Legacy Art Gallery: Learning Gullah Geechee Artistry with Lisa Rivers

11 October 2021

Joshua Hall

Inside Legacy Art Gallery, owned by Lisa Rivers.

For my Student Facilitated Activity, we went to the Legacy Art Gallery located in downtown Beaufort. The gallery itself is centered around Gullah Geechee art but is owned by New York native Lisa Rivers. You might wonder how a woman from New York is doing producing Gullah art, but I assure you her roots are distinct and undeniable. As a child, she often visited family from the South and now is a resident of St. Helena Island. While the class visited Beaufort, we were lucky enough to have the honor of being hosted by Mrs. Rivers in a closed setting at the gallery as she worked on a live painting & fielded our questions. During our time there, she shared with us how her Gullah roots made her a point of mockery in the north but made her right at home when she travelled with family back down South. It was here in South Carolina where her familial history and ways of life became the material that would later be ignited by God given talents and abilities. As we spoke with her and viewed the art in her gallery, we were able to learn much more about who she is, how it is displayed in her artwork, and how her unlikely journey led to her current destination.

Because the nature of Mrs. Rivers’ work was so provocative, the curiosity bloomed quick and strong within the group. The room was filled with an elastic, ecstatic excitement that generated an atmosphere of comfort and free flowing, intimate conversation. Topics ranged from faceless characters, to the beginning of her artistic journey as well as the roots carefully and deeply layered at the foundation of her very being. Everything from the hard times to the good gave her topical visions for her work. She had the talent to create concepts and bring them to life, but the true key to activating her sleeping potential was hidden in what she saw as two of her greatest weaknesses, ADHD & Gullah Geechee heritage. Both of those qualities had been reasons Mrs. Rivers experienced limitations in areas of economic and societal actualization. The specificity of her culture made he seem invisible. The historical context of her culture had always been unwanted, and to most of the country invisible, even void of existence. All throughout her early childhood and adolescents, loving her heritage as a beautiful part of her life was something she learned to love as she recognized the strong values of family and group survival. This struggle to identify oneself is something we all go through to varying degrees. For Mrs. Rivers, experiencing isolation from ADHD only increased the degree of difficulty. She was made fun of, endured educational hurdles and understandably faced insecurities that she was limited in her capacity for success. The only place she had to turn to was family, but of course because of that being another area of isolation, it was difficult to recognize that it was where she could lean for support and strength to persevere.

In course reading, “Lure of the Local”, author Lucy Lippard theorizes the phenomenon of identity is inextricably linked to place, if we feel we have an identifiable home or not. For those who do not, Lippard describes that type of isolation as being a “displaced person”. Listening to Mrs. Rivers speak on her growth in the love of her heritage, it became apparent that she truly grew to reciprocate the love that had been waiting on her all her life. Finally recognizing the intention and value behind staying close to her Gullah Geechee heritage, she found appreciation for the way it held her close while the rest of the world fought hard to convince her she was not deserving of her recognition for her unique value as Lisa Rivers and her value as a human. Alongside her growing, glowing feelings of self image, she found victory in her battle with ADHD. When her children gifted her several painting canvas’ for a birthday, she completed original paintings, using every single canvas in just one week. While her ADHD had typically been seen as a disability, she was learning that it was instead a sort of super power. In just 11 months since opening her gallery, she’s not only filled the walls of her building with art, but she has made tremendous sales and recently been featured on the cover of Local Life Magazine as well as an article detailing her journey.

Visiting the gallery was extremely beneficial to the entire group. Listening to Mrs. Rivers speak was like watching a moving picture, an array of emotions that happened distinctively and simultaneously. The depth of the lows she encountered enables her to experience the soaring heights of her highs. In this way, the good and bad times of her life are not compartmentalized but instead interconnected. If the intensity of joy is increased by the tribulations of our sorrow, then we can understand that our painful times can perhaps be something for us to rejoice in confidence that our suns will burn brighter than we previously knew possible. I can’t say I left the gallery the same way I walked in. Like Mrs. Rivers, I have had trouble having a sense of place, home and belonging. Hearing her speak to her place being something she had access to all along gives hope that all I need isn’t too far away.