A Natural Kinship
Edwards College and Brookgreen Gardens collaborations yield mutual benefits past, present, and future
The root system growing between Conway and the Waccamaw Neck is nearly half a century old. Its branches and fibers overlap, twist together, separate, and rejoin in a circuitous route, a living, vibrant network of mutual benefit. The roots bind Coastal Carolina University to Brookgreen Gardens, two institutions dedicated to the preservation and promotion of history, culture, art, and education. Collaborations between the Edwards College and Brookgreen Gardens span decades and disciplines, involving an intellectual processional of faculty members, students, alumni, and administrators who create innovative pathways to learning that allow each institution to thrive and grow.
Robin Salmon, Vice President of Art and Historic Collections and Curator of Sculpture at Brookgreen Gardens, has been with the institution 47 years; she recalls collaborative work with CCU that occurred even before the Edwards College was born in 2001. That work continues to resonate and evolve today, and she marvels at the scope of the relationship between Brookgreen Gardens and CCU.
“We’ve always had a good connection, one that makes sense between an institution of higher learning and a fine arts-focused institute,” said Salmon. “I think what’s most remarkable is that we’re still going strong. Despite changes in leadership, in faculty, Brookgreen Gardens and Coastal Carolina University have remained closely linked throughout all of these years.”
Cultural preservation is one pillar of shared endeavor between the Edwards College and Brookgreen Gardens. Charles Joyner, CCU Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Southern History and Culture, was among the first (pre-) Edwards scholars to mine resources at Brookgreen Gardens to further his understanding of area culture and history. He conducted archival work with Salmon for his groundbreaking book, Down by the Riverside (1985), about Gullah people along the Waccamaw Neck. Now, his namesake institute continues the tradition of research and education, and Salmon continues to guide and support their work.
The Athenaeum Press (est. 2012), a student-driven publishing lab that tells area stories through multimedia projects, initiated the ties to Brookgreen Gardens through the study of Gullah culture, and the Charles Joyner Institute for African Diaspora Studies (est. 2016) strengthened and enriched those connections. It all began with At Low Tide: Voices of Sandy Island, a virtual reality documentary and book that offers a glimpse into the Gullah community of Sandy Island, a historic area in Georgetown County accessible only by boat. Alli Crandell, director of the Athenaeum Press and interim director of the Joyner Institute, led a team of students and faculty in collecting oral histories on the island and conducting archival research at Brookgreen Gardens, working alongside Salmon. Brookgreen owns a significant portion of Sandy Island, and the land on which Brookgreen sits was a hub of African American economic and social life in the first half of the 20th century.
“We spent three semesters in their archives, taking pictures, documenting and taking notes, creating finding guides,” said Crandell. “We were really grateful for that partnership. And that kind of opened up our path; it reaffirmed the journey that the Joyner Institute was on, that there is a huge and rich history that hasn’t been told.”
Subsequent Press and Joyner projects have involved interdisciplinary teams of faculty and students ranging from history to music to graphic design to theatre to English, working in a myriad of ways to tell multidimensional stories of Gullah people and culture. A Hushed Thrill, a CD/art project, features CCU student and faculty musicians performing pieces that represent the sights and sounds of the gardens; the songs are also available via QR codes along a walking path at Brookgreen. The Gullah Geechee Gaardin, also at Brookgreen, involved theater students performing voiceovers to document Gullah culture through foodways, complete with interpretive panels. The most recent project is Seen, Heard, Esteemed, a series of oral histories focused on voices in the local Gullah community from the Reconstruction era to the present, situated along Brookgreen’s Lowcountry Trail.
Ron Daise, Vice President of Creative Education at Brookgreen Gardens, has been a liaison and an advisor through all of these projects.
“Ron was the progenitor of all our of collaborations with Brookgreen,” said Crandell. “He’s been serving on the board of the Joyner Institute since its founding. He’s such a cultural treasure. It’s an asset for this region to have such a recognizable voice and to have that resource for our students.”
