Charlene Gardner has been part of the Bluffton art scene for nearly 40 years. Her first career was not any indication that she would one day be framing kimonos, stretching a 96-by-72-inch canvas, encouraging art students, or hosting artists’ demonstrations.
“Back in the early days, when I worked with Nancy Voegele at the Pink House Gallery, she was very involved with the Art Sunday Evening,” Gardner said. “The arts was local business folks who pulled together artists and made donations to art teachers and people that could come in and do arts and education, special workshops.”
For several years Gardner was on the board of the Island School Council for the Arts, a nonprofit that promoted An Evening of the Arts, a gala fundraiser for the council. She also worked with the School Improvement Council at Michael C. Riley, helping to start the school’s annual spring arts festival.
“A group of us felt like young ones get showcased for being so smart in math and those kinds of subjects, and not all of us are going to be good at those things,” said Gardner. “There’s talent in music and art and lots of different other avenues. So we decided that it would be a good idea to feature those students.”
A native of New York State, Gardner worked in psychiatric day treatment and occupational therapy in Hyde Park until moving to Vail, Colorado. Alas, her training wasn’t applicable.
“There was barely even physical therapy back in the day there,” Gardner said. Changing course, Gardner got into retail and floral design.
In 1985, tired of the ice and snow, Gardner moved to Bluffton, looking for a comfortable place on the East Coast. “We thought South Carolina was a good idea,” she said. “We realized how much warmer it was here than where we were.”
New to Bluffton, Gardner first worked for a florist, and then began working for Nancy Voegele, the owner of the now-closed Pink House Gallery on Hilton Head.
“I’m kind of handy, and she taught me how to frame. We went to different workshops and I did some self-teaching. I worked with her for about 10 years,” Gardner said. She then went to work for Peggy Duncan Nelson who, with her husband, Jon Nelson, owned a framing shop in Bluffton.
“I started working for Peggy a little bit, and I thought, why am I not doing this for myself?” she said.
At the invitation of a friend, she moved her equipment and materials into the friend’s garage so that Gardner could start her own business.
“I figured it would be framing 24 x 30, 20 x 24 … small stuff. The first job was a huge kimono,” she said. “I had helped with a lot of oversized things at the Pink House, so I’d really been more their specialist for oversize, so we kind of continue that reputation today.”
After outgrowing the friend’s garage, as well as an addition she and her husband built onto their own home, Gardner began looking around the area for a place where she could set up shop that had plenty of parking close to the center of Old Town. In 2005, she found the perfect place: next door to Stock Farm Antiques on May River Road. Eventually, she would expand into that space when owners Teddy and Emmett McCracken closed the store.
“I wasn’t sure what to do with this space, and so I added some art pieces in one room. The framing was in the back,” said Gardner. “I had a great relationship with a lot of artists, and I started getting framing work from them.”
In the beginning, the whole front room was just frames on the wall. The framing business hub is in the center of the gallery, the walls filled with a rich variety of options for everything from that kimono to – much to her surprise – a request to frame a snakeskin.
“I’ll frame it, but it had better be dry. I’m not touching a wet snake,” she told the customer.
Gardner gradually added a variety of art to the walls, becoming more and more of a fine art gallery.
These days, the gallery portion takes up most of the building, and offers visitors many artists’ views of the Lowcountry, from Johnnie Simmons’ depictions of his Gullah culture to Marge Agin’s Lowcountry photography to Susie Chisholm’s warm bronzes.
“I think people are drawn to color and creativity … it feeds a part of their soul. When people come in and say, ‘I can’t buy any more art. My walls are full,’ I tell them, ‘You can just come in and wander through,” she said. “They just enjoy it and it spurs different conversation amongst people than they would might otherwise have. It stirs memories. It stirs all kinds of things when they look at the art as they pass through the gallery.”
One of the artists whose work stirs plenty of memories is Doug Corkern. A retired architect, Corkern can be found riding his three-wheel bike around Bluffton, armed with notebooks and pens, busily illustrating Bluffton’s daily life, adding color when he returns to his home.
Gardner said she didn’t discover him, but she has given him an audience.
“A friend of mine who worked part time here and at Home Depot was always helping Doug. She told me she went over to Doug’s house and saw all these drawings he did. She said, ‘You need to go over there and see what he’s got’,” said Gardner. “So sure enough, I go over there and see what he’s got. And it was just really incredible and priceless. I mean, nobody could even put a tag on it.”
She encouraged Corkern to bring his art to the gallery, so every time he finished a stack of sketches, he would drop them off. When they sell, Gardner writes him a check.
“It’s just joyful to work with him,” she added.
As her artful space grew larger, one of the initiatives Gardner started was hosting artists’ demonstrations, offering visitors a chance to watch the creative process, ask questions of the artist, take notes and video the demonstration.
“One thing I decided when I had this amount of space was that I didn’t want it to be just the static gallery that people just came in and wandered through,” she said. “I’ve had a whole series now, of people coming and viewing artists demos, where the artists will talk to them about whatever kind of processes are there, whether it’s how to coat your canvas before you start to paint, how you look, how you decide what your composition is going to be. They touch on all those subjects,” she said.
Gardner plans on presenting more demonstrations in the future, posting the dates on the gallery’s website.
“I think people really do seek beauty one way or the other. They really want to have that in their lives, they want to experience that,” Gardner said. “I just I feel well art is important. You know, it tells us about history. It brings up so much conversation, and I feel like that’s probably part of my work.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.