Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A “CITY OF EXCELLENCE”

Marquis de La Fayette
When I’m out “vagabonding,” I’m sensitive to the energy of a city and am curious about the economy that has helped develop that energy. This past week-end, we visited our good friend, Dr. Mary Ann Wilson, a retired English professor from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, who recently moved to LaGrange, Georgia. It was our second visit, and we were again impressed by the energy and diversity in this city of 30,000.

LaGrange is situated in the foothills of the Georgia Piedmont, and in 2000 it gained recognition as “Intelligent Community of the Year” along with larger, bustling cities like Toronto, New York, Singapore, and other large metropoles. It has also been named a Georgia “City of Excellence,” which I think typifies this distinctive city. Once a textile center due to the plethora of King Cotton plantations, it has morphed into an industrial and commercial center housing carpet tile manufacturing and the major assembly plant for the KIA automobile industry.

Taste of Lemon Restaurant
Like other burgeoning cities (e.g., Chattanooga, Tennessee), the investments of wealthy philanthropists have created centers of culture in LaGrange that are largely due to the donations by philanthropic foundations — in the case of LaGrange, the donations of the Callaway family foundation have resulted in outstanding cultural centers: two art galleries, a symphony orchestra, a ballet company, an opera company, a Biblical History Center, and other cultural sites. New Iberians in my home town of New Iberia, Louisiana may be interested to know that LaGrange even has its own Mardi Gras Krewe called the Krewe of Mask, which sponsors a Mardi Gras Parade in February each year.

Mary Ann @ her new house
We missed the International Festival and other activities honoring the Marquis de La Fayette, a Revolutionary War hero who impressed George Washington by crossing the Atlantic and fighting in the War for U.S. Independence. La Fayette left his wife on their country estate near Paris to participate in this war after visiting Georgia in 1825. While visiting, he observed that the topography resembled that of LaGrange, his wife’s estate in France — hence the name of present-day LaGrange, Georgia. We did get a snap of the statue of the Marquis while walking in the beautiful town square. The Marquis penned lines that seemed to have imprinted on its residents and contributed to its recognition as a city of excellence: “The welfare of America is intimately connected with the happiness of all mankind; she will become the respectable and safe asylum of virtue, integrity, tolerance, equality, and a peaceful liberty.” 

We attended an unusual art show at the LaGrange Art Museum that featured the work of French Symbolist artist Eugène Anatole Carrière. The exhibit contained portraits of Gauguin and the poet Verlaine in monochrome and covered the top floor of the museum. We ascended via an old elevator that the docent asked us to imagine as one that took us to a loft in New York City, but she gripped my arm tightly when she glimpsed my anxiety at boarding the carrier. The artist Carrière is reputed to have influenced Pablo Picasso’s renderings of mother-and-child works, and the exhibit showcases “Kodak Moments” of Carrière's wife, daughter and sons in which the subjects are winding wool, lying down, embracing, praying as depicted through the eyes of a family man.

The Callaway Foundation donated the former Troop County Jail to the LaGrange Art Museum, and when we stood before the Victorian structure, we had difficulty envisioning it as a former prison since the building resembles an old castle. We laughed about the tower being an innovation after the architecture of Brit towers that sequestered those who were to be beheaded. Art Education has become an objective of the Museum, and more than 300 classes of workshops and gallery lectures are conducted in a building called the Center of Creative Learning, a center dedicated to various educational art programs.

Private gardens abound in LaGrange, and Mary Ann keeps pace with gardening enthusiasts in the area; within four months, she has cultivated beds of lantana, Vinca, Ixora, azaleas and other flowering plants skirted by pebbles and growing near a screened porch she had commissioned a carpenter to construct within the few months she has lived in this city. Potted plants line the entry way to her beautiful home near West Point Lake, and we visited two garden centers where she threatened to purchase more flora while we searched for a statue of St. Francis for my herb garden at Sewanee, Tennessee. 

The present mayor of LaGrange has been touting the construction of a walking trail in LaGrange as he feels that the walkway will create greater community connections, but I think that the friendliness and diversity we encountered as we moved about the city indicate that community connections are already well-established in this city committed to excellence.

Photographs by Victoria Sullivan.




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