In his home studio, Doug Corkern sketches one of the many historic structures he has found on his bike rides around Bluffton. GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

Artists will set up camp just about anywhere to capture a scene with pencil, paint or ink, and retired architect Doug Corkern is no different.

“I’m the little old guy on the three-wheel bicycle who rides around town and talks to everybody,” Corkern said.

He not only talks but looks around him and sees art in every corner. He’s out almost every day, driving around and capturing Bluffton’s unique character and the people who live and visit here.

“Since my childhood, I liked to draw and sketch and sculpt. I used to buy a 10 cent pack of typing paper – Blue Horse typing paper with lines on it,” he said. “Later in my architectural career – when I first moved to Hilton Head and was designing houses with (the late architect) John Wade – I worked on a house that was being built by the owner of Blue Horse Paper Company, Louis Montag.”

Corkern was born in 1935 in Panama City, Fla., while his father was a mill worker for International Paper Company. When he was 4, the family moved to Georgetown, just up the coast from Bluffton. 

“We grew up on seven acres. We had a farm and grew all of our vegetables during World War II. We only bought sugar, coffee and bread from the store. We had really good eats: chicken, hogs, cow. I grew up on whole, unpasteurized milk,” said Corkern. “I had a great childhood. I had three little boys as neighbors across the street. We played cowboys and Indians, made slingshots, shot targets, ran around barefoot all the time.

Corkern and his brother would help their father with the crops.

“We raised peanuts, and we would pull the peanuts, load them on a flatbed wagon, put them in the barn and feed the hogs,” he said. “I’d crop the corn, and we would have cornmeal and grits made at one of the plantations in Georgetown.”

In school, Corkern’s favorite subjects were recess and football, he said.

“I was not a good student in high school. I think I got by with a lot. I’ve always enjoyed drawing and enjoyed art, even on the weekends during my practice. I used to draw horses on the front of notebooks of girls. They loved that,” Corkern said. “My father insisted on an education for me and my young brother. I think he had a third grade education, and we had no choice. We were going to college. My brother went to North Carolina State, and majored in pulp and paper technology after my father.”

Corkern attended Clemson University, admitting he finally began to get good grades his sophomore year, enjoying architectural design, history and literature – calculus not so much. His degree in architecture was the result of a “little seed” planted by a teacher, he said.

“In the fourth grade, it was during the Second World War, and you couldn’t buy toys. I found a board in the road, found a book and drew out a shape of a gun from the Civil War. I cut it out, carved it and took it to school,” said Corkern. “My history teacher liked it and asked if she could bring it around to the teachers. She came back and said, ‘This is nice piece of sculpture, and you should consider being an architect.’ I had no idea what an architect was. We didn’t have one in town, but that was a little seed that she planted and it grew. So when I went to Clemson I picked architecture. I guess it turned out pretty good.”

As the owner of Doug Corkern Architects Inc., Corkern and his company made their mark on the Hilton Head-Bluffton area.

“I’ve done a lot of houses, me and my firm. It wasn’t all on me. I had 50 people in the firm at one time. And we did a lot of the homes, we did schools. I really enjoyed doing the clubhouses – Sea Pines, Dataw Island and Haig Point. I enjoyed playing golf and designing the golf clubs. I did a couple of churches,” Corkern said, “and one of the real joys was doing the Campbell A.M.E. church in Bluffton. I met a lot of really nice people and some lifelong friends there.”

When it came time to retire, Corkern determined he was heading either back to Georgetown or over the bridge to Bluffton. The decision was fairly easy.

“I was going to retire, and the cost of Hilton Head was a little more than Bluffton, and we made a choice to move between Bluffton and Georgetown, and I have two sons living here in Bluffton so I chose Bluffton,” he said.

He’s very emphatic about his affection for the town.

“I like everything about Bluffton. The people. It’s a great, wonderful place to live with the people. They’re all so friendly. I have the greatest neighbors in the world,” said Corkern. “And I think one of the things that makes Bluffton so attractive to other people is the vegetation, the trees. I have friends who come here from California and Texas and they stand on my front porch and marvel at the vegetation.”

That’s something Corkern hopes will continue to be a marvel. “What I’d like to see happen in the future in Bluffton is we keep all of our trees and keep planting them,” he said, “and I encourage the use of vernacular architecture in Old Town Bluffton.”

“Vernacular architecture” is structures that are unique to a place by virtue of the style, building materials, and local traditions. The Garvin-Garvey House is one example of vernacular architecture unique to Bluffton.

Corkern’s passion for drawing became more noticeable when he moved to Old Town since he was frequently seen pulling out one of his many moleskin sketchbooks and an ink pen or pencil. He’s drawn many of the old buildings in Bluffton – the ones with nearly-fallen-down character as well as those still stately with sturdy bones. He’s also sketched the more simple facets of Bluffton life, such as shucked oysters, oyster harvesters, people he meets around town, and scenes by the water.

Local faces have caught his eye, and goats, crabs and birds of all sorts have been captured and colored on the pages of his books. He’s posted many on his Facebook page and has stacks of sketchbooks, but he never anticipated that his love for drawing would evolve into something so unexpected.

“When we built in Bluffton, I built a studio, and I was happily doing work and sketching all of the iconic houses in Bluffton when Charlene Gardner came by to see what I was doing,” he said.

Gardner owns and operates Four Corners Art Gallery on May River Road in Old Town.

“She asked to take some of my work to the gallery, and see if it would sell. And the rest is history,” said Corkern. A prolific artist, his work in ink and watercolor wash or chalk is on display and for sale at Four Corners.

At home, his dining room is his studio, the table covered with glasses full of lead and colored pencils, art books, card stock, drawing paper, his current project and his ink pen. A pencil drawing of an old building gets a quick application from his pen, the lines drawn with a quick, sure hand.

Corkern said he loved being an architect, a talent for which he and his company got many awards but not a lot of press coverage. He’s bemused that as an artist, he has received much more recognition. He loves that something he has done for so many years for fun and pleasure makes other people happy. He credits Gardner with his “second career.”

“She has given me the best retirement an old architect can have,” he said.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.