Arts in Bloom

Arts in Bloom

The expansion of Brunswick Community College’s innovative Southport Center cements the area’s future as a regional arts hub

Story and Photography by Virginia Holman

There’s always been something special about Southport, North Carolina. This inviting waterfront town, positioned a few miles north of the confluence of Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean, has a breezy coastal vibe, and a charming downtown and harbor front. A quick drive around the town is a revelation in how coastal communities can promote balanced development. Unlike Wilmington, Pleasure Island or Wrightsville Beach, the town of Southport has preserved a good bit of its green space and clearly cherishes its many sprawling, ancient live oaks. Its streets are filled with well-maintained historic houses, old churches, quaint bed-and-breakfasts, upscale clothing boutiques, art galleries, antiques shops and specialty stores that cater to everyone from bird enthusiasts to wine connoisseurs. In the last decade, this small town has become a popular place for families and retirees to live, either year-round or as “snowbirds.”

For many years, Southport’s residents found that in order to fully participate in the Cape Fear region’s lively arts and crafts scene, they had to drive up to 45 minutes to Wilmington. Although there were painting classes and opportunities for artists to sell their wares at Southport’s pre-eminent Franklin Square Gallery and elsewhere, nearby options were few for people interested in pottery making, silversmithing, woodturning, stained glass and warm glass — disciplines that require specialized equipment, good ventilation and substantial space. Brunswick Community College recognized that Southport’s population wanted a more robust arts community, and in a canny move three years ago, they envisioned transforming their small campus in Southport into a vibrant community arts center.

The campus, currently in the last phase of a major renovation and expansion, is located on South Lord Street, just a block back from bustling North Howe Street. This spot also happens to be the site of another revered educational institution, Brunswick County Training School Number 1. This historic school was part of the Rosenwald Program, a progressive partnership between Jewish businessman Julius Rosenwald (a co-owner of Sears Roebuck) and esteemed African-American author, educator and philanthropist Booker T. Washington, which helped fund more than 5,000 accredited schools for African-American students throughout the South. Slated to open in 1921, fire destroyed the building before classes could begin. Undeterred by this setback, the African-American community raised funds and County Training School Number 2 was built. It remained the sole accredited school for blacks in Brunswick County until 1951. Later, the building served as Southport Middle School. A 20-foot-long historic panel in the main hallway of the newly renovated Southport Center commemorates the tremendous importance of this site and its educational history.

The site’s latest educational iteration as BCC’s Southport Center doesn’t fully capture the scope of the classes that are offered. Under the keen leadership of director Dr. Barbara McFall, a career arts administrator from West Virginia University, the Southport Center is completing an expansion that seems certain to cement the area’s future as an arts hub set to rival those found in the mountain communities that surround Asheville, North Carolina.

McFall says that the mission and vision of the center is to “offer classes in arts, crafts and cultural heritage.” There are plans to expand offerings to a wide array of classes—everything from painting, pottery, stained glass, warm glass, silversmithing, woodturning, tiny house building, quilting, weaving, metal sculpture and mystery writing, as well as classes on Cape Fear historic sites and architecture, French and Latin — at rates that are affordable for retirees on a fixed income and those workers who may be looking for their second act in the arts.

One pleasant surprise: The center has had to do very little in the way of marketing, as locals have flocked there — it has quickly established itself as one of the pillars of Southport’s growing and vibrant arts scene.

McFall notes that the center also appeals to people who are exploring a new career in the arts. That’s one of the big goals of the center, to serve as a mechanism to “feed Southport’s arts scene and allow people to explore the arts as a second career.” She points out that the purpose of the center is “to help undergird the arts community in Southport. We have no desire or plans to compete with arts businesses and galleries in Southport. That’s not our mission.” In fact, many of the students who attend sell their wares in Southport and beyond.

“A good number of our students sell their art in area galleries, farmers markets, on sites like Etsy, and at tent sales,” says McFall. Even during the winter months, when the north wind blows and the coast can seem a bit bleak, the Southport Center stays busy. “We have snowbirds who come down here in the winter and make, make, make, and then head back north in the summer and sell, sell, sell!”

Most of all, the Southport Center has become an accessible community fixture. Stained-glass student and retired Indiana guidance counselor Molly Thompson moved to Southport three years ago. She says she was out riding her bike one day when “I discovered there was a college in town. I signed up for stained glass that very day. I’ve made lifelong friends, and I finally feel like I belong.” She says that stepping out of her comfort zone and discovering a new part of herself has been a revelation. Her son was impressed when he saw the things she’s made. “He said he didn’t realize I could do something creative like that. I told him I didn’t realize it either.”

Another student, Nancy Styles, says she looks forward to class each week and describes how her classmates have become “wonderful friends.” She says that she always learns something new from her teacher, Jenny Bellini. “I love my classes and my new friends.” 

Want to learn more about classes at the Southport Center?

Virginia Holman lives and writes in Carolina Beach.

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