Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Charleston Social Diary

Crisp map of Charles Town, 1711.
Harvesting Creative Talent in Charleston
by Ned Brown


Where one finds pools of artistic creativity, and what draws them is a fascinating balance. Greenwich Village circa 1930s: what drew artists like Hans Hoffman, de Kooning, Pollock, James Baldwin, Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill, and Gershwin? Was it the bohemian environment of “anything goes," the great open interior spaces and cheap rents? Did it all just sort of feed on itself that decades later would attract a new generation of artists such as Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, and Lou Reed?

More and more, a similar phenomenon is occurring in Charleston, South Carolina. This quaint southern city is rapidly evolving from a charming step-back to the past of southern hospitality, to a cutting-edge incubator of creative talent. Charleston is drawing young, brilliant talent at a remarkable rate each year.

But why Charleston?

First, start with the weather. Charleston is a 12-month outdoors city. January has a mean temperature of over 50 degrees. July and August are the only months of year that Charleston can be brutal with the heat and humidity. Even then, locals manage to survive with a little sweet tea, air conditioning and a slower pace.

Second, the downtown area is compact and flat. A car is optional, and in fact, it is much easier to get around by bicycle. On those occasions that one needs to leave the peninsula, some friend will have a car.
White Point Garden on the Battery.
For those of you familiar with Charleston, the city is divided into three distinct areas. North of Broad Street and south of Calhoun Street is the area most frequented by tourists. It has the largest concentration of shops, hotels established and touristy-type restaurants. It is also the commercial center of town; so vehicle traffic downtown can be slow to say the least.

South of Broad Street to the tip of the peninsula, the Battery as it is known locally, and more formally as White Point Garden, is where the oldest and many of Charleston’s grandest homes are located. My home is there, and I can safely say that it fits into the category of old, but grand it certainly is not. In fact, it is the third smallest house on lower King Street, which suits me fine.

The neighborhood, unique Southern architecture and beautifully designed gardens (many visible from the sidewalks) are what attract thousands of tourists each and every day. Whether on foot clutching their street maps or in a horse-drawn carriage carrying a dozen tourists, the parade is constant.
A common site in the Battery.
Luckily, my house is set-back from the street. My three constant companion pooches (Olivia, Oliver, and Spicey) are quite content to sit by the front gate, get the attention of passing tourists on foot, and bark at the passing horses.

I sometimes imagine how the residents in Southampton Village might respond if the throng of summer tourists shopping downtown suddenly spilled south along lower Main Street, over to Little Plains or the little cul-de-sac street a few hundred yards from Jobs Lane inhabited by privacy-seeking residents such as Ambassador Ed and Patricia Murray Ney or Charlotte Ford? How would the summer inhabitants respond to Slurpee-toting tourists peering through the privet? And maybe layer on some tour vans pointing out the homes of the Wall Street tycoons. Oh well, those of us who have adopted Charleston seem to have adapted and tuned-out to this inconvenience, and the tourists are generally respectful of the locals’ privacy.

Vibrant Upper King Street.
The third area, north of Calhoun Street, is where the new action is. Ten years ago, many of the retail stores along upper King Street were either about to go out of business or buildings that were vacant and boarded-up. All that has changed: escalating rents downtown, which recently forced-out even the Ralph Lauren boutique and Saks 5th Avenue, mobilized small merchants and restaurants, largely catering to locals, to seek more affordable space uptown. And, being that many of the buildings are at least three stories, landlords needed to make the non-retail space affordable.

Consequently, these are the apartments and studios attracting artists. So, like Greenwich Village of 80 years ago, a new creative haven has moved eight hundred miles south to a new bohemian center with a Southern twist.

Just who are some of these artistic and talented people I recently encountered? Part I of my story deals with two brilliant female artists who work in different media. Charlotte Hess is a fashion designer who manufactures woolen garments made entirely from scratch. In the fifth year of Charleston Fashion Week, which has become the venue for emerging designers to showcase their talents, Charlotte Hess literally ran away with the show this year. From the first night she introduced her collection to the night of the final judge's selections, Charlotte’s designs were received with thunderous applause, and a young audience standing, hooting and hollering when she made her entrance along the runway. Unfortunately for the other gifted young designers being featured, it wasn’t even close. Sometimes, talent comes along that shines like Vega among all other stars.
Charlotte Hess. Olessia Maximenko painting in her kitchen/studio.
The second artist featured in this story is a talented and prolific young oil painter originally from Siberia, Olessia Maximenko, who captures life and people of the South like no other. Olessia’s commercial murals can be found on the walls of numerous places around Charleston (i.e. T-Bonz and Pearlz restaurants), but it is her oil canvas paintings that make her work stand out.

Back to Charleston Fashion Week ... Each year now, I get my press invitation from Vail Duggan, whose firm, the LouLou Agency, handles the press for the show sponsored by Charleston magazine. Vail typifies the creative-type of person who has settled-in and found a professional career in Charleston.

Capt. George Brisbon and Fashion Week Media Maestro, Vail Duggan.
Originally a self-described surfer-chick from Southern California, she still surfs locally, and finds the Charleston artistic climate more conducive to her p.r. work. Vail came to Charleston in 1996 to visit her sister attending the College of Charleston, fell in love with the town; and despite moving away twice for career reasons, she returned in 2009 because it kept pulling her back.

