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Seeing red among the blues

"The Red Line," an art exhibit consisting of a line of red dresses, is strung up against the Gettys Center in downtown Rock Hill. The exhibit is being displayed in conjunction with the third annual Downtown Blues Festival.
"The Red Line," an art exhibit consisting of a line of red dresses, is strung up against the Gettys Center in downtown Rock Hill. The exhibit is being displayed in conjunction with the third annual Downtown Blues Festival.

More than 150 red dresses -- tea dresses and prom gowns, glamorous, glitzy dresses and prim, prissy ones -- dangle from the weathered stone of Rock Hill's downtown Gettys Center, billowing in the wind.

"It reminds me of the Red Hat ladies club," mused Bakersville, N.C., artist Shane Mickey, visiting Rock Hill to exhibit his pottery at the new Gallery Up.

The dresses dripped with rainwater Thursday after a short midday shower. "It's a statement about women, and the strength of women," Mickey added. "Red's a powerful color."

Rock Hill resident Mack Gainey, 48, who wandered past the Main Street site later with his wife, Karen, was a little puzzled. "I don't know what to think of it," he admitted, peering at the fancy laundry. "I like that one there."

Poignant, yet funny

The dresses, a temporary art exhibit called "The Red Line," went up Wednesday in conjunction with the city's Downtown Blues Festival, which runs through Saturday.

Pedestrians and motorists paused to gawk at the long, sweeping skirts and puffy-sleeved creations in pale rose, bright cherry, blood red against the creamy stone.

The fanciful work is the vision of Carla Stetson, a University of Wisconsin at Superior art professor who wanted to challenge people to look at their environment in a different way.

"It's kind of poignant, but it's also a really funny piece," explained Stetson, 53, who is visiting Rock Hill. "I'm really happy if people have a reaction that causes them to smile and see the world a little differently, to open their mind to what art can be."

Stetson -- who collected dresses from colleagues and sought them at secondhand stores -- first exhibited The Red Line in May 2005 at a former City Hall building in Superior, Wis. Last year, she showed it at Vermont College in Montpelier.

"How it animates the building is really beautiful to me," Stetson said. "How the wind puffs out the dresses, it almost makes them look like bells."

Stetson met Winthrop Galleries director Tom Stanley last year, when she had a residency at the McColl Center for Visual Arts in Charlotte. Stanley saw photos of The Red Line and wanted to bring it to Rock Hill.

"It draws attention to another type of art form, and I wanted to draw attention to it in our own downtown," Stanley said. Win- throp, the city of Rock Hill and the Arts Council of Rock Hill and York County teamed up to present the exhibit.

Stetson also has a large fiber work, plus drawings and photos, on display at Winthrop's Elizabeth Dunlap Patrick Gallery, which will host a free public blues reception from 6:30 to 8 tonight, followed by the downtown event from 8 to midnight.

Is it art or not?

Stetson said some people question whether "The Red Line" is really art. "Who else but an artist would sew 200 dresses on a line and hang them on a building and cause you to think in a different way?" she asked with a laugh.

Stanley said the dresses -- which are expected to remain up through Monday, possibly longer -- aren't what he calls precious art, but they are still art.

"Everyone's perception of art is some type of figurative sculpture or a landscape painting," he said. "This is art in a different context. We sometimes want to associate deep meaning with it. Occasionally, it can just be what it is."

Stanley likened the dresses to a temporary, whimsical performance.

"It's a lot of fun, it's great, it enlivens that part of town momentarily, and that's a good thing."

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