Newsletter Signup | Subscribe to Magazine

From cars to coastal conservation: Artists Julie and Clay Rogers

By Carolyn Males

I recently found myself standing in Julie and Clay Rogers’s Endangered Art Gallery, amid paintings of waterways, bronzes of crabs, and photographs of loggerhead turtles. But to my surprise, the conversation had veered into the technical aspects of automobile interiors. Yet, it all made sense.

Lattitude 2 | Clay Rogers

Up until I met the couple, I hadn’t ever thought about what went into the creation of automobile fabric, let alone its application to art. The Rogerses, who’d spent years working in the industry, had specialized in the science of creating colorants to meet car manufacturers’ specifications. Clay, a chemist, would mix dye formulations to match designer specs. Developing the perfect color was a task complicated by many factors: choosing combinations of dyes that wouldn’t fade or that would at least fade at the same rate, as well as figuring out the correct amount of lightfastness agents to minimize color shifts.

Meanwhile, Julie’s job was to match the dye under three light sources: daylight, the fluorescent lighting of showrooms, and horizon light when the sun goes down.

As we spoke, Clay offered a lesson in Metamerism, the problem of color shift that occurs in different lights. “Look at some dyes midday, and they’re red; but if you look at the same dye in the afternoon, it’s a pure green. That’s just the way the light affects the dye molecules. So, you don’t want a car that has a perfectly matched red interior when you buy it at noon, but when you drive it home later that day, the seats are now green with a red dashboard.”

Yes, I agreed, that would not only be annoying but disorienting.

Work or whales?

Oddly enough, it was an overheard conversation in an art gallery in Oahu back in 1992 that sparked a dramatic color shift in the Rogers’s lives.

There, the couple had been admiring a painting of a humpback whale, when famed oceanographic artist Wyland approached them.

“I’d never heard of him,” Julie admits, “but he came up and said, ‘where in the world are you from? I’ve never heard that accent before.”

Julie explained that she’d grown up in the Lowcountry. That, in turn, led to a discussion about coastal beaches. Julie had always had a passion for wildlife, so when Wyland, a marine life conservationist, told her about his Whaling Walls, seventeen massive outdoor murals that he was creating along the East Coast, Julie jumped at the opportunity to volunteer for his team.

Up until then, her interest in photography had been a hobby, but when she began documenting the making of these big public art projects, Wyland loved the results. And so did she.

Dragonfly 2 | Clay Rogers

Meanwhile, back at the plant, the company took notice of her prolonged absences and demanded she make a choice. “Work or Whales?” they asked. “Whales,” Julie declared. And with that decision, the Rogerses embarked upon a sea change, in both the figurative and literal sense.

With Julie now free to join Wyland’s worldwide tours, the couple agreed that Clay would work for a year more while Julie would find a place for them to live on Hilton Head.

An audacious new venture

Now the question was: how would they support this new phase of their lives? The answer? An art gallery. The problem? Neither knew much about art. But they did know about color and knew they wanted their venture to reflect their own dedication to marine and wildlife protection. Endangered Arts, the name they chose for the gallery, said it all.

Endangered Arts opened mid-island in 1994 with a handful of artists Julie and Clay knew (Roy Tabora, James Coleman, Jim Warren, Walfrido) plus Wyland. By the following September, they would move to their current location in South Island Square. Today the gallery encompasses 3,500 square feet and displays painting and sculptures from 24 nationally known artists, as well as Clay’s canvases and Julie’s photography.

Two artistic journeys

Over years Julie’s wanderlust had propelled her to the Dominican Republic to swim with humpback whales, on safari in southern Africa to photograph elephants, and to the coast of Nova Scotia to observe baby harp seals.

Her infinite patience and willingness to rough it in tents, on boats, or whatever it took to get the perfect shot had paid off in striking images ranging from birds to beasts to marine life. Soon, many of the gallery’s artists, enchanted by her photos, began using them as references for their own work.

In the meantime, Clay, having exchanged his automotive job for that of a gallery proprietor, began thinking. “Being around all these artists, I’d watch them paint and I’d wonder if I could do that too.” However, given his eye for color accuracy, he knew his canvases would be different. Using Julie’s photos as a reference, no matter what style—impressionist or realistic –– he’d chosen to render the subject in, he would always strive to replicate the natural color of her images.

The turtles, the butterfly, the pelicans, beaches — all of his work I was now viewing are the result of a self-directed arts education. The instruction would come from the artists with who he surrounded himself.  “I never took a class, but a lot of these guys helped me. They would give me feedback, and when they were here, I’d watch them paint.” He also would observe them at work in their studios.

Recently the couple moved from their house near the beach in Port Royal to Indigo Run, where Clay now has a large studio, and Julie has happily taken to gardening and photographing the 22 nesting bluebirds in her yard. “If I can take a photo or pull a weed, that’s a good day,” she exclaims.

BB1 | Julie Rogers

“And if I don’t pull a weed, that’s a good day,” Clay deadpans.

Now as I leave Endangered Arts, more customers are coming in. Many are returnees who want to check out their latest offerings and to talk art with Julie and Clay. Newcomers among them come to take in the wonder of the sea and its denizens through the eyes of the artists whose work fills the gallery.

That’s my cue to say goodbye to Julie and Clay, and I leave a little smarter about marine art. And now opening my car door and sliding in, I have something new to ponder. Automobile upholstery. LL