The Changing Tides of the Charleston Art Scene

Artist Nancy Ricker Rhett’s Remembrances

Growing up here in post-war Lowcountry, we saw crabbers of all types constantly working the creeks in small wooden boats. The men would set out trot lines baited with potent smelling meat. The lines were marked with floats on which their particular license number was painted. Heaven forbid anyone was caught poaching! Wars were started over this for men’s livelihoods were at stake.

The man at the stem motor had to be quite skilled at working the tide and the current, allowing the person in the bow to follow the trot line to the next bait line. With great expertise, he’d pull the line, then used his wire dip net to scoop up the crab, or crabs, if he was lucky. He’d flip them into a fifty-five gallon drum which, when filled, was taken to Blue Channel, the crab processing plant in Port Royal or to the Miss Mary, the company’s pick-up boat. In the winter, they’d have a fire in a steel drum on board the boat to keep them warm.

It was a big industry and our local crabmeat was shipped worldwide. Because of the Lowcountry’s extreme tides and rich, saline water, our crabs are already very flavorful and tasty. Ours are different altogether from those north of here in the Chesapeake Bay where water is diluted by many freshwater rivers emptying into it.

Crabbing in our creeks has changed from the thriving, big business that it was. Nowadays, the professional crabbers are fewer and the method has become mechanized. Wire crab traps, or pots, have replaced the trot lines. Winches are used to pull the haul. And Fiberglas has replaced homemade cypress and pine boats.

To see crabbers pulling their pots is a treat, and a bit of nostalgia.

Artist Michael B. Karas

It’s tempting when viewing a Michael B. Karas painting to insert yourself into the frame — so adept is he at nailing a moment, a mood and what a landscape feels like. Those of us who feel transfixed or more likely transported by Karas’ creations have plenty of company. His works have been exhibited in museums across the country, and nearly 3000 of his paintings are included in private and corporate collections worldwide.

The paintings of Michael B. Karas transcend both time and place with a sincerity of execution that lock the images into our minds forever. His southern works have catapulted him into the ranks of the most renowned artists of the Lowcountry and beyond.

Recently I had the privilege of visiting Michael at his studio. “I don’t try to paint a ‘portrait’ of a scene,” he said, “it’s the essence of the scene I’m after.” Rather than to simply represent the outward appearance of the landscape, his paintings evoke a certain emotion revealing a deeper inward significance.

This region, perhaps as much as his native New England, has unleashed a creative force within him that has led to the creation of many highly acclaimed landscape paintings expressing his passion for nature and the natural world around him. He loves the low light of early morning and late afternoon for painting the serpentine creeks that wind through endless Lowcountry marshes. He is drawn to dramatic cloud formations, the sea and the majesty of our sunrises and sunsets across the water.

When I asked him, “Who are your heroes?” he quickly replied “Frederick J. Waugh”, the great marine painter and the acclaimed master painter, John Singer Sargent.” He was inspired by their works early on. Karas grew up on Boston’s North Shore, a few miles south of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, which consists of the historic seaport city of Gloucester and the nearby town of Rockport. Both of these have thriving artist colonies, where artists run their own galleries. There he learned he could make a living selling art and has done so successfully since high school.

Michael’s routine includes working in his home studio on Callawassie Island, a private sea island in coastal South Carolina. Here the sweeping expanses of marsh, winding estuaries, vast pristine tidal waters and the abundance of bird and wildlife provide the creative heartbeat of his Lowcountry paintings.

When not at work, Michael enjoys inshore saltwater fly fishing. Why fly fishing? “There is a pleasing aesthetic in the way the rod and line move through the air when making a cast, which propels the nearly weightless fly to silently land near it’s quarry. Then, when a fish is hooked, the long rod bends in the most graceful arch.”

Michael adds, “The places where I fish are also the places I paint. Time spent fishing gives me the perfect opportunity to observe my subject.”

And whenever time allows, he and his wife Fern, both Disney enthusiasts, love going to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Beyond the rides, they enjoy the amazing environment of outstanding design, creativity and attention to detail. They delight in just strolling around the parks or sitting on a bench, soaking in the magic.

The Lone Oysterman

The wilderness areas of our coastal terrain are spiritual sanctuaries and places of unparalleled beauty that evoke a sense of awe and reverence for our natural world.

Through his photography, Andrew challenges us to take a closer look at the natural world around us with a fresh perspective. We look not as detached observers, but as intimately engaged participants.

