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August 2008

The Charleston Profile:
Forward March
Written By: 
Lauren Brooks Johnson
Photographs By: 
Ben Williams

Local activist Gene Furchgott steps up to help inner-city youth through media arts programming

For most of his 58 years, Gene Furchgott has marched—for acceptance, protest, discovery, and celebration. He has stepped out to explore other cultures and communities and, in doing so, has brought people from differing backgrounds together with one purpose: to share art as a means of equality for all.

Last January, as founder of the Yo Art Project for inner-city kids, Furchgott marched alongside the program’s participants in the annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Day Parade on a float they’d crafted with artist Phillip Hyman. “The kids were ecstatic,” says Furchgott, who for the last 10 years has been instrumental in nurturing arts programs for peninsular Charleston’s East Side residents. “There shouldn’t be any inequities with kids. They deserve to have all the advantages and opportunities they can.”

When the city’s Department of Recreation and Housing Authority approached the longtime humanitarian in 2007 about reopening Nassau Street’s Marion Strobel Center—which had stood vacant for three years—to establish a free media arts program for children in the neighborhood, he jumped at the opportunity. With a newly renovated facility and an army of computers (thanks to a generous donation by Gene’s uncle, Nobel Prize winner Robert Furchgott), the Yo Art Project now meets every school day to explore language, culture, and computer skills through graphic art. As full-time director of the nonprofit, Gene spends much of his time applying for grants, communicating with schools, and developing the curriculum, but he still takes two hours every weekday to get down on the kids’ level and teach.

Step in the Right Direction

The son of Marcelle and Max Furchgott, Gene grew up on Piedmont Avenue and later in the West Ashley neighborhood of South Windermere. His father was the masterful portrait photographer who established Furchgott Studios on George Street in 1939. Involved in his community from an early age, Gene found his outlets in the arts and sports. By the time he was 15, his athleticism in the Charleston Midget Football League had caught the attention of the coach at the newly formed Porter-Gaud. Though the school was conservative, his liberal mother and father embraced the opportunity for their son to gain a solid education at the all-boys facility. “My parents loved learning,” he says. “They encouraged anything that sparked my imagination or interest.”

During his high school years, three people had profound influences on Furchgott’s thinking. He credits English teacher Paul Patterson with stirring in him a love for the literal and symbolic word; Rabbi Burton Padoll, the youth leader whose interest in community and civil rights sparked a consciousness of right and wrong; and his father, “who was not very religious, but considered himself a humanitarian.”

As president of the Temple Youth Group, the high school junior was called to America Street—then a taboo zone for whites—with Sister Anthony’s Catholic Center to lead a black Cub Scout troop. “I didn’t know a lot about Cub Scouts, but I got close to those kids,” he says. “You could say it was a mitzvah—a good deed—but it was more than that.” Together, they cleaned up lawns to earn money for uniforms and, in the early evenings, played baseball in the park. The times were punctuated with civil strife, but “I was an idealist,” he explains. “Social activism was important to me.”

In May 1968, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, who would help organize the Charleston hospital workers’ strike the following year, led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C. to address the need for economic aid. Furchgott arranged for his uniformed Cub Scouts to help marshal the local march. The excitement of this momentous occasion for the kids, he said, was more on his mind than the important figures gathered there, including civil rights leader Esau Jenkins; the Reverend Ernest L. Unterkoefler, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Charleston; and Father Henry Grant, director of St. John’s Mission Center.

After graduation, Furchgott headed for Boston University, where he enrolled in the basic studies of philosophy, English, and the arts. Though he made Dean’s List during his first semester, the radical political 
unrest of 1970 interested him more than textbooks, and he spent his freshman and sophomore years participating in sit-ins and protests, including a chaotic student march on the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. following military attacks in Cambodia.

During his first summer at Boston University, Furchgott helped lead an effort in his dorm called “Communiversity” that organized civil liberties education for the working classes. The students were determined to show they were part of the city community rather than merely an isolated group. “Looking back, that was a tremendous movement,” he says. “My role seemed very small, but maybe it was instrumental in some ways.” That project laid the groundwork for Furchgott’s future of serving the underserved.

Walk on the Wild Side

The arts eventually pulled him from B.U. when he decided to pursue a degree in film, an interest he’d had since his high school senior project, for which he produced a dramatic film based on the Biblical tale of Jacob. In 1973, after a motorcycle tour of Europe (halfway through which he traded his shaky bike for his first camera), Furchgott landed at the London Film School, where he worked with students from Israel, Lebanon, and Chile on a project called Reflections. They had just finished the Hitchcock-like short film when the institution collapsed financially, sending Furchgott back on the road.

