CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - It’s difficult at first to know what to make of it all. Ronald Wayne Ramsey is not your typical artist and not your typical preservationist.
Yet Ramsey, a small fellow with a round head, thinning hair, a big smile and a way of talking that can be hard to understand, has been obsessively documenting old Charleston buildings for decades, creating intricate drawings, collecting objects from the sites and assembling newspaper clippings and other written records of what has transpired within the city’s landscape.
When all this material was brought to the attention of Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston, he didn’t quite know what he should do with it. When nearly two years ago he asked Ramsey’s friends and advocates at Hines Studios on upper King Street to display some of Ramsey’s vast collection of stuff in the shop so that it might be contemplated better, Sloan began to see the possibilities.
“Ahead of the Wrecking Ball: Ronald Ramsey and the Preservation of Charleston” opened Saturday at the Halsey in the smaller of the two galleries. It includes numerous finely etched drawings, fascinating remnants, notebooks brimming with Ramsey’s research, a short documentary by artist-filmmaker David Boatwright and more.
Looking at the work, it becomes clear what Ramsey is doing. He is telling a story, the extended story of our city. For about 40 years, he has methodically recorded the decaying parts of town. In so doing, Ramsey has discovered fascinating details of what life was like once upon a time. He has been able to piece together a portrait of constantly changing urban terrain.
Buildings tell stories
In the private shop of Hines Studios in the Neck Area of the peninsula, past the tattoo parlors and the Kingdom Hall, Ramsey and Jason Petitpain stand chatting about the Charleston of yore. Ramsey recalls the story of the Six Mile Wayfarer House, which once stood where a Kangaroo gas station now is found. In the 19th century, this area was far outside the confines of the city. Travelers would stop for a meal, a hot cup of tea and a night’s rest. The proprietors, John and Lavinia Fisher, were gangsters with sinister intentions.
The tea was laced with a drug. The bed was rigged to drop its inhabitant through the floor and (perhaps) upon several erect spikes. Possessions were transferred from the newly dead to the nefarious Fishers.
Eventually they were caught and hung, leaving only a remarkable legend for future generations to muse over.
Such stories seem to provide the fuel that keeps Ramsey prowling the streets. Ordinary folk walk along Charleston’s cobblestones and alleys and see what’s there. Not Ramsey. He sees the ghosts of the past.
He was born Oct. 16, 1954, in downtown Charleston. His father was a property inspector for the health department and a watch repairman. Ramsey lived with his mother until her death, then moved moved to Joseph Floyd Manor in 1999.
He began drawing buildings in the late 1960s. The artistic impulse came first, he said. Only later did he develop an interest in preservation.
Currently, he’s concerned about the facade of the Bennett Rice Mill, standing precariously at an entrance to the cruise ship terminal. It must be restored, then joined to the new terminal structure eventually to be built, he said. The new must not erase the old; it must pay its respects, it must recall what came before. Otherwise, what happens to Charleston?
Ramsey also is turning his eye toward a century-old house in North Charleston, one among a number of “nice old houses that need to be preserved for future generations,” he said. And he’s scrutinizing a former dime store on Reynolds Avenue and the former Charleston Naval Hospital on Rivers Avenue.
He thinks he’s made drawings of at least 100 buildings so far.
Hoarders and friends
Petitpain, his brother David and their colleague Bob Hines have known Ramsey for at least a dozen years now. The artist-preservationist would wander into the old shop on King Street just south of Cannon Street with the latest drawing, or a few objects he gathered from a demolition site, and offer them for sale. The three glassworkers would happily open their wallets.
Over the years, they got to know Ramsey better, helping him find storage space for a growing collection of curios, introducing him to others captivated by the pearls found within the detritus of the city and the history that constantly threatened to escape one’s grasp forever.
When Ramsey became fascinated with a table lodged in a home on Tracy Street, whose owner had bigger things to think about than the fate of old furniture and little patience for Ramsey’s desires, the collector turned to the more direct and dogmatic approach of Jason Petitpain. It had been two years of intense longing on Ramsey’s part, and when Petitpain showed up at the house he got an earful from the owner, too. Somehow, he got the table, escaping with it quickly as barbed epithets were flung from the doorway.
Anything for a friend.
