Greenville Museum of Art

downtown Greenville

802 Evans St., Greenville
The Greenville Museum of Art is open Tuesday – Saturday 10 am – 4:30 pm and admission is always free. Reservations are suggested, as visitor restrictions apply.

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“My first memory is a song.”

These words are striking for a number of reasons as they are read on the wall of the Hanging Tree Guitars exhibit at the Greenville Museum of Art. The gallery is filled with handcrafted guitars created by Fountain resident Freeman Vines in his pursuit of a singular sound… a note that is not just a dream or a memory, but both.

“A person has to have a purpose to live.”

That is the sense you get when looking at Freeman Vines’ life work hanging from the walls and the ceiling of the gallery.  Purpose.  Purpose in creating. Not just in creating beautiful guitars, but in creating a profound commentary on the history of racism in the South.

Vines’ guitars are filled with history. Made from recycled materials ranging from plastic TV knobs and radio parts to wood from old tobacco barns, each guitar is unique and tells a different story. The most notable, historically significant pieces in the collection are the guitars and scenes Vines’ carved from the wood of the tree from which Oliver Moore was lynched in 1930. One can really feel the significance of these pieces, standing in the silence of the gallery that is punctuated only by a recording of Freeman Vines’ speaking and picking a guitar. The very grain of the wood in each guitar seems to be infused with the experiences of Vines and his ancestors. Looking at the guitars, one can easily imagine that plucking a single string would result in note resonating with a rich sorrow at the suffering and struggle of enslaved African Americans, those like Oliver Moore who were lynched during the years of Jim Crow, and the individuals still fighting to expose and overcome the racism that still exists in society today.

One has to see the exhibit in person to truly appreciate and understand its significance. Viewing the photographs of Freeman Vines, taken by Timothy Duffy, alongside the guitars and narrations by Vines about his life facilitates a deeper understanding of the effects of systemic racism in the United States and how art and music can assist in the expression and communication of such significant themes.

Hanging Tree Guitars was showcased in the United Kingdom before coming to the United States to be housed at the Greenville Museum of Art, where it has been extended through March 2021. It’s produced by the MusicMaker Relief Foundation, which has published the accompanying book, also called Hanging Tree Guitars. Buy it

Charlotte Grimes
March 2021