By Bill Thompson

I am a passionate museum and gallery crawler, having had the good fortune to visit and experience, on five continents, some of the world’s greatest temples to art. I’ve been transfixed by painting and sculpture and by the images of extraordinary photographers.

This is not to brag, but to contrast. I esteem the world of crafts just as highly. So should we all. One may argue that crafts work produced in America has had at least as much impact on our nation’s cultural heritage as the more celebrated fine arts. The latter is about individual vision. The former reveals us as a people.

A new appreciation of the skill and artistry of crafts is abroad in the land. Once they were disparaged (privately or otherwise) as the unrefined stepchildren of fine art, patted on the head for their ingenuity or utility. But rarely were they accorded the respect that is their due.

No longer.
And as it happens, a showpiece of distinctive art and crafts rests in our own backyard. Namely, the South Carolina Artisans Center (scartisanscenter.com) in Walterboro, a short drive away.

Today, on the cusp of its 20th anniversary, the state’s official folk art and craft gallery rivals such renowned venues as Tamarack in West Virginia and the Southern Highlands Craft Guild center of North Carolina.

The non-profit South Carolina Artisans Center (SCAC) exhibits work by more than 300 artists in the fields of basketry, wood carving, weaving, jewelry, blown glass, metalwork, pottery and photography, as well as painting and sculpture—all of it for sale.

The stated goal of the center, which also plays a key role in the eighth annual Walterboro Antiques, History and Arts Festival (May 16–17), is to “interpret, market, preserve, and perpetuate the folk art and fine craftsmanship of South Carolina Artisans while creating a better understanding of our rich and diverse cultural heritage.”

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According to Gale Doggette, SCAC executive director, the center owes its existence to the vision of three local women: Denise Butler, Walterboro’s then-Chamber of Commerce director; Mary Hunt, head of downtown development; and Carol Mullis of the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation, & Tourism (SCPRT).

Downtown Walterboro was dying in 1994, Doggette recalls. “So they started brainstorming. All had a love of the arts and had visited similar centers in other parts of the country. They wanted to do it in town, rather than just off I-95 as first suggested, in order to boost the local economy,” she says.

It worked better than they had hoped. Doggette estimates that as many as 18,000 people a year now visit town just for the SCAC. While there, they also may scour an expanded antiques district of as many as 15 stores.

In many respects the SCAC houses 300 separate small businesses, providing a crucial marketing service. Many artists whose work is displayed here are accomplished; others are less experienced. But few have the capacity to market their work to as many people as they do at the SCAC, which can help secure grants from the South Carolina Arts Commission and SCPRT.

Bursting with exciting ideas—from James Denmark’s colorful collages and watercolors to Carol Kay’s luxurious fabrics; from Bob Doster’s metal sculptures to Holger Obenaus’ atmospheric Lowcountry photographs—the SCAC is a delight to the eye.

It just may win the heart of the most confirmed museum crawler.

Bill Thompson writes about the arts, film and books.

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