“You know, we’re all hoarders,” Petitpain said, expressing sympathy for Ramsey. “We developed a relationship like that.”
Ramsey sold his first drawing to David Petitpain, who thought it would make a fine birthday present for his brother.
“We were just blown away by these drawings,” Jason Petitpain said. And they were blown away by the old signs and doorknobs and iron ornamentation and oversized hardware Ramsey lugged to the shop. This stuff was impossible to resist.
“I went to his apartment once, a cave full of incredible relics,” Petitpain said. It’s a small apartment in public housing, and the management hasn’t entirely appreciated the significance of the relics that fill the room. “He’s got to move stuff off his bed to go to sleep,” Petitpain said.
So some years ago Petitpain helped him get a little organized, transported some of the ceramic pigs, glass plates, old fire alarm covers, faded signage and reams of documentation to a storage space and to corners of Hines Studios.
That’s when Petitpain got to know Ramsey better. That’s when he began to understand what motivates the collector.
Six years ago, Petitpain became a personal trainer. He uses the money he earns to buy Ramsey’s drawings.
‘This amazing person’
When Sloan broached the idea of mounting a show devoted to Ramsey’s work, the chief preservation officer of Historic Charleston Foundation felt a little inadequate.
“I had never heard of him when Mark started taking about this guy Ronald Wayne Ramsey, this incredible preservationist,” Winslow Hastie said. “I was in the dark. What’s wrong with me that I don’t know this amazing person?”
Hastie queried colleagues and soon learned that Ramsey was no stranger to the foundation. He used to show up unannounced, often with a bag of stuff and some drawings that he’d give to John Poston, a preservation officer who left the organization in 2005.
“He develops relationships with people who he trusts, and who understand what he’s trying to do,” Hastie said. “I think he was misunderstood by a lot of people. He would call and be persistent. Some people probably considered him a nuisance.”
At first glance, Ramsey’s drawings have a childlike quality - until you scrutinize them and recognize the detail and accuracy.
“His process is still a mystery,” Hastie said. “It almost doesn’t matter, but it does make you think. How does he do it?”
What’s more he understands intuitively that documentation is the first step in the preservation process, Hastie added. Without that, there can be no effective research of the social history.
“He’s looking at vernacular structures that really didn’t get a lot of notice until the late 1980s,” Hastie said. Old Charleston businesses such as Swan Laundry or G.W. Aimar & Co. or the Woolfe Street ice house. “He’s looking at these things that are not being appreciated and understanding that they are under threat because of that. That to me is the coolest.”
And he’s doing this from outside the preservation establishment, Hastie added.
“Preservation perhaps got overly focused on the physical structure and not on paying as much attention to the people, the social history of the site. In a way he’s humanizing these buildings. You have to do that when fighting to save a structure.”
An abiding love
Sloan called Ramsey Charleston’s “best-kept secret.”
“I’m really honored that the Halsey is the one to present his work to the public for the first time,” Sloan said. “He’s someone you’d see on the street looking down, his attention focused elsewhere, and you wouldn’t expect he’s a one-man preservation army. The packaging is very deceiving.”
Ramsey has made some of what Sloan called “Imagination drawings” - of buildings that don’t actually exist. This hints at Ramsey’s artistic inclinations and his peculiar obsessions with the built environment.
“He has an uncanny spatial sense,” an ability to see clearly in three dimensions and translate his subjects accurately into two dimensions, Sloan said. “And he has an abiding love for the architecture of this city, and its heritage. When he sees an old building slated to be destroyed, it’s almost like the loss of a limb. Every chipping away at it is a diminishment.”
Sloan is accustomed to working with lesser-known artists who work along the fringes - or entirely outside - of the established art world. He’s an enthusiastic devotee of the unconventional. But even Sloan is a bit astonished by the Ramsey phenomenon.
Ramsey is nothing if not unconventional, a man devoted to his city who has created a significant body of work that leaves admiring scholars, artists and preservationists scratching their heads, wondering what to make of it all.
And that’s just how Sloan likes it.
“Of all the things someone can spend time doing … he has chosen to do this thing that’s kind of epic in scope,” Sloan said.
It’s on view at the Halsey through March 4.
Information from: The Post and Courier, https://www.postandcourier.com
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