Had I arrived at the Lowcountry Artists Gallery a few weeks earlier, I would have seen a friendly, whimsical frog sculpture sitting outside the gallery door. Unfortunately for me, the frog—a copper sculpture from gallery artist Zan Smith—was recently sold.
“I have sat at the desk and watched people come up and talk to him, take their pictures with him or try to sit on his knee,” Joyce Harvey, artist and member-owner, says. “With the frog outside, I think it takes some of the intimidation out of the gallery and makes it seem fun and lighthearted.”
The gallery is lighthearted and fun. But it’s also beautifully arranged, with beams of natural light, rich bamboo floors and walls lined in art of nearly every color, style and medium. Together, the diverse array of artistry is intertwined by a singular theme: the Lowcountry. Even the gallery’s name includes “Lowcountry” rather than “Charleston” and the gallery’s mission statement includes a line item for making the gallery a “Lowcountry destination.” Nearly all of the artists are local to Charleston and exhibit distinct, passionate views of the region.
“If you’re looking for a Lowcountry memory,” Harvey says, “the name tells you instantly this is where you can get it.”
Whether it’s the oil-painted scenes of Kellie Jacobs, Rana Jordahl and Monnie Johnson; the abstract, mixed media pieces by Stephanie S. Hamlet; the long-exposure photographs of Ivo Kerssemakers; the miniature models of Ken Hamilton; or jewelry from Sylvia McCollum and Page Burgess, the range of artistry is vast.
But the gallery isn’t just artistically diverse; it’s also artist-owned.
Thirty-six years ago, 10 artists opened the gallery on Hassel Street. Six years later the gallery moved to its current location on East Bay. Currently, there are nine artist-owners who manage and staff the gallery—including a mother/daughter team of Stephanie S. Hamlet and Kellie Jacobs. In addition to the nine artist-owners, 27 guest artists round out the roster, for a total of 36 artists. Coincidentally, this year marks the gallery’s 36th year in business—a significant achievement for any business or gallery.
“Being artist-owned, your space in this gallery is your own; you can do what your dream is, what your vision is,” Harvey says. “You can invent yourself and present yourself to Charleston in any way you want. To be able to have that flexibility and creative control for an artist is really special, I think.”
And the artists take that creative capital and invest it back into the gallery in visible ways. All visitors are met by an artist at the gallery and, because of that direct connection, the gallery feels less like an office and more like a haven for creativity and craftsmanship.
Owner-artist Rana Jordahl is at the gallery the day I visit. Jordahl has been with the gallery 11 years—second only to artist-owner Lynne Hardwick in tenure. Together, Jordahl and Harvey discuss the delicate balance of finding time to create but also promote their art—and other artists’ work—in the gallery. “Being a part of the gallery is the perfect blend of getting to paint and also getting to talk to customers, without either task being too consuming,” Jordahl says.
That blend helps keep an artist’s creative spark burning.
“I’ve known many fine artists who open a gallery and they don’t paint anymore,” Harvey says. “That’s the beauty of having nine owners.“
The roots of the Lowcountry Artists Gallery are planted deep and they extend outward, anchoring the gallery as a primary spot in Charleston’s expansive art community. What distinguishes the gallery is the attention to connection—face-to-face connection that offers a priceless experience.
“Connecting someone with art,” Harvey says, “that’s the magic of art. That act of sharing art and the connection it brings is more rewarding to me than painting a great painting.”
Fortunately, at the Lowcountry Artists Gallery, visitors can have both.
Scott D. Elingburg is a Charleston-based freelance writer.