EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED,” states watercolorist Gaye Sanders Fisher. “Keep your eyes wide open and be ready. Know that every day God will present you with something new, something awesome, something beautiful. You just have to be ready and willing to see it.”
Every morning, Fisher rises and prepares for the unexpected, attuned to the next opportunity that will add to her already amazing career and life. Fisher often begins her morning behind her easel, working on a commission or another painting to add to the ever-changing selection of originals she has for sale in the Church Street gallery she’s owned and operated for nearly a quarter-century.
Upon meeting Fisher, it doesn’t take long to realize this woman is a force to be reckoned with. “I never set out to defy convention,” she insists. “Not out of anger or spite or feelings of oppression. Rather, I’ve always been driven to be all God intended me to be, ready to take advantage of the opportunities He places in my path.”
From an early age, the Charlotte, North Carolina, native aspired to be an artist. Having traveled to Charleston frequently during her youth, she discovered the works of famed “Charleston Renaissance” watercolorist Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, who once lived on Church Street not far from Fisher’s gallery. Studying Smith’s work became her lifelong passion. “I never met her, but she was most definitely my mentor,” explains Fisher. “I remember learning that she most loved painting rural Lowcountry landscapes, rather than the urban scenes so popular during that era. In my mind, she followed her muse rather than a trend.”
When the opportunity presented itself for Fisher to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she emphatically proclaimed she’d major in art. “My father insisted that if I became an artist, I’d starve to death,” recalls Fisher, the memory still fresh in her mind. “Not willing to pass on an opportunity to go to college, I majored in organ to appease my father. I never would have known Bach, Handel and Beethoven the way I do if I hadn’t had that opportunity. It was a wonderful experience for me.”
After graduating from college, she married her beloved husband, Jesse Fisher. While he attended graduate school, Gaye Sanders Fisher launched her first career as a church organist, playing for services as well as weddings and funerals across the Carolinas. “Having trained on a tracker organ, I had many opportunities to play these magnificent instruments in various churches,” she notes.
After her husband earned his degree, the couple moved to Whiteville, North Carolina, located about 50 miles from the coast. It didn’t take long for another opportunity to knock on Fisher’s door. “I met a lawyer who was restoring a Victorian house,” she says. “I offered him suggestions he liked so he offered me the job of restoring the house.”
Fisher eagerly stepped into the role as project manager in an era when it was virtually unheard of for women to do that type of work. “I showed up to work wearing a pair of ragged blue jeans with my hair tucked underneath a ballcap,” confesses Fisher. “I also lowered my voice a couple of octaves when I spoke to my crew. If anyone cared that I was a woman doing a man’s job, I didn’t hear about it. I treated everyone in my crew with respect and, to a man, that respect was reciprocated.”
One job led to another. After the birth of her second son, Fisher decided to give up her weekend work playing the organ in order to spend more time with her family and to focus on her career in restoration, ultimately specializing in plantation houses in North and South Carolina.
“I loved researching the history and architecture of the plantation houses I restored,” states Fisher. “I always loved history, especially in that time period, but restoring these plantation houses gave me the opportunity to observe the relics of it. History came alive for me.”
When offered the job of restoring Wedgefield Plantation near Georgetown, South Carolina, Fisher dove into its history with both feet. She learned that the plantation house, which dates to the early 1700s, had originally been built in England and later moved to coastal South Carolina. A number of years later, it burned. As Fisher combed through the rubble to determine what was salvageable, she discovered Roman numerals on a number of the remaining pieces of the original house. That was her first clue as to how she would put it all back together.
“One of the most memorable events of my restoration career was discovering three of the Wedgefield Plantation house’s original mantelpieces that had been rescued from the fire and stored in an old cabin on the property,” she says. “When I saw that each one was signed by Josiah Wedgwood of London, I was absolutely thrilled. I made it my mission to return them to their rightful places in the house.”
Even though Fisher’s restoration business thrived, her son reminded her one day that she’d always wanted to be an artist; perhaps it was time to get on with it. After 32 years restoring historic houses, she decided to take his suggestion to heart. Shortly thereafter, Fisher opened a fine art gallery in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
(which has since closed), followed by her current gallery on Church Street in Charleston.
Fisher admits she’s taken several return trips into the world of restoration since becoming an artist. Most noteworthy, she bought and restored the Pink House, located on Chalmers Street directly behind her gallery, in 2014. The Pink House, built in 1694, is one of Charleston’s oldest surviving buildings. It is believed that in the 20th century the house served as a gallery from which Alice Ravenel Huger Smith’s watercolors were sold. Fisher has since sold the building.
Today, her Church Street gallery is home to a collection of watercolors that reflect the artist’s love of the Lowcountry’s tranquility, colors, architecture and people. That collection also holds several paintings of South Carolina’s at-risk rural churches, including Mulberry Chapel Methodist Church in Pacolet, Trinity Episcopal Church in Abbeville, and Strawberry Chapel and Taveau Church, both in rural Berkeley County.
“I met author Bill Fitzpatrick at a book signing at the French Protestant Church about a year ago,” says Fisher. “His book, South Carolina’s Sacred Spaces, includes his remarkable photographs of 70 churches located across the state, many neglected and in danger of being lost. Bill’s mission of saving these churches spoke to me. I immediately decided to paint some of the churches and donate all the proceeds from the sale of originals and prints to Preservation South Carolina, a statewide organization working to save these important historic treasures.”
According to Michael Bedenbaugh, executive director of Preservation South Carolina, the sales from Fitzpatrick’s book and Fisher’s paintings are already helping to fund the restoration of Trinity Episcopal in Abbeville, with stabilization plans for several other rural churches currently in the planning phase.
For Fisher, painting South Carolina’s neglected rural churches brings her three careers full circle. Her years as a church organist and decades as a restorationist have suddenly united with her timeless talent as a watercolorist as she works to draw attention to these at-risk churches.
“God has given me opportunities for three rewarding careers,” she concludes. “Now He’s put it on my heart to help save our state’s rural churches through my gift as an artist. My eyes are wide open, and I’m ready for the journey.”*
Patra Taylor is a full-time freelance writer who lives in Mount Pleasant.