When artist Drew Cottril saw neighbors helping one another clean up after a hurricane, he got out a pen and drew a special illustration of the cooperative effort in the style of his book "Brer Rabbit in Bulloch County: Walking the Back Roads."
Cottril graduated from Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, his original home town. Before being merged into the equally prestigious California Institute of the Arts, Chouinard was the school where Walt Disney recruited artists to train other artists for classic animated movies such as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."
Cottril worked a dozen years in advertising as an art director and designer and more than 30 years in the printing industry. Among other printing projects, he produced exhibition catalogs for museums. Through it all, he painted. His paintings were shown in West Coast galleries. He continues to paint, and now teaches drawing at the Averitt Center for the Arts.
Long were residents of San Diego County, California, Cottril and his wife, Natalie, looked to the Southeast for retirement. They have a daughter and granddaughter in Augusta, and their grandson, now in the Air Force, used to live in Savannah. The Cottrils wanted to be near - but not too near - and researched places to live, at first looking to South Carolina.
"But when we came through Statesboro, people were so nice to us, it was amazing," Natalie Cottril said. "So we went on to South Carolina, and everywhere we went, we went, 'I like Statesboro better.' It was the people."
Now married 50 years, the Cottrils moved here eight years and a few months ago. Their home is in one of those subdivisions beyond the country club where the houses look like the suburbs but the back yards look like the woods.
Brer new world
The Cottrils have made many friends here, and Drew Cottril's artistic instinct has him always looking at how faces and mannerisms reveal personalities. They have also seen quite a few critters, such as deer and possums and raccoons.
Somehow, these things converged in his mind with the Uncle Remus stories, as told by Eatonton-born 19th century folklorist and journalist Joel Chandler Harris. As a youth, Cottril encountered the stories in a book in his aunt's home in Missouri. Although he refers to Harris as "writing in that language that I can't read," he understood the stories as a way that enslaved African-Americans found to "make fun or blow off steam at their overseers."
He loved the illustrations, which weren't by Harris, but by different artists in various books of the stories.
Most of all, Cottril was inspired by the character of Brer Rabbit, the friendly trickster whose first name is short for "Brother," conveying a sense of brotherly community.
"I thought if he was here today, he would want to help people, just like he was helping there," Harris said. "But now it's a new world."
Critters Harris never saw
Several years ago when Cottril first got out his pencils and pen and began to remake Bulloch County as a Brer Rabbit world, he borrowed a few characters from the original stories. Besides Brer Rabbit, he saw Brer Turtle, where Harris had Brer Tarrypin and Mr. Mud Turkle. Others, such as Brer Possum, were Bulloch natives.
But as Cottril sketched, characters arrived from regions Harris never knew. Brer Crane always wears rubber boots. Perched in the bed of an ancient farm truck, Brer Giraffe bends his neck down to watch Brer Rabbit drive, prompting a caption about a backseat driver. Brer Elephant knows peanuts so well that the Bulloch Peanut Board hires him to be a tester, and his work results in Bulloch County having the best-tasting peanuts in the world.
"They're metaphors for behavior," Cottril said. "Like a possum - you'll meet people who are like possums. They're really sweet and they're kind, but if you yell at them, they pass out. Then you'll meet someone like Brer Hippo, who's a big, strong thing and he's scary. But if you need his help, he'll pull your wagon."
Among the animals are human figures, based more or less on Bulloch County people. Farmer Lee and Sheriff Bubba are there, and Mr. Dale, Miss Judy, Mr. Doyce, the Andersons, the Nesmiths and the Riners. Some action takes place on the Lotts' Farm. After a long day in the field, Farmer Charles sits outside and plays Mozart on his violin, and neighbors sit on their porches and listen.
Over three years, Cottril completed about 375 illustrations of the Bulloch-based Brer world. He scanned the drawings into a computer and arranged some of them into videos accompanied by music, which can be found on his website, http://drewcottril.com.
Then he started creating story boards and choosing which of the illustrations would go into the book. His wife typed the captions.
"No, I'm a critic," Natalie Cottril said when asked if she, too, is an artist. She said her husband sometimes has trouble completing a sentence, so she had to edit.
But she fell in love with the characters and stories. When she told the artist that Bulloch County doesn't have hills like those seen in one of his drawings, he had to remind her, "Natalie, it's not real," she said.
Some might also question whether the county is home to a community of retired lighthouse keepers who bring their lighthouses inland with them. Some might event doubt that Drew Cottril met Brer Rabbit in the fog that day. But according to the map in the book, Turtle Trail is as real a place as Hopeulikit, and Pumpkin Center is north of Nevils.
It's a world where people sit on the porch of the country store and tell fish stories and are as likely to sing gospel there as in church. It's a Bulloch County where folks always help out in a pinch.
The book and beyond
"Brer Rabbit in Bulloch County: Walking the Back Roads" was recently published by Amazon. An image of Cottril's oil painting of an autumn landscape, surrounding an old house on an identifiable Statesboro corner, is wrapped around the book's soft cover. Illustrations fill almost half of the 260 pages.
Besides on Amazon.com, the book can be purchased at the Averitt Center's Rosengart Gallery, on West Main Street.
Cottril's other recent book, "Faces from the Land," pencil portraits of people he has seen here and elsewhere, is also sold on Amazon.com.
After Hurricane Matthew roared through on the night of Oct. 7, Cottril woke to find that one tree, 60 feet tall or more, had crashed down just in front of his little backyard studio. Another large tree tumbled down just behind the studio, which escaped uncrushed.
In the drawing he completed Oct. 10, a certain turtle, possum, elephant and rabbit are out among the storm debris, along with a lineman and a farmer with a chainsaw, doing their part.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.