IN HIS WILDEST DREAMS, Mick Elam never imagined he’d emerge from retirement to open a fine art gallery on Charleston’s famed Gallery Row. Yet every morning, he and his wife, Cindy, make the hour-long drive from their home on Kiawah Island to the city’s historic downtown to work in their Broad Street gallery, all the while marveling at the unusual trajectory their lives have recently taken.
The former Air Force fighter pilot turned defense industry engineer seems to glow through the mantle of artist/gallery owner. He even flew solo on the renovations for this mid-19th-century dwelling before the gallery’s grand opening last November, careful to preserve the character of the structure while creating a simple, but elegant backdrop for his paintings and the works of the other 10 carefully selected artists now represented by the gallery.
Upon entering, Sweetgrass Fine Art Gallery immediately declares itself unique among other galleries in Charleston’s famed French Quarter, with the front room serving as a preview to the eclectic mix of artistic treasures beyond. Cindy, who handles the business side of the gallery and sales, is usually available to answer questions.
“We decided to use the other rooms to highlight our artists,” says Elam, who has dabbled in painting much of his life. “Each room takes on the character of the artist or artists whose works are displayed there.” As visitors wander from one room to the next, they enjoy multiple works of two internationally known, three nationally known and six locally known artists. “I’m one of the local artists,” continues Elam, who began painting seriously about seven years ago. “All the others are women. I brag that they’re the best artists in town.” No doubt, Elam believes what he says, and the artists’ works prove his point.
Alice Ann Dobbin’s soft and lyrical images transcend conventional realism with an impressionistic painting style and often use heavy impasto applied with the palette knife. Her light-infused landscapes evoke a feeling of tranquility that is almost spiritual and invite the viewer to share her passion and reverence for nature. Her wildlife images capture the personality of each creature. While playfully abstracting the environment, she emphasizes the eye as the “window of the soul.” Dobbin has earned several prestigious awards for her work, including the award for “Best Painting” at the 2019 Piccolo Spoleto Juried Exhibition.
Teresa Jones has lived in South Carolina most of her life and is extremely familiar with the subtle beauties of this region. Her passion for capturing a glimpse of such beauty is what makes her paintings truly Southern and uniquely realistic. From the coast to the countryside to the mountains, Jones offers a private window to the landscapes and scenery familiar to both South Carolina residents and visitors alike. Believing there’s a painting around every corner, she looks for the unexpected, adding a new perspective and freshness to her work. Presently an oil painter, she intends to pursue other media to better express herself artistically.
Deborah Pellock is an award-winning Georgia artist, who demonstrated a talent for drawing at an early age. During college, she pursued advanced drawing, but her love for painting took a hiatus as she devoted her time to raising a family. Later, she resumed formal instruction, experiencing the passion for painting that had long been dormant. With a new ardor for oils, Pellock studied feverishly on her own, learning the techniques and imagery of the old masters. Her subjects include historical architecture, landscape, figurative and still life. She has exhibited throughout the Southeast and recently won first place in the Seaside, Florida, Annual ArtsQuest Festival.
Valentina Messina is an Italian artist who has lived and worked in Charleston since 2014. As someone who has always loved painting and drawing, she began as a self-taught artist and eventually took lessons from Italian artists, including Carmela Gulino and Sonny Insinna, to improve her skills. Since moving to Charleston, she’s continued to study with the painter Joice M. Hall. Messina’s works are inspired by the emotional response to the places she’s seen and experienced, so she loves painting landscapes most of all.
For Elam, his art takes him beyond the boundaries of the real world. Inspired by the Atlantic waves, the artist sets out to capture their power and variation of color as they roll ashore. In addition to his distinctive wave paintings, Elam is also an established landscape and cityscape artist, depicting scenes primarily of the Lowcountry, using bold, colorful images filled with interest and intrigue. In both styles of work, Elam’s goal is to convey the beauty he perceives, a beauty he hopes others appreciate as well.
After spending two careers grounded in reality, Elam now takes every opportunity he can to disconnect, to indulge the fantasy and the fancifulness granted him by the artistic process. His wife, Cindy, loves being at his side for this grand new adventure—going wherever the art takes them.
Patra Taylor is a full-time freelance writer who lives in Mount Pleasant.