IT'S THE way of the world: The intrepid explorer who first blazes an uncharted path through the wilderness or on the ocean is rarely the one who capitalizes most on that path, or gets most of the credit.
Savannah native and current Atlanta resident Ralph Dillard—much better known among peers and professionals by the name RenaZance, or usually just rEN or Ren—is a classic example.
“I’ve always been good at starting new things and moving on,” admits Ren with a smile.
Far ahead of the local artistic curve in the late 1990s and long before Savannah was an international tourist mecca, Ren was a founding member of the spoken word ensemble Spitfire Poetry Group.
Spitfire held their first performances in the old Café Metropole spot on MLK Boulevard, one of the first handful of hipster-style businesses in downtown Savannah before hipster was even a thing here.
Ren did it not for fame or fortune, but —as is the case with most explorers— because it was there.
“I had to invent an audience just to have something to do,” he laughs. “It was done mostly out of frustration, that frustration that drives creativity. I was driven to make that environment.”
While with Spitfire, Ren worked closely with the late, great Clinton Powell, the other co-founder whose name is now most closely linked with the group.
They made an interesting and contradictory duo: Powell, with a passion far outstripping his tiny stature, and Ren, his gentle nature belying his imposing physical presence.
All good things eventually end, though. Ren became increasingly frustrated with Spitfire’s direction and decided to pick up stakes and head elsewhere.
“It had become less about the essence of performance poetry and more about the corporate feel I wanted to avoid. But Clinton definitely earned every bit of recognition his name receives today,” Ren says.
“My move came from a feeling that I’d done everything I could do as a spoken word artist and wanted to expand, and involve myself in other things. It became almost like a Joseph Campbell thing, an artistic and spiritual journey.”
Ren’s first foray, to Philadelphia, was eye-opening for the Windsor Forest High School graduate.
“In Savannah I’d been a big fish in a small pond. In Philly there was a much larger spoken word community with a lot of other very talented people.”
There was something else too, something that stirred his pioneer spirit: Visual arts.
“Philly has about 3000 murals! I’d be passing by all this artwork—a lot of it visionary and vivid and surreal,” he says.
“It really turned a key in my mind.”
Ren’s next move, to Atlanta, had more direction and was done firmly with the idea of pursuing a career in visual art.
“Atlanta in 2014 is what New York City was in the ‘80s: On the verge of being in the driver’s seat of American pop culture,” he says.
Ren is currently affiliated with a new indie collective in Atlanta, the Exile Art Group. “We’re sort of sticking it to man,” he laughs. “It’s a collective of self-taught artists.”
Ren was able to close the circle with his old friend and collaborator, Clinton Powell, who was then at the last stages of the illness that would claim his life.
“In 2011 I came back to Savannah for about three months. I was able to sit by Clinton’s bedside while he was sick.”
Ren’s show in August at the Bean, while showcasing his visual art, will also be a nod to his former life here.
“I know that most people here still associate me with spoken word, so there will be a performance at the reception,” he says.
Visually, expect to see large-format oil paintings which combine one of Ren’s oldest interests—hip hop—with one of his newest: Eastern philosophy.
“I’m exploring Sufism, Hinduism, Kabbalah, all sorts of spiritual pursuits, basically to find myself. I’ve always made a conscious effort to be at the edge, to always be a bridge between two worlds,” he says.
“I want young kids to maybe see a painting of mine, and ask ‘Why is Jay-Z in this painting wearing this kind of robe?’ I want to trigger a response.”