I originally stumbled into Charleston Fashion Week knowing very little about au courant fashion. The previous story I wrote for NYSD, including Charleston Fashion Week (Change You Can Believe In) was about the changes going on in Charleston, part of it driven by the financial crisis two years ago.

What I like about Vail is that she does not make me fill-out those inane press credential forms, and she does not bug me about what I will write. Vail is a real pro and knows how to trust writers. One of my favorite people to run into at the fashion show is Captain George Brisbon, Sr. of the Charleston police Department and Deputy Bureau Commander for Special Operations. Officer Brisbon oversees the security detail for the show. I like to kid him about the “hazardous” duty protecting the models for five days.
Front row at Charleston Fashion Week.
Sea of Charleston blondes at Charleston Fashion Week.
Charlotte Hess, the 2011 emerging designer winner for Charleston Fashion Week, is a graduate of the Art Institute School in Chicago and the Glasgow School of Art, one of the best in Britain, and she received a professional development grant from the Scottish Arts Council for her work. While she says that many of her designs have a Hopi Indian influence, one can also see a heavy dose of Jean Paul Gaultier as well.

When we spoke recently, Charlotte had recently opened her new shop and studio, Union Textiles, on Nantucket (see http://uniontextiles.blogspot.com) with a partner. Hess told me that she is trying to decide whether to come to the Charleston area this fall (she has fallen in love with the area like so many others) or go to Paris to pursue the next level of design. I have a feeling she will find a way to do both.
Charlotte Hess designs.
When I met Olessia Maximenko, I asked, “What is your favorite subject to paint?” In a typically curt Russian response she said, “Palm trees. I hate snow” Coming from Siberia is understandable. She told me that she grew up with eight months of winter, and now gets her greatest joy painting marshes, the moon, Spanish moss hanging from Live Oak trees and, of course, palm trees.

Olessia was trained at a classic art school in Siberia. She came to the U.S. via working as a bartender in a U.S. servicemen’s bar in South Korea, married an enlisted soldier, moved to Augusta, Georgia, and eventually divorced. She discovered Charleston in 2004 and loved the rich culture and subject matter of the Low Country.

When I commented on the painting in her kitchen/studio of a woman in a bustier eating oysters, and that I had also seen a similar painting behind the oyster bar at Pearlz restaurant, she replied, “Boobs and Butter.” I reacted, “Come again?” Olessia went onto explain that like the Eagles performing Hotel California over five hundred times in concert, and that they were probably tired of doing it, Olessia had painted a similar version of that picture over one hundred times, “It is my bread and butter, and it pays the rent.”
Olessia Maximenko amongst her paintings.
Clockwise from top left: Mud Bottom Boats; A Way of Life; Pearlz Bustier or "Boobs & Butter"; Blue Palmetto; McLeod's Plantation Old Slave Quarters.
After visiting Olessia at her home, she invited me to visit her “floating gallery.” So the next day, I ventured north to the town of Mt. Pleasant where her gallery is located in a fishing and boating area called Shem Creek. I waited on a dock with my 3 dogs. In a few minutes, up came to two salty looking guys in a skiff, who introduced themselves as Lance and Dewey. We loaded up the dogs and rode up the creek, whereupon we came upon an old forty-foot cruising boat.

Out popped Olessia. Next came an attractive middle-aged woman who introduced herself as the gallery owner, Sonya Sterling.
Dewey and Lance. Sonya and Lance.
NB with Spicey, Olivia, and Ollie on the skiff. Olessia and floating gallery in background.
I subsequently learned that Sonya is an accomplished and well-known artist in her own right working in various media. Both Olessia’s and Sonya’s work can be seen at www.breakyourart.com. It was Sonya who encouraged Olessia to paint, and is now her biggest promoter.

As for my two skiff chauffeurs, I learned that Lance is a shrimper and fisherman, and that Sonya’s 1926 Elgin floating gallery, named the Sweet Pea, is tied-up to Lance’s for real commercial fishing/shrimping trawler. Lance and Sonya are a couple. And Dewey? Well, they said he is always with Lance.
Olessia and Sonya Sterling on the Sweet Pea.
Being an artist in Charleston is not without its challenges. The problem is the lack of size with the consumer market. Olessia can sell her paintings over the internet anywhere in the country or the world for that matter. Word-of-mouth is a huge marketing factor for her.

Charlotte Hess was working for an established manufacturing firm in Philadelphia and her new venture on Nantucket is unproven and surely seasonal. My guess is that Charlotte will find her launching pad in Paris, where I believe, she is about to become one of the world’s next superstar designers. I spoke with locally-based designer, Marysia Dobranska Reeves, who told me that she and her husband were about to debark for Manhattan where she is now designing on her own for Barney’s, Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie. Reeves won the emerging designer award in 2009, and was a judge in 2011. Marysia was forced to move because of the lack of opportunity for her creative talent in Charleston. But one fact is certain, all of the people mentioned in this story (including yours truly) have been seduced by Charleston’s Southern charm, and will likely return.

Coming in Part II are two individuals demonstrating their creative talents in different and unique fields. Stay tuned.

Photographs by Christina Baxter.

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