LAURINBURG — In its annual Fortner-Ragan awards banquet at St. Andrews University honored city residents Brenda Gilbert and Jan Schmidt for their role in revival of the arts in Scotland County.
The founders of the Storytelling and Arts Center of the Southeast received the university’s 30th Ethel Fortner Writer and Community Award. Given in honor of St. Andrews Review contributor Ethel Fortner, the accolade is presented to supporters of the arts in all disciplines.
Receiving the 35th Sam Ragan Fine Arts Award was potter Ben Owen, III of Seagrove.
“There is a theme here tonight: it’s a connection that reminds us that the arts are really about stories,” said St. Andrews president Paul Baldasare. “Our individual, community, and cultural stories past, present and future, the stories that say something important about who we are as a people, how we see the world, how we represent it, and how we interact with it.”
Gilbert and Schmidt served as the storytelling center’s first board chair and executive director, respectively, when it was established in 2006.
In addition to the annual Storytelling Festival of Carolina, which celebrated its 10th year at the John Blue complex in 2015, the center organizes children’s art camps, ladies’ tea and painting socials, monthly gatherings of bluegrass musicians, and has even hosted the storied Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
In 2014, the center officially took up the mantle as Scotland County’s arts council. Current SACS director Erin Rembert praised Gilbert and Schmidt for their “enduring vision and creativity” in founding the center as a catalyst for economic and cultural activity in Laurinburg.
“As impressive as their separate biographies and histories are, the true magic for this community began when they put their talents together,” said Rembert. “They believed that artists themselves could emerge as compelling leaders in our community’s revitalization, working hand in hand with those who are traditional sources of power and influence.”
Never at a loss for words, Gilbert acknowledged the support of her family, the high school chorus teacher who fostered her love of music, and the Washington Park media specialist who first invited her to tell stories to a group of students.
“I had never heard of a storyteller, so I found my little story and I went and I sat with the middle school kids with a story on my lap because I was afraid I would forget it, and it was magic,” she said. “You didn’t have to have a fourth wall there, you could see the kids and experience with them and it was wonderful.”
That experience led to a 30-year avocation and yearly pilgrimages to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee — on which the Storytelling Festival of Carolina is modeled.
Schmidt pointed out that it would be impossible to thank everyone who has supported the storytelling center over the years, mentioning its first business donor Wayne Freeman, the volunteers who wrote initial grants for funding to locate in the former Barron’s Department Store building downtown, and the support of the Tourism Development Authority.
“I brought a phone book because I thought I really need to just go through it and read every page, because there are so many people who have contributed the arts center,” she said.
Gilbert also credited the unique nature of the local community with the center’s success in its first decade.
“Every new adventure I took, I was never by myself; I had a host of people helping me,” she said. “It’s all of you who’ve gotten this award tonight, every one of you who touched my life and held my hand through everything that we’ve done: let’s have a play, let’s get a barber shop chorus, let’s have a festival, and it just happens because this is Scotland County.”
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.