NO MATTER how many times I talk to Jerome Meadows, he always catches me off guard.
The world-renowned artist and cultural sage is known for confronting stubborn notions of collective identity, history and community with work that’s both literally and figuratively heavy, but he’s constantly laughing.
He’s a regular-sized guy, but he transforms blocks of granite as deftly as the mysterious creators of Stonehenge. Touch one of his behemoth structures, however, and it rocks as gently as a grandma lulling a baby to sleep. I’ve seen Jerome coax music from a recycled fan blade with samba man Andrew Hartzell and convince people to perform shadow poetry behind a piece of paper. Every visit to the old brick ice house on Waters Ave. that serves as his Meadowlark Studio yields some sort of surprise.
So naturally, when I rap on what’s always been the front door, he sneaks up on me from the side.
“Welcome back!” he says with a grin.
Over the years I’ve discussed crime and poverty around the conference table and spat a word or two at the aforementioned Blank Page Poetry sessions, but this time I’m here to have a gander at Jerome’s most recent foray into the unexpected: After an international career of installing massive sculptures in public spaces—including the much-lauded Portsmouth African Burying Ground monument in New Hampshire—he’s displaying an exhibition of works small enough to fit in your living room.
The walls of the adjacent Indigo Sky Community Gallery usually host others’ visions, but independent curator and longtime friend Tania Sammons convinced Jerome that the collages he’s been tinkering with over the last decade ought to be seen.
“I call him an ‘artist-shaman,’” muses Tania, referring to the way Jerome’s works both large and small challenge the spirit and pierce the soul. “It’s never something where you say ‘oh, that’s nice,’ then move on. His works have power.”
Indeed, each assemblage of old photographs, newspaper clippings, snippets of poems, bits of glass, rusty metal rods and other curiosities become magical totems through Jerome’s sorting and piecing process, which he describes as “impulsive, intuitive, and fragile.”
Jars that once held religious candles now brim with rocks and sticks, connecting the natural and spiritual realms. One piece brings together a vintage Band-Aid can with the motto “War Is A Drug,” while several depict two figures in a loving embrace.
“What can I say, I’m a romantic at heart,” shrugs this artist, smiling.
Most of the works were created in the wee hours of the morning as a way to assuage stress-induced insomnia over his giant projects.
“Art, like gravity, never sleeps,” he declares in a rare somber tone.
Jerome’s departure from The Big most definitely stems from his disappointment over the failure of his Savannah Gardens installation, through no fault of his own. Back in 2012, the City of Savannah commissioned him to create a courtyard centerpiece for the affordable-housing complex, and his sturdy, abstract design that repurposed historic elements from the neighborhood was quickly approved through the proper channels.
Weeks before it was to be erected on the public plaza, however, the City decided the sculpture was prone to vandals. They asked Jerome to store it until the 10-foot tall piece could be instead put inside a nearby community center that hasn’t even been built yet.
It’s been sitting at the back of the studio ever since, and the City continues to pay Jerome $150 a month to keep it there.
Some may remember that Savannah has cold-shouldered Jerome’s art before: The whole reason he moved here from New York in the 1990s was to create the now-foundering public fountain in the Yamacraw Village housing project, featuring bronzed statues of children at play. (Read the entire history in the 2/16/14 Civil Society Column.)
“I thought Savannah Gardens was going to be the redemption piece,” he sighs, shaking his head. “I go to Portsmouth, and people come up and hug me and tell me how valuable the African Burial Ground has been to the healing of that community. Here, I’m embarrassed to take people to Yamacraw and show them what I’ve done.”
The fact that efforts to unify and reclaim two of the city’s most maligned neighborhoods by one of the world’s most celebrated public artists have been stymied is just plain bizarre. Other communities recognize how art not only drives economic development in neglected places but also transforms negative historical implications, threading the past into the present for a more promising future.
What IS this force field of apathy surrounding Savannah, y’all? Is there some sort of secret society, an anti-art Illuminati set on repressing the kind of velvet revolution this place so desperately needs?
Or it is just the cumulative effect of so many generations of status quo?
Jerome says he doesn’t take any of it personally, and no one wants to believe that it is a conscious decision not to allow the people of Savannah Gardens an abstract sculpture to contemplate or that no one can figure out how to refurbish and maintain the sculpture at Yamacraw Village.
But jeebus, no wonder the guy can’t sleep.
“This is what I can’t say in public,” he says, sweeping his arm around his small-but-mighty collages, some compiled to a soundtrack of sirens and gunshots. “People talk about Savannah as an art destination, but the people leading the charge don’t seem to understand what it means to live here.”
To live here fully means to embrace the beauty and the blight, to interpret the tranquility and the violence as only an artist can. Living here definitely means not letting the anti-art Illuminati get you down, and Jerome is taking the first part of 2017 to “regroup in confidence” and figure out how to use “Savannah’s limitations as the impetus to do more.”
“Doing more” involves finding other forms of media, notably his talk show “Art Talks/Art Matters” on the city-run SGTV (native geniuses Maggie Hayes and Matt Toole are up next), as well as spinning his favorite tunes with local jazz gurus Ike Carter, Suzanne Jackson and Tom Van de Ven on Savannah State’s radio station at 90.3. He’s taking Blank Page Poetry on the road to Charleston, plotting out pop-up spots with Tania.
There’s also a large granite form—a tall feminine presence, impossibly curvy and smooth—waiting to be installed in the next few weeks for the city of Columbia, SC. I snort and sputter with resentment and righteous fury that every other city seems to value public art but us.
As usual, Jerome surprises me.
“We’re all evolving, the narrative always changes,” he nods patiently.
“Art will always have a very important part to play here.”