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Featured Artists: A Lowcountry artists colony and 50 years of the Art League of Hilton Head

Take an isolated island, conjure up a vision, add sparks of passionate creativity:

by Carolyn Males

Back in the days when forests blanketed the island, Native Islanders farmed small plots and marsh tacky horses raced along beaches, Charles Fraser stood on the edge of the Calibogue, dreaming. But it wasn’t only images of a resort community with golf courses, trails and preserves, and homes that blended into natural surroundings that had swirled around his brain. He also envisioned an artists colony that would bring together creative minds to enrich the island’s culture. After all, what painter wouldn’t be enticed by white sands fringed with palmettos and marshes alive with herons, egrets and ibis? To sell his plan, Fraser hit upon the idea of inviting artists to come display their work at the oceanfront William Hilton Inn on South Forest Drive in exchange for a few nights’ stay. 

One January morning in 1960 Fraser found his first convert. Walter Greer had driven in from Greenville, came upon the live oaks dripping with Spanish moss and was instantly smitten. He bought a lot in Sea Pines, built a house and art studio and was soon seen pedaling his bicycle around the South End. Meanwhile more artists fell under the island’s spell and moved here. Art lovers and galleries followed. 

The Round Table

In the 1920s and ‘30s New York had its Algonquin Round Table, where the literati like writer Dorothy Parker, humorist Robert Benchley, playwright George S. Kaufman and actors like Harpo Marx (he spoke!) traded quips, debated, pulled pranks, and collaborated on projects. By 1971 Hilton Head would have its own iconic version. Thursday mornings artists Walter Greer, Ralph Ballantine, Joe Bowler, Joe DeMers, Colby Whitmore and Alan Palmer would meet at the Red Piano Gallery, a wooden building set among the trees on Cordillo Parkway that Palmer and his wife, Mary, had opened two years earlier. There at a big round table they’d talk, read articles on arts and culture and discuss any other topic that grabbed their attention. Visiting artists and leaders of other cultural groups, drawn to the group’s collective creative energy, would stop by. Even the founders of SCAD came to bounce around ideas before launching Savannah’s prestigious art and design school in 1978. Over the years others would pull up chairs and become part of the inner circle. Among them: Luanne LaRoche (who bought the gallery in 1980), Aldwyth, Marge Parker, Katie Hodgman, George Plante, Ray Ellis, Elizabeth Grant and Tua Hayes. 

A year after “The Artists of the Round Table” came into being, another set of island movers and shakers met up there to exchange ideas. This group of artists, teachers and an architect included Diann Wilkinson, Virginia Lewis, Mary Palmer, Betty Crowell, Shirley Blossom, Happy Palmer, Nan Fisk, Kay Shelton and Gretchen Ramsey. Their mission? To form an art league that would bring lectures, films, exhibits and workshops to the island. And what better way to kick it off? At a Walter Greer show titled “The Forest Preserve” to be held at Hilton Head Inn. They would ask Greer to give a talk, which would be their first program.

  It was a time when all seemed possible.”

When I picture both these groups and others that formed in those early days to brainstorm what the island arts community could be, I imagine a cloud, not unlike a Mark Larkin mobile dangling above their heads, with bolts of lightning shooting out as each good idea strikes. 

Boom! Let’s do a series of talks that bring in experts: An African art collector from the High Museum drives in to speak about tribal art. Documentarian Perry Miller Adato shows his film about Pablo Picasso. Theodore Wolf of the Christian Science Monitor discusses art trends. Oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau and artist-activist Allen Gussow take over the center tennis court at Harbour Town with a slide show and talk on the environment. 

Boom! Let’s stage high-caliber exhibits. Allan McNab, director of the Telfair Museum, brings in a show of original Toulouse-Lautrec posters and drawings. Wealthy local art collectors put their priceless Old Masters and Modern Art on display at a gala event ––a little taste of the Met and MoMA here among the palmettos.

Boom! Let’s bring in artists to demonstrate their craft. Jacob Preston, “Bluffton’s tallest potter,” fires up a kiln on the beach at the Hyatt Hotel to demonstrate the art of Japanese raku. 

By the time of the Art League’s tenth anniversary in 1982, it boasted a membership of 500. In an Island Packet interview at that time, Greer noted that “more than 120 of Hilton Head’s population had plunked down the modest dues to join the Art League.” Meanwhile the ideas kept flowing, and the League added yet another attractive component –– tours to art destinations like the New York Metropolitan Museum and even a cruise to the Greek islands.

Addison Palmer

But what about all the other working painters, mixed media artists and sculptors who had now moved to this corner of the Lowcountry? In 1986 with the opening of the Art League’s first dedicated gallery, a small space in Sea Pines Center, residents and visitors could now discover more of the local talent. Both here and later in Pineland Station (where it relocated in 2000), art openings and events like Fabulous Fakes, featuring members’ clever spins on famous masterpieces, could spill over into the courtyards.

It was a time when all seemed possible. The island had become the “canvas” for the ideas the artists and their allies conceived and set in motion. Meanwhile a Cultural Council, a coalition of the Art League, Hilton Head Community Orchestra, Hilton Head Dance Theatre, Hilton Head Institute for the Arts, Hilton Head Prep, Friends of the Library, Island School Council and the Sweet Adelines had formed. A future arts center was now a hot topic with the Community Playhouse pulled out after a disagreement over the size of the proposed theater. When the $10.2 million Self Family Arts Center (today’s Art Center of Coastal Carolina) finally did open in 1996, the Art League inaugurated the 2,300-square-foot Walter Greer Gallery with a show featuring 150 works by members, including Round Table luminaries. However, the League’s gallery would not move into the Greer until 15 years later.

Meanwhile a big game changer for the visual arts community was the opening of the Art Academy in 2004. Over the years the Art League had been running workshops in various locations around the island. But when the town’s Creation Station was turned over to the League, the organization finally had a solid home for its educational wing. 

The academy would soon attract a core of fine art instructors to teach classes and multi-day offerings for beginners and professionals alike.

In 2011, a few years before the wrecker’s ball took down the old Pineland Station, the Art League took over the Walter Greer Gallery at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina. Today the gallery holds rotating shows of members and featured artists as well as special events like the annual Gullah exhibition in February, the Gallery of Gifts in December and, in alternate years, the Biennale, a prestigious national juried show, and CraftHiltonHead.

Today just off Pope Avenue in Compass Rose Park, a bronze statue depicts the famous picture of Charles Fraser walking jauntily alongside an alligator. I like to think it portrays him contemplating those early days when his ideas were about starting a world-class resort with a robust artists colony that sparked creative thinking both on the island and beyond. Given the explosive growth of the area’s vibrant arts and culture community, I suspect we’ve all — no matter what our field –– succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. LL