The team of Daise, Salmon, and President and CEO Page Kiniry, who joined Brookgreen in 2016, has been a source of continuous enthusiasm and inspiration for Edwards scholars, not only allowing them access to materials but also playing an active role in their learning.
“Page, Ron, and Robin have been so open and gracious with our students and their learning process,” said Crandell. “They’ve been not only supportive, but also really pushed our students to do the best work they can.”
Kiniry also serves the Edwards College in an advisory capacity, on the Board of Visitors. In that role, she reinforces and develops connections between the two institutions at a leadership level, working with Dean Claudia Bornholdt. As such, she’s involved in collaborations at the ground level as well as in a broader scope.
“Claudia’s been amazing to work with,” said Kiniry. “We’re able to share connections within the art community, facilitating donor relationships, and expanding programming for what’s happening with the Joyner Institute and other Edwards initiatives.”
Sculpture, of course, is another pillar of alliance between Brookgreen Gardens – the largest collection of American figurative sculpture in the country -- and the Edwards College. In this collaborative dimension, the roots between the institutions reach beyond the student-faculty level to encompass alumni and professionals, providing a direct career pathway for Edwards artists.
Chris Kunk ’19 participated in multiple area sculpture projects during his undergraduate study, learning the craft in the Edwards foundry with faculty including Logan Woodle, assistant professor in the Department of Visual Arts. Kunk’s permanent local legacy includes kid-friendly animals on display in downtown Conway as part of the Conway Critters project and the Chauncey II sculpture that graces the entrance to campus at Hwy. 544. Kunk continued his focus on sculpture, earning an MFA at the New York Academy of Art in 2021, before joining Brookgreen Gardens in late 2021 as director of sculpture and historical objects conservation.
“We’re so excited to have Chris with us,” said Kiniry. “His work in sculpture conversation is critical, because of course we have 2,000 pieces of sculpture, some of which is 100 years old, so it requires constant care.”
Sculptor Bryan Rapp arrived in Conway in 2016 as CCU’s first visiting artist-in-residence, tasked with leading the creation of Chauncey II. During his three years in the Edwards College, in addition to forwarding the sculpting program; working with Kunk and a team of students; and winning awards for his own work, he led collaborative student projects at Brookgreen Gardens. His journey from Edwards to Brookgreen was a straight line, as he currently serves as director of Brookgreen’s Wallace Master Sculptor Program, one of many educational outreach programs at the Gardens.
The Edwards College-Brookgreen Gardens root system encompasses not only past and ongoing collaborations, but it’s also invested in the future. Rapp and Kunk are currently both involved in development of Brookgreen’s first foundry and conservation lab, which will open numerous opportunities for student involvement. Elizabeth Baltes, associate professor of art history in the Department of Visual Arts, is planning a course that explores the connections between Greek mythology and American figurative sculpture. And a recently established Brookgreen Gardens award, honoring an up-and-coming artist who shows exceptional promise, was bestowed on an Edwards College student.
As part of its 90-year anniversary celebration and in honor of Women’s History Month, Brookgreen Gardens created the Anna Hyatt Huntington Woman of Vision Award, a lifetime achievement to recognize an area woman who embodies Anna Huntington’s creative and philanthropic spirit, this year bequeathed to Russell Holiday. The corollary honor is the Next Generation award, presented to a student leader advancing the arts. Senior Samantha Senig, graphic design and studio art major who is also president of Chroma, CCU’s student art and design organization, won the inaugural award. The award comes with funding to attend one of the Wallace Master Sculptor Program workshops.
The strength and depth of roots must be strong to support connections between two sizable institutions such as the Edwards College and Brookgreen Gardens, especially over multiple decades. Fortunately, each partner is grateful and proud to both contribute and receive resources that give rise to shared new knowledge, programs, and opportunities for generations of students and visitors. As the lifetime rotation of students, faculty, leaders, and professionals continues, the potential for continued collaboration is limited only by the imagination -- good thing there’s plenty on both sides.