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She's head of the class

If Rock Hill has a creative class -- and I think you can build a case that it does -- Harriet "Sister" Goode is the valedictorian.

At this writing, a shindig in her honor at the Center for the Arts is two days hence, but I know it was a roaring success. If half the people she has helped during her 70 years on this earth turned out, the Bobcats Arena couldn't have held them all.

When we moved to Rock Hill 20 years ago, I was intrigued by this silver-haired artist who painted in a rundown storefront on Main Street. I soon learned that Sister was not only a highly regarded watercolorist but also one of downtown Rock Hill's most fervent advocates.

At a time when few entrepreneurs dared invest downtown, Sister Goode committed her time, talent and treasure to revitalizing the historic center of this city. In that, she was ahead of most of us by at least a decade.

She would move her studio two or three times before settling permanently in the Peoples National Bank building, where she and her spouse and soul mate, Martin Goode, transformed the top floor into a stunning apartment/art gallery/studio.

The theory of a "creative class" comes from a book, "The Rise of the Creative Class," by Richard L. Florida. Creative people are drawn to each other, he says, and if your community can attract a critical mass of original thinker-doers, it will benefit in countless ways, including attracting businesses that depend on such talent or those that cater to their culinary and social requirements.

Interestingly, artists themselves are not the economic engine some downtown boosters assume. Because the market for original art is rather narrow, a successful artist may sell more work elsewhere than in his or her town. Nevertheless, artists serve as a harbinger for a neighborhood's economic revival. Where you find a viable arts community, you'll find neat places to dine, share a cappuccino, gallery-crawl or enjoy good music and drama.

Blessed with Winthrop University's College of Visual and Performing Arts and a city government that supports the arts, Rock Hill has a leg up on many aging textile towns in attracting a creative class.

Before we start turning tassels on our mortar boards, however, let's make sure that Sister gets her deserved accolades. The ongoing retrospective exhibition at the Center for the Arts, on Main Street, is a good start.

On display are works tracking her career over the past 52 years. They reveal an artist who began as a talented young woman, passionate about fashion design, who evolved into an accomplished figure painter with a distinctive style. Local art lovers can spot a "Harriet Goode" from across the room.

Nevertheless, in recent years, her work has taken on a depth of emotion and intelligence that has yet to be widely appreciated, in my opinion. While her earlier paintings are prized for their beauty -- and rightly so -- her more recent works are no less visually appealing, but they also engage the viewer as only a compelling story can. One writer recently compared her paintings to short stories.

I asked Sister about a painting titled "Sisters Forever," which depicts two women dressed in blue, holding each other on a couch. She was inspired, she said, by the inevitable growing awareness of her own mortality and the knowledge that the love she and her sisters share will sustain her no matter what life holds in store.

You can't learn that in art school.

If you attend the "Sister Show," be sure to read the excellent essay by Evan Donevant in the exhibition pamphlet, "Sister Marshall: Works by Harriet Goode." On the back is a blurb by Tom Stanley, chair of Winthrop's Department of Fine Arts, in which he refers to Sister as "artist citizen."

"Citizen artist" would have been equally apt.

Had Sister not devoted herself to raising a family, to mentoring aspiring artists and spending so much of her creativity, energy and personal funds making Rock Hill a better place for all of us to enjoy, this exhibition would be taking place in New York or some other world-class city known for its creative class.

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