After defining itself over two decades, art scene flourishing

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Editor's Note: The Bluffton Sun was first published in January 1998. As we celebrate our 20th anniversary in 2018, we want to look at the past 20 years of history and changes around town. This is the fourth in a series of articles about the changes we've all seen. Join us as we revisit the past 20 years.

Twenty years ago, the art scene in Bluffton was a simmering melting pot of artists. Now, the cauldron is boiling.

The painters, sculptors, potters, wood carvers, photographers, jewelry makers and glass artists were all here, living and working in the neighborhood, but you could count on one small hand the number of storefronts in Old Town that were devoted to selling their work.

They were, by choice, painting and sculpting behind the scenes in their garages and home studios, but they were selling their work, sometimes on commission. Hilton Head had a number of art galleries - it had the reputation and it had the buzz. Bluffton was not a destination for viewing art, let alone buying it, on any level in the late 1990s.

In fact, Bluffton wasn't a real destination for anything.

"Back in 1985, the world ended at Windmill Harbour (Hilton Head's northernmost community)," said Charlene Gardner, owner of Four Corners gallery since 1998. "Nobody thought there was anything else past Windmill Harbour. What could you possibly do out in Bluffton? Nobody thought Bluffton would be anything."

Bluffton artists knew Bluffton was everything.

"There was an eclectic group of folks here who were artists, because they couldn't afford to live on the island," she said. "But the islanders wanted (those artists') works in their homes."

In his 45 years as a potter, Blufftonian Jacob Preston has pretty much seen it all from his perch at the old tabernacle at 10 Church St. that he bought years ago. He works downstairs in his studio with long-time associate Brynne Bowler, daughter of the late acclaimed local painter Joe Bowler, and lives with his wife, Susan, upstairs. (Joe Bowler will be the featured artist at Four Corners for a month, beginning April 19.)

"Like much of Bluffton, it (the arts scene) was kind of a secret in the early 2000s," said community fixture Preston. "There was a goodly number of folks doing art stuff."

He mentioned Louanne LaRoche, influential Bluffton painter and former owner of the iconic Red Piano gallery on Hilton Head, which is relocating to Old Town this year by owners Ben and Lyn Whiteside.

The Society of Bluffton Artists (SOBA) formed in 1994 and moved to its permanent home at the corner of Church and Calhoun streets earlier this decade. It now has about 200 artist members whose works are displayed on a rotating monthly basis with volunteer commitments supporting the society.

In 2002, the Guild of Bluffton Artists, formed by artists Bill Maddox, Lynda K. Potter, Jon Nelson and Peggy Duncan, agreed to promote the Bluffton arts community and launched the Pluff Mudd co-op gallery on Calhoun Street in 2006.

"I tried to recruit people to come here and open galleries because there was a fair number of available buildings," said Preston. "So a lot of them became co-op galleries ... it's a way for a lot of people to afford to have a venue to show."

Preston recruited Amos Hummell, who moved into a vacant garage at the corner of Calhoun and Bridge streets in 2003 because of its large space and affordability. Hummell had art business neighbors like The Store, Pluff Mudd, Eggs 'n' Tricities up and down the street, but it wasn't a concentrated enclave.

"I was a street artist," Hummell said. "My door was always open. The biggest question I always got was, 'Where is the art district?' and 'Where are all of the artists?' I would say, 'Most of them are in their garage'... Art studios in the mid-2000s were the only things on that street, with the exception of a law firm and the Montessori school."

Hummell said there wasn't competition among the artists because everyone was doing their own thing.

By mid-decade 2000, Preston said Bluffton's art scene was thriving. "There was an incredible surge of activity," he noted. "We appeal to a different group of folks than Hilton Head does. Bluffton is now a destination for art."

Gardner outgrew her small framing space after several prosperous years and moved into her current 2,500-square-foot space on May River Road in 2005.

"When I moved into this space, I couldn't imagine how I could fill it," she said. "And now, I'm bulging here." The continued burgeoning of the arts scene led to the formation of the Bluffton Arts District, which is supported by the Old Town Bluffton Merchants Society. Based largely on previous efforts by Preston, Naomi McCracken, Duncan and Potter, the district formed in 2012 and has a membership of 10 galleries.

In addition to Red Piano, three other galleries will be opening up in Bluffton this year, including a second location for renowned large-format photographer Ben Ham, Gardner said.

"Compared to a lot of other businesses, the art scene has been able to be a stronghold in Bluffton with its survivability," Gardner said. "There's a lot of long-term stability."

Preston thanks Gardner herself for that: "Four Corners is the star. Charlene has been a godsend."

Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.

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