Last summer, in the middle of a pandemic, artist Pam White was looking for a way to bring her art and that of her Sea Pines neighbors back to the attention of Lowcountry art lovers. “Local artists had been in their homes for the past six months, creating art,” White said. “We couldn’t recall ever being more productive, but where could we show it?”
At the same time, Mark King of The Club Group, property managers for The Shops at Sea Pines Center, was looking for a way to keep a promise. “We put a big poster up, facing Lighthouse Road, as the precautions began,” King said. “A graceful swimmer in a tank suit was headed for the surface, where the words said, ‘Adventures are ahead. This will not last forever.’ I was sure we meant that. I just wasn’t sure yet how we would do it.”
Art offered the answer
The irrepressible Lowcountry arts scene provided the answer. “The Artists of Sea Pines’ home gallery is located in the Conference Center at The Shops at Sea Pines Center, so it was a natural extension to step out into the plaza and meet people there,” King said. “And we had some ongoing experience in practicing sensible precautions in the plaza, thanks to hosting our Farmers & Makers Market every Tuesday.”
White offered to organize an outdoor event, and in September, The Shops at Sea Pines Center premiered a monthly celebration they called the First Thursdays Art Market.
With a pattern already developed for such an event, that first market showcased a dozen Sea Pines artists, posted with care throughout the open-air plaza, with several favorite local musicians (who were also having a tough time finding an audience for their work), serenading and setting the mood.
“The precautions made people more comfortable all around,” White said. “The setting, and the music, and even the time of day, with evening approaching, it felt like a big, outdoor reception.”
A wider embrace
The inaugural First Thursdays Art Market was a hit, so the monthly celebration continued. “I have had many friends tell me that First Thursdays was their only regular outing during Covid,” White said, “and the only time life seemed somewhat normal.”
From the beginning, artists and fans alike asked if the Art Market could include artists from beyond Sea Pines, and beginning earlier this spring, the answer became a resounding “yes.” More artists, more art forms, and more fun have been possible, thanks to the warm reception people have given to First Thursdays—and thanks to the abundance of art available here.
“People really seem to enjoy the chance to talk with the artist about his or her work,” said White, who regularly exhibits and continues to volunteer as the event’s chairperson. “The feeling at First Thursdays is so relaxed that you might say the art becomes interactive.”
Why art loves the Lowcountry
“People who’ve been everywhere move to the Lowcountry and remark on what a big, vital, bubbling arts scene they find,” White said. The success of First Thursdays Art Market in the Shops at Sea Pines Center is one sign of a much bigger story. Surprising as it might seem to the newcomer, there are reasons behind the abundance of art in the Sea Islands and along our Carolina coast.
“Inspiration is the reason that comes to mind first,” White said. “Established artists who visit our region have been known to drop everything and move here in response to the different world of beauty they find. The birds, the trees, the subtropical plants, and even the ground itself—all these remarkable sights prompt practicing artists to see things in a different light.”
And many who’ve kept the artist within them, as they lived the life of careers and families, are inspired to let that artist loose when they move to the Lowcountry. “Whether it was classes at the Art League, or simple self-discovery, this area has produced notable artists from among those who moved here and were inspired to begin practicing their art when they first breathed in the natural beauty they find all around them,” White said.
Jeff Keefer is one such artist. The Ohio native had a successful career with DuPont, rising in the ranks to executive vice president and CFO, before retiring to Hilton Head Island in 2010. Inspired by his new surroundings as well as what he calls “a new awakening” after a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, Keefer began experimenting with photography, eventually opening VIVID Gallery in The Shops at Sea Pines Center.
“The beauty of this place, and the time to devote to a longtime interest, just came together,” Keefer said.
His success as an artist also enables him to support his other passion—research for a cure for Parkinson’s Disease—as Keefer donates the proceeds from VIVID Gallery to the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
Musical artists add their magic
From the beginning, music has been an essential ingredient in the First Thursdays Art Market, and the musicians are as homegrown and authentic as the visual artists they accompany.
It was Jeff Keefer’s VIVID Gallery that introduced singer-songwriter Sara Burns to the First Thursdays scene, and Burns’ songs have been a cornerstone of the relaxed and expressive atmosphere that takes over the plaza as the evenings take shape. Long respected for her originality, Burns honors her roots with her devotion to the local arts scene.
Hilton Head’s own Jazz Corner ranks as one of the nation’s leading venues among jazz lovers and musicians alike, and Jazz Corner resident artists Davey Masteller, Martin Lesch and Chris Russell have been part of First Thursdays too, often accompanied by other impressive area musicians. And thanks to Mike and Debbie Kilgore at Hazel Dean’s, local favorite John Cranford often appears solo, or occasionally forms a duo, outside their gourmet grocery shop. Cranford’s popular rock and alternative band, Cranford Hollow, is a proud product of the Lowcountry art and music scene.
In May, the Shops at Sea Pines Center will welcome back The Nice Guys, a musical quartet that’s been described as “perfect for the vibe in the plaza.” Playing everything from jazz to funk to yacht rock, these local guys have been wowing audiences and winning awards since they formed the band five years ago as high school sophomores.
Why they celebrate
“Our support for the artists has a really local intent,” King said. “As a group of local businesses ourselves, The Shops at Sea Pines Center thrive partly because of the energy, the creativity, and the power of attraction that the Lowcountry arts scene provides.”
First Thursdays Art Market was seen as a way to give back. “Beginning with the Artists of Sea Pines, whose home gallery is right here, we saw the opportunity to spread that support beyond, and to include local artists from all around the area,” King added.
And it’s good for business too, as First Thursdays Art Market also gives residents and visitors an opportunity to support the locally-owned shops, restaurants and businesses at the center.
“Shopping local is so important to a community,” said Andrea Bragg of Forsythe Jewelers, who chairs the Merchants’ Association at the center. “We are your neighbors; we shop in your shops, we eat in your restaurants, so please support your local businesses and local artists.”
Art Market guests get to do just that, while ushering in the evening every First Thursday of the month from 4 to 7 p.m., sampling good wines, strolling the shops, talking with the artists, listening to the music ,and relaxing in the plaza.
“Seeing the pleasure that art can bring to people, we are excited to have a setting that adds to it,” Bragg said. “We hope people will continue to join us, to enjoy, to support, and to celebrate the local art inspired by our lovely Lowcountry.”
Tiny Free Art Galleries
The Town of Hilton Head Island’s Office of Cultural Affairs recently announced its newest Community Creates initiative, Tiny Free Art Galleries placed at various locations around the island. Produced in partnership with the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina and the Art League of Hilton Head, the tiny free art galleries are similar to the popular free little libraries, a book sharing movement inspiring readers and expanding book access to all across the country.
Instead of books at the tiny art galleries, you will find local art: whimsical, miniature pieces that can fit right in the palm of your hand. Residents, guests and local artists are invited to take a piece of art, leave a piece of art, or just stop by the tiny galleries and enjoy what’s featured inside.
Public galleries can be found at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, The Shops at Sea Pines Center, the Art League Academy on Cordillo Parkway, and Beautiful Island Square on Marshland Road.
“The Tiny Free Galleries will be a public forum to highlight local artists and resident amateur artists, creating a space to showcase their (tiny) work and an opportunity for our town to honor the important role arts play in our community,” said Jennifer McEwen, director of cultural affairs for the town. “Also, they are fun and whimsical, and I think we can all use a little whimsy in our lives right now.”