Follow Your Art: The Disappearance of Our Coast into Plein Air

by Susan W. Pidgeon

An updated Gibbes Museum greets visitors.
An updated Gibbes Museum greets visitors.

Anyone who sticks around the Lowcountry long enough knows we love the natural environment surrounding us. From our waters which supply many tasty meals, to our beloved beaches and marshland birds, it is an obvious and understandable love affair with nature.

After all, what would summer be without watching fiddler crabs scurry to and fro? What would the ocean be without watching pelicans plunge headlong into it? Would a small body of marshland really be as beautiful without a great blue heron or egret standing guard beside it?

This love affair with nature, like all love affairs, is one that spills over into everyday life. An artist that clearly is a naturalist is currently being shown at The Gibbes Museum. If you have not been to the Gibbes lately, you are in for a treat.

The work of Society 1858
West Fraser talks about his work.
West Fraser talks about his work.

I am a member of The Gibbes as well as Society 1858 which according to the website is “a group of dynamic young professionals who support the Gibbes Museum with social and educational programs tailored for up-and-coming art patrons. Society 1858 takes its name from the year that the Carolina Art Association was established.

Members gather several times a year to explore exclusive private art collections, experience new local exhibitions, and host the annual Society 1858 Winter Party. It also is behind the annual 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art, which awards $10,000 to an artist whose work contributes to a new understanding of art in the South.”

So many changes at the Gibbes Museum

The Gibbes you remember is no longer. Gone are the antiquated prints in the front right side of the museum when you first entered. Gone are the Japanese prints in the hallway to the left that seemed to be there for years along with the miniature portraits. This is a new Gibbes, a modern Gibbes, a Gibbes with even separate and modern galleries upstairs.

Equipment West Fraser uses when doing plein air paintings.
Equipment West Fraser uses when doing plein air paintings.

Yes, you read that right. It even has a cafe when you first enter. Honestly, I am still amazed when I go upstairs at the transformation. It’s like a butterfly that finally left the cocoon and took off soaring into the 21st century. The Gibbes finally has come into this era. Kudos to the design team. The work simply needed to be done to compete with other modern museums in the Southeast.

A naturalist with a paint brush

Currently, in Gallery 9 is the work of West Fraser. Fraser is a well known lowcountry artist who works in the plein air method. That in layman’s terms, means he works out of doors in front of his subject matter. He works in oils but in the past worked extensively in watercolors.

While his medium may have changed, his subject matter has not. West Fraser is a true lover of the natural bounty we enjoy in the Lowcountry. You can see many familiar sights from around Charleston and Savannah as well as Hilton Head.

Painting by West Fraser.
Painting by West Fraser.

Primarily, his work is comprised of images of things like shrimp boats, corner grocery stores, rooftop scenes, landscapes and cityscapes and of course locals doing what locals do best: shucking oysters, crabbing, and fishing. His work has been called by Beaufort historian Larry Rowland ” a Carolina Classic”.

How he chooses his subjects

So you might wonder how it is that Fraser developed his deep rooted love of the untamed natural setting. His family at one point owned Daws Island and he sadly watched areas where he used to camp and explore as a child be sold off to developers. I think many of us on James Island can relate to that feeling of watching the natural landscape be slowly forever changed into a concrete jungle.

Fraser has learned to document various buildings such as the Goodie House on Calhoun Street which is no longer there, as well as Lehremann’s Grocery on Bull Street which I entered many times as a child (but am unsure how to spell it now as an adult). It too, like Mr. Lehremann, is gone with the ravages of time. I guess one day we will reminisce about Burbages on Broad Street and only find it in a painting by Fraser.

Traveling for new scenes
Painting by West Fraser.
Painting by West Fraser.

Fraser is an extensive traveler and a member of The California Art Club which is a 100 yr old club that holds “paint outs” which are plein air events for its members. He also has made many paintings of other wild and untamed natural landscapes all over the world.

He stated that he plans to paint in the future scenes from Scandinavia, South America, Latin America and around his new home in Costa Rica. One can almost imagine him painting away as the natural world slowly disappears behind him and he will look up to find only buildings surrounding him and nature recorded only on his canvas.

A fund for sustainable seafood practices

Fraser’s love for nature is never far from his mind. He has founded an organization that is “to fund research and conservation and help keep the water around Beaufort County viable for sustainable seafood harvests”. The proceeds from one of his paintings (Bluffton Oyster Factory Shuckers) which was based on his visit of the Bluffton Oyster Factory will go directly to the “Joseph Bacon and Carolyn Fraser Memorial Fund for Sustainable Seafood Practices in The Beaufort and Port Royal Area” which is dedicated in his parents’ names.

Painting by West Fraser.
Painting by West Fraser.

In fact, at one point, during his talk about his work at the Gibbes, Fraser began discussing the topic of the use of pesticides in the garden and its affect on bees. He urged people to consider their part of the equation as far as the delicate balance between nature, chemicals and manmade development is concerned.

Take a walk through the world of West Fraser

So if you get a chance between now and the 30th of April, head downtown to the Gibbes and look at the work of West Fraser. Or you can find it online at his website or check out the new book by the University of South Carolina Press called “Painting The South Carolina Coast:The Art of West Fraser.” If you love the lowcountry, you will love it. I promise.

See the gallery here.

Susan W. Pidgeon, MFA is the owner of The Studio Art Center on Fort Johnson Rd where she teaches private lessons and art classes to adults and children. She received her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2001 and has been teaching ever since. She has taught for the City of Charleston and Charleston County as well as The Artists Loft in Mt. Pleasant. She lives on and loves James Island. You can reach her at (854)202-5394 or thestudioartcenter@gmail.com. You can find her at www.thestudioartcenter.com or her Yelp/FB/Twitter or Instagram pages as well.

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