To understand the oystermen, Andrew went out with Craig Reaves, owner of the Sea Eagle Market and Vince Chaplain, a Gullah oysterman born and raised on St. Helena Island.

It was 5 a.m. on a Tuesday in mid-January, 30 degrees, still dark outside with a wind chill in the 20s. They climbed aboard the aluminum boat and took off full throttle through the waters of the Broad River wanting to reach the flats by the break of dawn. With waves breaking over the bow, conditions were dangerous that day even for the highly experienced. Both Vince and Craig have been oystering for much of their lives and on this day they knew it might be their last chance to harvest these banks before temperatures dipped further the next day. Oysters exposed to extreme temperatures at low tide will freeze and die.

Arriving at the oyster beds, Craig pulls his boat onto the pluff mud where he and Vince grabbed their white sacks and plowed through frigid waters in search of the razor-sharp shellfish. The tide had just receded enough to expose the oysters, but it takes experienced eyes to know how to chose the clusters that are good. Vince grabbed a cluster, knocking off the smaller oysters so they can stay and continue to grow.

Andrew stayed on the boat to photograph the men as they slogged through thick mud and stood bent over for hours on end, swinging heavy culling hammers needed at times to break the shells from their beds. It’s not unusual for oystermen to fall asleep in their boats before continuing their work once the tide is right.

Andrew’s dramatic use of light captures nature’s own masterpieces, making his photographs powerful tributes to this vanishing way of life. That day on the Broad River gives us a new respect for those who labor each day to bring us the bounty of our marshes, estuaries, and rivers.

South Carolina at one time was home to a thriving, world-famous oyster industry. Prior to World War II, oyster factories lined South Carolina’s coast from Daufuskie Island, Bluffton, and Port Royal, all the way up to Litchfield and Little River. Now it is a culture facing extinction.

Artist Michael Harrell

“Only a few hundred rugged souls make their living gathering oysters in the salt marshes and rivers along the coast. Heading out on cold winter mornings before dawn in crude wooden boats, the oystermen climb out onto the oyster bars and, working quickly, hammer away at the clumps of oysters buried in the mud flats. Leaning down with their distinctive oyster ‘grabbers,’ they fill their bags with oysters hidden away in backwater creeks that most people never see. The result, visually, is an evocative amalgamation of landscape and seascape. The gold marsh grass, the shards of orange-red light that illuminate the edges of the oyster shells, and the blue-greens of the flowing water leave an indelible impression.”

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Artist Ray Ellis

From the time he was a young boy, Ray Ellis knew he wanted to be an artist. Painting became as essential to his life as drawing his next breath. Growing up in Philadelphia, Sunday afternoons were frequently spent visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Mr. Ellis describes himself as a painter on all seven continents and attributes his prolific nature to a dedicated work ethic. He attended the famed Philadelphia Museum School of Art, served four years in the Coast Guard during WWII, founded his own advertising agency in New Jersey and New York, but continued to paint in his spare time. It was not until 1969 that he was able to devote all his time to painting. Over more than 70 years that he’s been painting, he estimates that he has completed more than 6,000 works, including many that have been published in his 15 books.

Of great significance to Ellis were artists who were especially accomplished in watercolor — Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, John Singer Sargent and Ogden Pleissner. It was Winslow Homer, however, who exerted the greatest and most enduring impact on Ellis’ art in subject matter and style.

Never was retirement his goal, but to continue to paint for as long as he could hold a brush and have a sound mind. With so many compositions in his sketch book for future paintings, his greatest frustration was that he might not have time to finish them all. His biggest thrill was to start a new painting.

For three consecutive years beginning in 1998, Mr. Ellis was commissioned by the President to paint scenes of the White House to be reproduced as the official Christmas card.

He is represented in fine art galleries across the country and overseas. His works have been exhibited in U.S. Embassies in Geneva, Vienna and London, and are in the permanent collections of the White House, museums across the country and private collections worldwide.

A portion of the proceeds of this book will be donated to the Ray Ellis Foundation.

The Ray Ellis Foundation

The Ray Ellis Foundation, Inc. was founded in 1999. The mission of the foundation is to foster, encourage, aid and promote the visual arts and their appreciation by the public. Since its inception the foundation has provided scholarships to determined and talented high school students that intend to pursue a career in painting. It was important to Mr. Ellis to carry on the tradition of encouraging young people as he had been encouraged by teachers, mentors, and collectors. The Ray Ellis Foundation, Inc. is a 501(3)(c) not-for-profit corporation. Donations are tax deductible.

Visit www.rayellis.com for more information on the foundation and artwork.

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