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Thursday, May 24, 2012 - 12:00pm

The Art Behind A Poet's Verses

One of history's most famous poets is getting an art exhibit on the Georgia coast.

Syrian-born Kahlil Gibran is best known for his prose work The Prophet.

He's less well known as an artist.

A Georgia connection gave Savannah the country's largest collection of Gibran art.

Gibran was born in a hillside town in what's now Lebanon in 1883.

His mother moved him and his sisters to Boston when he was 12.

But his words inspire people regardless of place and time.

The Prophet is used in weddings and funerals.

Albert Johary of the Southern Federation of Syrian-Lebanese Cultural Organizations says, Gibran is the third-best selling poet after Shakespeare and Lau Tzu.

"It's resonated throughout the ages due to its universal themes of love, friendship, peace and unity that everyone can relate with," Johary says.

Gibran also drew and painted.

But Tania Sammons of Savannah's Telfair Museum says, since The Prophet was published in 1923, spiritual seekers have been drawn to his words more than his art.

"I think there are a number of reasons why Kahlil Gibran as an artist has not been recognized," Sammons says. "One major reason is the success of The Prophet. I think that book was so successful that it has overshadowed his other work."

Gibran's artworks are scattered worldwide with many in Lebanon.

But in the US, his largest collection is kept mostly behind-the-scenes at the Telfair, the South's oldest art museum.

Prophetic might describe the works.

Light and airy, they delve into mystic realms and are apt companions to The Prophet.

In the museum's archives, the Telfair's Jessica Mumford puts on gloves to handle delicate works on paper.

"All the ones you see on the table are Gibran," Momford says. "You see how I have boxes labeled. We have so many. Everybody wants to see a Gibran."

The exhibit includes whispy nudes and tender portraits in pencil, open-armed goddesses in watercolor, a self-portrait in oil and several drawings of Christ.

How the works got here goes back to 1904, when Gibran met a Boston headmistress and daughter of an old Savannah family who shaped his career.

Mary Haskell Minis opened doors closed otherwise to the immigrant.

Sammons says, their life-long friendship included two marriage proposals that Haskell refused because Gibran was a foreigner.

"Her father fought in the Civil War," Sammons says. "She came from a conservative, wealthy family and she was teaching the children of elite families in Boston. So, she had to maintain this conservative persona."

Haskell donated her Gibran collection, nearly a hundred works, to the Telfair in 1950.

Museum officials say, Gibran fans often visit Savannah from around the world but are disappointed they can't always see his artworks since they are light-sensitive and would fade if displayed often.

The exhibit, opening Saturday and running through September, is a rare chance to see the artist behind the verses.

For more information about Kahlil Gibran and to browse his poetry, visit his official museum in Lebanon.

The BBC also produced an excellent documentary for the broadcaster's Heart and Soul program.