Getting to Know Charleston’s Arts Community

Five Lowcountry artists offer thoughts on their own work—and that of the Holy City’s arts community overall.

I’ve heard many a Charlestonian spout off countless facts about this city’s rich history—“This house was completely rebuilt after it burned down in the fire of 1838!” or “You see those cracks? This building almost collapsed during the earthquake in 1886!” But one part of Charleston’s history that seems to get lost in the midst of 300-plus years of political and cultural activity is its role as an artistic hub. Charleston has produced several very talented artists—Jonathan Green and Shepard Fairey, among them—and since its birth, artists from Benjamin West to Norman Rockwell have come here to paint and to be inspired.

These days, Charleston’s artistic spirit is as alive and vibrant as ever, and what better way to discover it than to meet a handful of its own gifted artists? I had a chance to sit down with some local creatives and listen as they offered some thoughts on their work and shared their outlook on Charleston’s art community.

BEN HAM (photographer)

Ben Ham

Ben Ham is a landscape photographer whose photos are captured exclusively on sheet film with a large wooden field camera. “What I’m trying to do with my work,” he told me as we sat back in the big comfy chairs in his photo gallery, “is really evoke an emotional response. I want to take you someplace, and I want you to feel it.”

Looking at his beautiful images, I could see that they are a result of vast travels, from all over the United States to the countryside of Italy. And yet, Ham prides himself on being based in the South Carolina Lowcountry, and specifically on his gallery’s location in the growing area of Upper King Street.

“This is the place to be,” he said. Though he considered positioning his gallery in the more established Historic District, it was the allure of a developing community that brought him up to 416 King St.

“For me,” he said, “it’s important to be a part of the community. I hate the term ‘networking,’ because it implies that we’re all getting together to see what we can get out of each other. Lives are enriched by real connections; the cornerstone of my business is relationships.”

With his genuine manner and great optimism, Ham has me convinced that there is a great artistic spirit to be found in Charleston. “Art is really the soul of a city,” he said. “And Charleston is certainly a vibrant art scene. … I think it not only benefits me and the other artists here, but I believe that above all, it benefits the community.”

Find Ben Ham’s work at his gallery, Ben Ham Images, 416 King St., or online.

KAREN ANN MYERS (painter)

Robert Lange opening

A figurative painter whose work focuses on the female identity, Karen Ann Myers moved to Charleston from Boston in 2008, unsure what to expect. She was concerned, she explained, that the South might not afford her the same expressive freedom in her art to which she was accustomed. However, she was pleasantly surprised to find it supportive. “A small community gives great opportunities for an emerging artist,” she told me. “I have grown more as an artist here than I ever thought I would, and found great success.”

I have met few people as familiar with the art community of Charleston as Karen Ann Myers. She is currently the associate director of Charleston’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art,  co-founder of Charleston Supported Art, and was previously the executive director at Redux Contemporary Art Center. But I could tell that, for Myers, it’s about more than personal success; it’s about seeing a community form around quality art.

“We as a community have a group of amazing artists,” she said, though she added that she thinks Charleston’s arts scene has some definite growing to do. “We can’t afford to get lazy,” she told me. “I want to encourage artists to make thought-provoking work, to work harder, to create more.” The desire for a strong art community is present in Charleston—and with more than 100 galleries in the city, it is definitely growing—but as Myers put it, “The artwork has to come first.”

Karen Ann Myers’ work travels to college campuses and intellectual environments such as Georgia College Museum and the Greenville County Museum of Art, but may be found locally at Robert Lange Studios. Check online for show dates.

HERB PARKER (sculptor)

I met Herb Parker in his sculpture studio, surrounded by strange tools, countless books and photos, and large, oddly shaped pieces-in-progress. He is a creator of large-scale, nature-based installation sculptures who has done works in Sweden, Japan, the Netherlands, Italy and across the United States. He began by drawing and painting, but explained that he grew bored by working with but two dimensions. “I wanted to work more with my hands,” he told me, “so I turned to sculpture.” It was a mixture of his respect for the earth and a limited budget that led him to work with nature. “I found that I could use the landscape as building blocks,” he said. But from the start, it was important to him to return his work to the environment.

