State of Georgia Department of Natural Resources selects Mary Helsaple for the Year 2000 Artist in Residence program.

I was pleased and excited about my selection for  the Georgia Artist in Residence program. Each year, across the country artist's are selected by a State organization to reside for several weeks in a special part of their state and write, create art and do programs and projects with local artists and residence.  In return artists donate a portion of their work to the State's art collection.  This year the State of Georgia choose the Department of Natural Resources on Sapelo Island to host the artist-in-residence program. 

I stayed on Sapelo Island, off the Atlantic coast of Georgia for two weeks and studied the flora and fauna of the forests and estuaries of the Island. I have recorded some of my experiences in this journal as well as small watercolor painted studies on this website.

Journey To Sapelo Island, Georgia, beginning November 4th, 2000

Mary Helsaple

Day 1

We boarded the ferry just as the sun set over the marshy wetland grass, which makes up the shores of coastal Georgia. The ferry plunged into the inland coastal waters as the daylight changed from bright blues and gold to dusky grays. The ferry's wake created frothy amber white waves as we headed towards the dark silhouette of Sapelo Island.  Several dolphins arrived to have one last dance in the churning bow wake before disappearing into the navy blue depths of the sea.  We watched as three pelicans dipped wing tips and toes in the small white caps while skimming over the surface of the water as they paced the ferry.  The air was thick with the smells of the sea and the night breathing sighs of the musty live oak trees. We arrived after dark on the island. The night was filled with croaks of Black-crowned Night-herons and the rustling of the Spanish moss.  We would have to wait for tomorrow’s sun before it was revealed what kind of environment we had descended into from the snowy mountains of Colorado.

Day 2

The morning sun rose over the bank of low misty fog to reveal the vast golden tips of the tall Spartina and Salt grass. These orange and rust colors were mixed with black needle brush, which edged the long expanses of the inland waterways. The quiet calm of the morning was broken only by the crack, crack, and croak of a black-crowned night heron, disrupted from his early fishing.  Sunlight began to pour over the top of the mist to reveal the giant Live oak trees of the Southern landscape.  Giants of the South.  Their arms spread wide and long across the ground as if in effort to hold the feathery Spanish moss from touching the swaying grass.  Their limbs are encrusted with shriveled epiphytes, Resurrection Ferns and moss, patiently waiting to be rejuvenated by the much-needed rain.

Artists, like the shriveled elfin gardens contained on the limbs of these giant oaks, wait for profound moments in time when the world that surrounds us offers the inspiration we need to commence painting. Sensing our surroundings and carefully evaluating our efforts, we intuitively know it is that single first step, like that long awaited rain, which rejuvenates us.  It sends us on that wonderful journey to creating a painting.  Though the idea is revealed in an instant, a fleeting feeling, a sensation; it can take hours, days, and lifetimes to get it right.  A single profound idea comes over us when we allow the creativity to flow, uninhibited, uncontrolled.  I can understand why those unfamiliar with the creative process would be intimidated, even fearful, of the uncontrolled abandon of thought and creation. 

Breathing deeply, the calm and quiet of nature finally settles into our bones.  The hassles of packing, projects, rushed schedules; meetings and preparations are left behind as the ideas for paintings begin to come quickly, like a fast clicking slide show in the brain.  The progression of not enough time is felt once again as it moves by ever so silently.

The parting mist reveals a softly colored moon in a blue gray sky.  A bright orange pink cloud floats in a bright diagonal towards the surface of the sea.  The sky turns a bright robins egg blue just before touching the inky seawater. The wake of the boats creates wavy ripples and modulating circles that reflect the color of the sky and clouds. Oh, to capture these vistas in watercolor will be the challenge in the following exploratory days.

Day 3

The people here are friendly, and wisely go at a slower pace.  They have a wealth of knowledge hiding behind their patient smiles.  They knowingly wait till we calm down from the outside intensity of mainland fever before sharing the unique story of Sapelo Island.  History is revealed slowly, like the layers found in the sand and shell ring built by earlier inhabitants of this barrier island.   We looked at an elevation map and found the highest point of land is thirteen feet above sea level.  All who live here, both past and present, do so at the whim of nature’s temperament. 

