From a Civil War-era theater that once hosted Buffalo Bill Cody and John Phillip Sousa to a one-of-a-kind bottle chapel honoring an African-American visionary artist to a museum highlighting private collections in North Carolina, Wilmington celebrates its arts community and unique sense of place along the Cape Fear River. See videos and explore some of the offerings of artful Wilmington here.
Built in 1858 and listed on the National Register for Historic Places, Wilmington’s Thalian Hall was in almost constant use as a place of amusement during the Civil War. Artists appearing in the hall in the 19th and early 20th centuries included Lillian Russell, Buffalo Bill Cody, John Phillip Sousa, Joseph Jefferson, Maurice Barrymore and Sir Henry Lauder. Now Thalian Hall has completed a major renovation and reopens Friday, May 14, at 6:30 p.m. with the premier of local playwright R.V. Fulk’s original musical The Madness of May, based on the John Galsworthy classic short story The Apple Tree.
A second gala reopening performance is scheduled on Saturday, May 15, at 6:30 p.m., followed by five additional performances, Sunday, May 16 and 23, at 3 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday, May 20 through 22, at 8 p.m. On Tuesday, May 18, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and members of the city council will host a free public dedication ceremony with opportunities to tour the renovated and restored facility.
“When you stand on the stage, you feel the curves of this building, how the balconies open up and embrace you,” says Tony Rivenbark, who has served as executive director of Thalian Hall Center for Performing Arts for 32 years. He made his first stage appearance at Thalian Hall in 1966. “I cannot tell you how many major performing artists have walked on to that stage, seen it for the first time and said, ‘I feel so welcome here.’ That same feeling is here, but it’s just in prettier clothes, and it’s gotten more beautiful. It’s like an old family home — each generation has added to it, dressed it up a little more, and made it a little finer.”
Rivenbark describes Thalian Hall’s renovation in this video.
Born in Long Creek (outside of Wilmington) in 1892, artist Minnie Evans heard voices and had waking dreams and visions throughout her life. But it wasn’t until she turned 43, after serving as a domestic for a wealthy landowner and then moving to Airlie Estate to serve under his family, that she began drawing those visions on paper using crayons and colored pencils: flowers, plants, faces, animals, prophets and religious figures. When the 150-acre estate was opened to the public as Airlie Gardens in 1949, Evans became the gatekeeper who collected admission from visitors. She worked there for 25 years, giving her pictures away to visitors or selling them for 50 cents. A graduate student and her professor husband recognized the quality of Evans’ drawings and began securing exhibitions for her work in galleries and museums in Wilmington and New York starting in the 1960s. In ensuing years she became an internationally known visionary artist whose work was displayed at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, and died in 1987 at the age of 95.
In 2004, the Minnie Evans Sculpture Garden and Bottle Chapel at Airlie Gardens was dedicated in her honor. Wilmington painter and illustrator Virginia Wright-Frierson designed the 16-foot tall Bottle Chapel, a cement structure displaying thousands of colorful bottles in images inspired by Evans’ work, and secured the efforts of Wilmington artists Hiroshi Sueyoshi, Dumay Gorham, Karen Crouch, Michael Van Hout and Brooks Koff whose works are seen throughout the garden.
Wright-Frierson gives a tour of the sculpture garden and Bottle Chapel in this video.
N.C. Collects: The Real McCoy, the first in a series of exhibitions featuring private collections in North Carolina, is on view at the Cameron Art Museum through Sunday, September 12. The show features approximately 850 pieces of Nelson McCoy pottery drawn from thousands of pieces in a private collection acquired over a period of more than 15 years by collector Edward Alexander. The collection focuses on examples from the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and includes many uncommon, rare and one-of-a-kind pieces seldom seen anywhere. The exhibition features cookie jars, vases, planters and wall pockets. This project received support from the Dan Cameron Family Foundation and the North Carolina Arts Council. For more information, visit their website or call (910) 395-5999.