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Instant nostalgia
A new event seeks to recapture the energy of First Fridays in the Starland District
DeSoto Strut works by (from left) Nate Emmett, Cassie Dixon and Tamara Garvey

This Friday, at an event called Desoto Strut, a group of local artists led by Rachel Raab and Matt Hebermehl will try to recapture the energy that at one time defined First Fridays in the Starland District, once a major part of Savannah's art scene.

"We're trying to bring back what used to be here," says Raab, whose office and studio is located on Desoto Avenue. Since moving here a couple years ago, Raab has become well-known for large scale art events, including last year's Taste, which included live music, a fashion show and more than 30 artists exhibiting their work at the old Meddin building.

"My goal is just to bring awareness," she says, "to exhibit people's work who are passionate, but who might not know how to market themselves."

The Desoto Strut will feature music, food, studio visits and three gallery openings featuring dozens of artists.

"It's all about artists relying on each other and that DIY mentality," adds Hebermehl, whose studio is two doors down the street. He's become a champion for Savannah's art scene, helping to organize the successful Art-O-Rama show that opened at Atwell's two weeks ago, projecting paintings onto the sides of buildings, and showing work at Miami's prestigious Art Basel.

Part of the motivation for Desoto Strut is the ongoing effort to re-stake the territory of Savannah's art scene.

"It's about showing people that there's stuff going on here," says Raab, punctuating an anecdote about the frustrating lack of recognition Savannah's artists receive outside city limits - being mistakenly identified as Atlantans, or having to answer questions about why they choose to live outside the well-worn litany of cities where artists usually reside.

The other inspiration for the event was to revive the dormant institution of First Fridays in Starland - the neighborhood that most clearly illustrates what happens when the two divergent Savannahs collide - from Cha-Del's to Le Chai or Back in the Day Bakery to the former David's Supermarket.

For years, the area was a petri dish for the ideas espoused by Richard Florida, and had developed a culture in flux between indigent neglect and rampant gentrification. The results were mixed.

The First Friday events played a central role in sewing the cultural fabric of neighborhood. Part gallery hop and part marketplace, with a hearty dash of block party - it provided the occasion to see new work from local and regional artists, see friends, find inspiration and exchange ideas.

In late 2003, artist Meryl Truett cheerily described the emerging First Fridays in an article for Coastal Antiques and Art. "On the first Friday of every month, something hip, happening and really exciting is going on in an area of Savannah known as the Starland Design District," Truett wrote.

The old First Friday events started to peak around 2005, sometime before the Starland Center for Contemporary Art, known as STARCCA, was sold, re-sold and finally shuttered in the latter half of 2006. After that, the monthly shows slowly began fading - malnourished without a crucial venue for exhibits and performances - before finally convalescing during the summer of 2008.

The presence of STARCCA was crucial to the success of First Fridays because it provided much needed space for exhibits, and it spread foot traffic from Desoto Avenue over to Bull Street.

"It was a whole block kind of thing," says Jenny Weldy, co-owner of Maldoror's Frame Shop, remembering First Fridays. "When STARCCA closed, that's when I noticed the change."

Weldy, whose shop has been open of Desoto Avenue for four years, has played a major role in supporting the arts and business community around Starland. She is on the board of the Desotorow Gallery and helped organize the Starland Farmer's Market, which recently relocated to Forsyth Park. The market's success was bittersweet for Weldy and the neighborhood.

"We got the opportunity to use the park as a location and it benefitted everyone," she says. "It was nice being here, though, because it created a community feel."

She's glad to see something like the Desoto Strut happening in Starland again, and is happy her shop can be part of it. Maldoror's will host a collection of chromolithographs from the 1890's entitled "Monstruosités: Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine".

Reminiscent of its predecessor, the Desoto Strut will attempt to spread itself across a block, to put art in the streets. There will be music and food, an exhibit featuring about a dozen local artists will be hanging in the former Bucci Beads shop, Raab and Hebermehl will have open studios, Chris Maddox will be painting live and the Desotorow Gallery will have an opening for its new juried, group show called "Gendered."

For a while the Desotorow Gallery was a casualty of the neighborhood's identity crisis. What began as an ambitious co-operative bent on providing sanctuary for the work of emerging artists was hospitalized for seven months before receiving a vital transfusion of new blood. In April of 2008, the space was revitalized as a legally incorporated non-profit organization.

Since then, it's been slowly recuperating, regaining its strength. Now, its juried shows are drawing artist submissions from around the country, and even internationally.

"It's something we're proud of, to be able to bring in work from contemporary artists," says Ai-ling Chang, Co-Director of the gallery. "It's a way to bring new ideas into the city from all over."

The Desoto Strut

When: Friday, Feb. 19, 6-10 p.m.

Where: Desoto Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets