you, Jon?
"Same! There are a lot of things we are working on at every moment, planning exhibitions, hosting artist talks and educational outreach, working with visiting artists in the ON::View Artist Residency program, creating and editing IMPACT Magazine, facilitating the Green Truck Drive Thru Art Box, and working on new ways to engage with artists and art lovers.
I am proud to be part of a community that recognizes the importance of art patronage and generously supports ARTS Southeast’s role in our arts ecosystem."
Emily, what are you most looking forward to accomplishing in 2024?
"I’m really excited about our newest program, the Incubator Artist Initiative. In line with our mission to provide affordable studio space to local artists [there are 26 below market-rate artist studios housed at 2301 Bull Street] we’ve launched this program to give a local emerging artist a free studio space for one year! The call for proposals is out now with a deadline of February 10th.
We’re so excited to give an emerging local artist this opportunity to have a space in our community, to provide mentorship, professional practice, and guidance as they make their work this year as well as exhibition opportunities and memberships to Savannah’s arts institutions like SCAD Museum of Art and Telfair Museums. It’s an incredible opportunity that has the potential to really be a life-changing experience for a young up-and-coming artist, so we are thrilled to launch this program!"
Jon, what show(s), or residency are you most excited about in 2024?
"Our exhibition season is going to be an exciting one! Currently we’re showing our annual ON::View Revue celebrating all the ON::View Residency artists we hosted last year – both local and from around the globe. It’s always rewarding to look back at the work they created while they were with us.
In March, I am really looking forward to Gabe Torres’ show, Wilton Street Rhythm. Gabe is a fiber artist and painter who we have worked with over the years (she was an ON::View Resident artist in 2022). Her new show is a series of large loom paintings inspired by the work of Miles Davis that will open on March 1st, First Friday, and include our first street fair of 2024 and some other surprises.
And in May, we have Atlanta-based fiber artist Leia Genis. Leia’s work can be seen in the latest issue of IMPACT Magazine, and she was recently part of a fantastic group show at the Johnson Lowe Gallery in Atlanta. We’ve been following her for years and she is really starting to blow up now - we are stoked to have her in the main gallery this year."
Emily, how do you see Arts Southeast fitting into the larger art scene in Savannah? What partnerships or growth opportunities do you see?
"ARTS Southeast is unique in that we have a lot of artists making their work all in one building right alongside exhibitions, visiting artists from around the world, and our guests. I think having so much built-in daily activity really creates an engine for the arts community and is a great setting for conversations and connections to be made which often lead to collaborations and partnerships. I think that’s my favorite part of what we get to do and what can happen so naturally - connecting people together.
We’ve been enjoying working with local art spaces like Laney Contemporary, Location Gallery, and Cleo the Gallery and have been thrilled with the support we’ve received from organizations like Telfair Museums, SCAD MOA, Gulfstream, Georgia Council for the Arts, the NEA, South Arts, and the City through their ACE Grant, and we’re looking forward to expanding these partnerships in the coming years. I’m also excited about our growth as more of a regional organization, with resources and opportunities for artists in other Southeastern cities like Atlanta, Charleston, Jacksonville and beyond."
Jon, what is your vision for the non-profit?
"In the next several years Arts Southeast will continue to grow as our board works to extend our footprint beyond the Starland District with new galleries and spaces for experimentation, as well as with the expansion of our ON::View Artist in Residence program (which has begun with the inauguration of the Incubator Artist Initiative).
ARTS Southeast and our flagship program Sulfur Studios will continue to provide space for artists to gather, exhibit, and work alongside the community. I believe that the programming and groundwork that we’ve been laying for the past several years has created an extremely firm foundation for us to continue to grow and share the benefits that a rich cultural experience brings to our community."
Note to readers: Beth Logan chairs the board of ARTS Southeast.
Visit the studios, artist-in-residence, galleries, and Sulfur Shop at Arts Southeast, 2301 Bull Street, Thursday through Sunday. Subscribe to their weekly newsletter, become a supporter, or find out more about the many programs at www.artssoutheast.org, and follow on Instagram @sulfurstudios.