Westobou director passes torch

(Featured photo Matt Porter and Kristi Sykes in the Westobou micro-gallery. Charmain Z. Brackett/Augusta Good News)

Kristi Jilson Sykes recently read over the description of the position she’s held for the past decade, and she was a little surprise.”

“It was me,” said Sikes, executive director of Westobou, who plans to leave Augusta and move closer to family in Charlotte, N.C. Matt Porter will take over Sept. 1.

When she applied for the post, Westobou was an arts festival held in the fall. She knew that she could plan a festival, but at the time, she didn’t think the overall job description fit her to a T.

What sold Westobou officials on Sykes was her personality – most notably her sense of humor.

“I had to do a project. It was an intense interview process,” she said. “I had to mock-up a schedule and give them a timeline of how would I execute a festival in six months.”

Sykes showed her humor and sense of understanding of the job by saying around 10 days out, she’d move a cot, pillow, toothbrush and shampoo into the office. And after the festival ended, she’d send out surveys and take those personal items home.

Sykes had come to Augusta from Savannah, where she worked at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her first year in Augusta she compared the two cities, often to her frustration. The two cities were similar, but very different. And what she felt Augusta needed, she decided she’d take up the slack and start it herself.

“I wanted to make this a place where I wanted to stay,” she said.

Innovation is a key in Augusta, she said.

“There’s a DIY culture and innovation in Augusta. What makes us that way I don’t know, but clearly this community has a strong history of doing it yourself,” she said recalling an event she attended where someone had talked about the innovations that brought the Augusta Canal and the medical community to the area as well as the innovation of performer such as James Brown who called Augusta home.

Part of Westobou’s innovation process came through listening to artists and their needs.

Sykes transformed Westobou from the festival model into an organization with a year-round presence adding an artists’ studio, an artist in residence program in conjunction with the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art and regular exhibitions at the Broad Street gallery.

“This space wasn’t always Westobou,” said Porter of the gallery at 1129 Broad St. “Now we do all of this year-round. We’re trying to figure out how to get people to forget the festival. It is a year-round operation with genuine consistent support for artists.”

Porter, who has served as the Morris Museum of Art’s curator of education for 14 years, has worked with Sykes during his time at the Morris and calls her a “connector.”

“Two hires at the Morris came from Kristi saying ‘I’ve got this person I think you should get to know them,’” said Porter.

One of the things she’s done well is listen to area artists and find niches for them that don’t necessarily exist at someplace like the Morris Museum of Art. Westobou funds idea-generated projects — that came from conversations Sykes had with area artists.

She’s also watched as artists have grown and thrived, and she’s worked to find places for them.

Aug. 31 marks the date of the organization’s season launch party, and on Sept. 1, a new exhibition will open in the main gallery by artist Chase Lanier, one artist with whom Sykes has cultivated a relationship with over the years.

“I’ve been trying to find a way to give Chase a big exhibition,” she said.

He’s participated in the annual SEEDS exhibition, and he’s been working on his show titled Avoid pointing at the moon. (it’s rude) for months.

 “He’s done the most thoughtful exhibition plan, the most thorough,” she said.

 For Sykes, it’s a full circle moment.

“I remember him elbowing his way to me somewhere. He had to meet me,” she said. “He had so much to say and I just remember thinking, ‘this guy is so talented, but where is his place and how do I play a role in making sure there’s something for him?’ It’s been a long, slow, steady build.”

Joining Lanier for the marquee event in the Westobou micro-gallery is artist Leonard Porkchop Zimmerman Jr.

As Sykes prepares to hand over the baton to Porter, she knows the organization has found a kindred spirit – someone who will continue the work that she’s started.

Porter is a fixture in the arts community and sees its members in the same light as Sykes does.

“Westobou represents support for artists, but it also entertains and engages the public. It’s a really special relationship between the organization and the artists. But it doesn’t exist without them. We need to be interested in what is supportive to artists before we can do  any  of the other stuff,” he said.

Charmain Z. Brackett, the publisher of Augusta Good News, has covered Augusta’s news for 35 years. Reach her at Sign up for the newsletter here.

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