The Daily Gamecock

Columbia art scene continues to challenge its artists, future

<p>Listed from left to right are Karl Zurfluh, Brandon Donahue and Cedric Umoja, as they work on the triptych mural in Millwood Avenue.</p>

Listed from left to right are Karl Zurfluh, Brandon Donahue and Cedric Umoja, as they work on the triptych mural in Millwood Avenue.

Street art is a ubiquitous part of the city around us, and there is a deep struggle behind the scenes in the creation of these colorful pieces. The "struggling artist" is already a common cliché — one that Columbia artists are already familiar with, especially in the COVID-19 era. 

Michael Dantzler is a photographer and muralist based out of Eastover, South Carolina, who became part of the Columbia art scene with his murals. He, like other artists, felt there was an incredibly tough art culture in Columbia.

Michael Dantzler sits next to his mural, “Transcend Map,” which is a temporary mural he made in October 2016 for the University of South Carolina School of Music’s library.

He said Columbia is "one of those cities that people leave" but also a city that is still slowly growing — it has the potential to be a city more like Charleston or Charlotte, but it is still a smaller city with a narrower market, which pushes successful artists to take their talents elsewhere, he said.

"It is very complex. This is a very hard situation," Dantzler said. "I would say most — the most logical or rational thing to do is leave Columbia unless you have a really great support system. If you have a really great support system, or you have people that really have your back ... You're fine, you’ll do well. If you don't have that here, you're pretty much struggling on your own, for the most part.”

Dantzler is an artist who doesn't care about fame. He said he believes skill, determination and talent are needed to succeed but has also seen a struggle for the artists here.

"Ability is definitely needed for artists, period, no matter how many resources you have. But I have seen, yeah, mental health issues, people committed suicide or people die from poor health, and all of that, from even trying in Columbia," Dantzler said.

This more pessimistic outlook of the Columbia art scene is not an atypical idea.

Sentiments of struggle and tokenism, and problems with the profit and image-focused motivations in place of authentic artistic appreciation in the environment, prevail in local artists.

Blue Sky has been prominent in both Columbia and worldwide for about 50 years but struggles like any other artist because of similar problems. He said he feels there is an impossible system keeping artists from getting their work on the radar and that in our modern world, the divisiveness of politics, technology and issues of copying contributes to a lack of emphasis on art in Columbia.

Mural by artist Blue Sky. Located in The Vista, it can be seen from the corner of Assembly Street and Gervais Street. 

“If Blue Sky had to do a GoFundMe for a mural, I'm like, 'Man, that's bad,'" Dantzler said. "If you got cats like Blue Sky, who is supposed to be like the O.G. in the art scene in Columbia, doing a GoFundMe like someone like me, like, ‘Oh, God.'”

Artists struggle in other places besides Columbia, too. Karl Zurflüh, based out of Charleston, has done work in Columbia and feels that the situation is even worse for artists in Charleston.

“Art in general … it is [a] very, very difficult hustle,” Zurflüh said.

According to Zurflüh, the fine art world is "super, super cliquey, super difficult to break into," and when governmental and economic decisions have to be made and personal agendas satisfied, the art world can be a brutal challenge that takes time and tons of layers of approval to crack through.

Mural by Karl Zurfluh on the steps of the Columbia Canal and Riverfront Park old pump houses. 

Cedric Umoja, a pillar of the Columbia art scene with over 10 years of presence in the community, understands these feelings but embodies a more hopeful outlook. Unlike most, he said he sees a grain of truth where others see desperation.

Umoja said he feels the Columbia art scene has changed recently and that there is a bubble that has burst, bringing with it a new wave of talented muralists experimenting with new ideas.

Umoja said he believes putting in effort and doing great work has helped him to be successful and stay positive. According to Umoja, he did the best work he could, then found and worked with people it resonated with.

“You can't expect other people to see greatness in [art], when you didn’t put greatness into it,” Umoja said. “People want it to happen overnight, and to be honest, it doesn't matter how great you are ... What really matters is, whether you're consistently working."

Photo of the triptych mural on Millwood Avenue. This mural was created by Karl Zurfluh, Brandon Donahue and Cedric Umoja.