“Early on, it was about systems manipulation,” Parker said. “Taking things from an open system and making a closed system, and then returning them. What I made only existed for a period of time. It was the process itself. That was more important than what I was creating.”

Parker’s ephemeral work, meanwhile, is focused on bringing people together, he said. “I want to encourage dialogue, and that inspires the form of my work.”

Despite the global reach of his art, Parker still refers to himself as “a Southern artist” and is glad to see the growth in Charleston’s art community. “Charleston’s art scene has a good future,” he told me. “There is a lot of good artistic energy here.”

Herb Parker teaches sculpture at the College of Charleston and has created pieces for Charleston’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art and the annual Spoleto Festival USA and Piccolo Spoleto Festival, both in Charleston.

NATHAN DURFEE (painter, illustrator)

Educated as an illustrator at Savannah College of Art & Design, Nathan Durfee is a “pop surrealist artist” who draws inspiration for his “narrative paintings” from such illustrators such as Maurice Sendak. Many of his imaginative works, he said, “are interconnected” and portray remarkable recurrent “characters” with stories of their own, such as Michael, the pink elephant who wants to fly. “I want to create my own world,” he told me. “Some artists try to re-create the real world, but if you have the freedom to create anything, why not create what you want?”

Durfee has found success in a variety of places, both traditional and nontraditional. One of his paintings, he was happy to say, has become a half-sleeve tattoo on a fan’s arm. He has been involved with annual local art festival Piccolo Spoleto and has illustrated children’s books for Scholastic. But with a personal mantra of “Just paint … become the best artist you can … what happens to your work is secondary,” personal success did not seem to be Durfee’s aim. “I hope that I can get as much experience as I can in the art world,” he told me, “and impart that experience onto the next generation of artists.”

One way that he has sought to increase his artistic experience in Charleston is through collaborating with other artists, such as Megan Lange. “It seems fantastic to take a page from the music scene, where there has been a huge surge of collaborations, bending and fusing genres,” he said. “The Charleston art community is extremely supportive. We recognize that we’re all in the same boat, and we’re willing to work together.”

Follow Nathan Durfee on Instagram and Twitter @nathandurfee and find his work at Robert Lange Studios or online.

ROBERT LANGE (painter)

Robert Lange Studios

Robert Lange is a painter of striking, photo-realistic images which “at first glance may seem familiar, but often straddle the line of possible.” He struck me as being both a community builder and a community member, through and through. “My wife, Megan, and I opened Robert Lange Studios ten years ago,” he told me, “and since the beginning my personal studio has been housed within the gallery walls, open to the public every day.”

As a gallery owner, Lange is devoted to representing artists “on integrity first, artwork second,” and as an artist, he is focused on “igniting a sense of joy through paintings that record the inspiring moments that abound,” and “enlivening a sense of genuine optimism.”

Lange’s optimism does not stop at the canvas, though; it fuels his outlook on Charleston’s art community. “I believe Charleston to be an incubator for the creative spirit,” he told me. “When a person steps foot into a space filled with work created by optimistic, good-natured artists, there is a palpable positive influence seen.”

Despite having had the opportunities to show his work at galleries across the country, he told me that his favorite place to show remains his own space at home in Charleston, because, as he put it to me, “I have had the privilege of time and time again witnessing a person’s deep connection to a piece.”

Find Robert Lange’s work online or at Robert Lange Studios, 2 Queen St., Charleston.

Anyone planning to visit Charleston and interested in the local art scene will enjoy a visit to the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, the Gibbes Museum of Art, Redux Contemporary Art Center and any of the many galleries spread throughout the city, especially along King, Queen and Broad streets, including Ben Ham Images and Robert Lange Studios.

I would also recommend coming for ‘First Friday’ on Gallery Row on Broad Street, the first Friday of each month, when galleries extend their hours and offer refreshments, and of course, fine art.

Experience firsthand what it’s like to be a part of Charleston’s art community.

A Slideshow of Charleston Art