He first worked on a farm in Kent, where he learned about the caste system in English farming. A year later, following another European tour by monorail, he took up a three-month residency as a fisherman at Kibbutz 
Dan, one of the oldest collective agricultural communities in Israel. “I wanted to research Socialist living and find some way that everyone in society could have the services they need and feel integrated,” he says. His journey (and often his thumb) carried him to Greece, Austria, and Germany before an expired student visa returned him to South Carolina in 1974. Now, after his extensive work with Charleston’s inner-city youth, Furchgott seems to appreciate that time of adventure even more. “I wish all my kids could travel the way I was able to. Some of them have never even seen Folly Beach.”

Giant Step for Mankind

The year 1983 marked significant changes for Furchgott. His father retired, turning the family studio business over to Gene after teaching his son everything he could about portraiture photography. And in February, after a brief marriage, the 32-year-old found himself a single dad. “My Bohemian life definitely ended,” says Furchgott, who began a new kind of march through the long sleepless nights of parenthood. “I would start the day throwing chicken, potatoes, and carrots in a Crock-pot, then put Seth in the stroller and head to day care. At night, I made mush from the food, then put bottles in the Crock-pot to keep warm.”

Though his son is now 25 and making his own way in the arts, Furchgott’s role as a care-giver has not diminished—it’s merely changed. In the same East Side community where he worked as a high school boy so long ago, he’s established several arts programs that have impacted hundreds of young lives. “Gene possesses more of the ‘milk of human kindness’ than anyone else I know,” says lifelong friend Dr. Curtis Worthington.

In 1998, in his first outreach effort, Furchgott and his studio staff, armed with disposable cameras, began taking the single mothers and children of Crisis Ministries on monthly photography outings to Waterfront Park. “I wanted to give them a sense of place, but it was difficult to truly connect with the residents, who were so transient.” Alex Opoulos, who now serves on the board of the shelter, remembers those early days with Furchgott: “Gene’s committed to offering a different perspective to children and adults that don’t have the means to explore photography. He brings the art form to the people, and for that, he is a champion we should all celebrate.”

Yet another march, this time across the street to the Meeting Street Manor Housing Authority development, drew Furchgott into the neighborhood he has been so instrumental in serving. The Viewpoint project was born when he and fellow photographers Natalie Todd and Ron Rocz showed their cameras to the area kids, who responded with enthusiasm, clamoring to take pictures of their friends and surroundings. “Gene was always there, you could count on that, signing out cameras to whoever wanted to go or giving out prints from the shoot before,” remembers Rocz. “His dedication is endless. Gene is one of those rare and true ‘down in the trenches’ com-munity workers.” Though he no longer runs the nonprofit, now called Charleston Kids with Cameras, Furchgott still actively participates in the photography mentoring effort, continuing to offer inner-city children new opportunities through photo shoots, digital picture review sessions on computers, and exhibits.

Always seeking to aid those in need, Furchgott joined the Peace Corps in 2006. “I loved Viewpoint and what I was doing with the kids, but I wanted to learn about Third World countries,” he says. In July of that year, after liquidating his studio, Furchgott was dispatched to Mali, West Africa, where he spent two months learning cultural sensitivity, language, and security. But in the village, where daily temperatures reach upwards of 102 degrees, he became sick with fever, aches, and shakes. He was sent home for a month to recuperate but continued his worldly outreach, making contact with the U.S. Agency for International Development office in Senegal. The ever-enthusiastic volunteer soon returned to Africa with plans to establish a Viewpoint program similar to that in Charleston, but when he couldn’t gain funding after almost a month, he was forced back across the Atlantic.

Though his international efforts may have been quashed for the time being, Furchgott returned with renewed energy for helping local kids. Feeling that Viewpoint’s biweekly sessions weren’t enough, he accepted the invitation from the Department of Recreation and the Housing Authority to develop an after-school media arts program for Meeting Street Manor. The result? Yo Art Project now meets five days a week to teach participants computer, videography, photography, and language skills to aid their schoolwork and, hopefully, lead to future careers.

But it’s the positive relationships the children develop with volunteer mentors and teachers like Furchgott that seem to have the greatest effect. “You can’t measure the impact this is going to have—it could be incredible. I have to hope it will be,” he says. And so Furchgott continues to march on, that he might give these youth a chance at hope and success.

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