Oddly there is a mowed grass airstrip here.  Locals say the Governor drops in from time to time.  They said, “No one ever lands here.”  However, just as we were about to head out for the day, I looked up and a large yellow, white and red bi-plane was circling to land.  I was not prepared to meet the governor!  The pilot worn a leather aviator cap, a large bushy mustache, and was chewing on a 10 “ unlit cigar.  I looked in astonishment at the recreation of the Red Baron, …not the governor.  It turns out that they were transporting this vintage bi-plane to Fort Lauderdale and noticed the landing strip about the time they felt the propeller begin to vibrate.  Good thing they landed because they discovered their propeller shaft was fractured almost in half.  A few more minutes in the air and the prop would have fallen off the plane.  Timing is everything, and it is always nice to have an engineer look things over!

Day 4

We stopped by the only food store on the island, helplessly craving something sweet and cold.  In Hog Hammock there is BJ Confectionary, run by Tracy, who once drove trucks from the Rocky Mountains to the east coast and back.  I found some beautiful chocolate-brown grapevine baskets,  wreaths, and dolls in the back of the store, made by his 81 year old grandmother, Viola.  They sit above the well-used rocking chairs, which circled the TV set.  (Neal gravitated to the screen for news of the Denver Broncos.)  I had discovered one of the many folk traditions of Sapelo.  People on the island weave baskets from native sweet grasses, Palmetto stems, broomstick brush, and wild grape vine. With respect and concern for his family, this young man moved back to the island to take over running the store. Grandmother Viola lives next to the store and spends her days in a rocker, keeping tabs and a watchful eye on the comings and goings.  Silhouetted in her doorway, she sent us on our way with a friendly wave of her gnarled, but limber hands. 

Day 5

We got a lesson in how to clam and dig up fist-sized whelk on the beaches at low tide from Yvonne, our resident tour guide and basket maker.  We learned that Sapelo has a unique species of oyster that is able to tolerate out of the water exposure at low tide.  The people on the island are avid fisherman and every vehicle has a pole in the back and a bucket for the catch.  We saw that people here would make one or two casts and then leave.  Then come back hours later and do the same thing.  We thought this strange, but have since learned that the fish move quickly with the incoming and outgoing tides, which shift several times a day.  If they bite on the first or second cast, the fish are there.  So everyone has their favorite routine made up of specific spots they check throughout the day.  Wow!  I surely would have starved to death with my fishing technique from Colorado!

Day 6

Today, Neal and I were given a tour by a young woman, Yvonne Grovner, from the mainland who has married into one of the oldest families who can trace their lineage back to the West Africans who were enslaved on Sapelo Island in the 1800's.   She has taken up the tradition of weaving sweet grass baskets.  I understand that this art is practiced by many resident families on the island.  She also makes Long Leaf pine basket from the 18” long needles of the rarest trees found on the Island.  She demonstrated her technique of trimming and stripping palmetto leaves and wrapping the small bundles of sweet grass.  The coil begins to grow and the patterns and stripes of the subtle, natural colors blend beautifully.

The giant Live Oak trees found on the island were a major source of wood for shipbuilding.   Another interesting building material was “tabby”. It is composed of equal parts of lime, shells, sand and water, mixed together and cast in wooden frames for building blocks. Once dried, Tabby blocks withstood the salty wind and wet weather.  This young basket maker showed us the Tabby ruins of a 1810 cotton and sugar cane plantation on the north end of the island, built by a French planter, Marquis de Montalet, who fled to Sapelo from Haiti in the late 1790’s with 65 slaves.  He named the plantation "le Chatelet", which in time was pronounced as ‘chocolate’.  A typical European aristocrat, he spent his days hunting truffles in the woods with his prized pig. (We found no truffles.)

We learned from reading one of the informative book  written by Buddy Sullivan,  a native of McIntosh County, GA and local historian, that during the late 1800’s the island was used as quarantine port for incoming ships infected with yellow fever.  They built long docks and a hospital out over the water and each ship was disinfected before being allowed to dock on the mainland or off load people and materials. A crematorium was built to dispose of the victims.

On the way we passed several huge Live Oak trees, which were left standing for shades trees.  The others having fallen victim for wood used for ships and docks.  These acorns of these magnificent trees have now become the seed bank for restorations of major parts of the island.

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