It would appear that the amazing talents and unexpected treasures of Daufuskie Lowcountry Artists are rooted in the inspiration of a bridgeless island – a mystical and ancient place, where eagles soar, dolphins play and indigo grows wild.
Their Talents – Artisan Diversity
Although Daufuskie has no sidewalks and no town center with shops and galleries, Daufuskie is alive with lowcountry artists “hang-outs.” You just have to look close. There’s a little cottage deep in Daufuskie’s maritime forest where you might meet an artist making unique jewelry and stained fused-glass gifts. There’s an historic Gullah-constructed house situated along a dirt road where you might encounter a self-taught artisan hammering, cutting, forging and welding handcrafted metal sculptures under the shade of a moss-draped oak. There’s a back porch where, if you follow your nose, you will be greeted by the haunting scents of soaps – inspired by the scents and smells of the island itself – delicious, refreshing, making you want to return to inhale a favorite one last time.
If you take the time to meander along the sandy side-roads and talk to the islanders themselves, you will discover that incredible treasures await you just off the beaten path. Among these, you could find:
- Soaps and body lotions touted to make you feel younger and more beautiful;
- Soaps and body lotions that are toxin-free, organic and probiotic
- Nature photography, land-scape photography and human interest photography
- Oil paintings; pastels; and water-colors that speak of island life
- Metal art – coastal wall sculptures (fish, mermaids, crabs, sea turtles, lobster, and stingray) crafted out of sheet steel by a self-taught metal artisan
- Wood art – naturally elegant cutting boards, frames and table tops with beautiful live edges made from Daufuskie’s oak, cherry, walnut, pecan and hickory trees
- Shell art – custom-designed mirrors, wreaths, trees, lamps, boxes, ornamental balls and even hanging ornaments made from sea shells
- Scarves and shawls hand-woven on the artist’s loom and/or knitted with an island flavor
- Soft Art – a line of fabulous beachy comfort-casual apparel
- Confection Art – custom-iced sugar cookies which are more like art pieces than something edible
If your side-road meanderings were to lead you to the old two-room school house where Pat Conroy wrote “The Water is Wide,” you would find a coffee shop snuggled in the back. Here you would here fascinating stories about the incredibly talented individuals who make up the Daufuskie art community.
Their Backgrounds – Artisan Enigmas
Who would expect that a speech pathologist from Cincinnati and a corporate event planner from Memphis would become creators of hand-dyed soft art?
Who would suspect that the paintings of a retired dentist would be sought-after by art collectors as far away as the British West Indies? Who would believe that a scientist, with degrees in biology and chemistry and a focus on genetics and molecular diagnostics, would become the designer of such beautiful work that she can’t keep up with the demand? Regardless of their successes, these “new” enigmatic artists seem to prefer operating under the radar, not wanting any part of the demanding life associated with being in the spotlight.
One such “new” artist is Paula Nickels, an island resident who comes from Chicago where she headed up a diagnostic shelter for abused children. In that life, she had never thought about becoming an artist. It wasn’t until she moved to Daufuskie that she started working with shells, but never dreamed that she would become a prominent shell artist. She doesn’t have a web site. She doesn’t have a gallery. She avoids social media.
She may be better known for being the editor of the Daufuskie Island Front Porch, a popular on-line magazine, than for being a very successful artist whose custom pieces (mirrors, wreaths, trees, lamps, boxes, balls etc.) can be found in homes all over the area. When asked about how she sees her business, she explained, “Almost everything I use in my shell art can be found on Daufuskie. … I love bringing something of nature into a home. I enjoy taking my time with each piece. I don’t want a business that will rob me of that pleasure.”
Another enigmatic “new” artist is Lynell Lynke. In her first life, she was a scientist with degrees in biology and chemistry with a focus on oncology, infectious diseases and transplant testing. Now she is an artist whose work is so popular that she can hardly keep up with the demand. While Lynell explains that her appreciation for art comes from her parents who were both artists, she went on to explain that she never really thought about becoming an artist. It was a process that began when she discovered the beauty of the trees on Daufuskie which are as diverse as they are beautiful. “As hardwoods became available after storms, I wanted to create something unique and beautiful rather than having them burned up,” she added. That ‘something unique’ turned out to be cutting boards, frames and even table tops which show off the beautiful live edges of the trees themselves. “The Community Farm has a mill where I can turn logs into customized lumber. After they dry, I cut them to size and plane them to expose their beautiful grain.” What emerges is almost miraculous – a piece of debris transformed into a piece of art – an ugly duckling turned into an elegant swan – a genetic imperfection made perfect.
Their Unique Creations – Only on Daufuskie
After you finish your coffee and with your mouth still open in amazement at the stories you have just heard, you might wander into the front room of the schoolhouse where you could encounter the speech pathologist from Cincinnati and the corporate event planner from Memphis happily creating hand-dyed textiles for some of their creations (scarves, napkins, hand towels, shirts) made with organic indigo and other natural colors only available on Daufuskie.
Daufuskie Blues – Leanne Coulter and Ronda Davis
It’s appropriate that the lowcountry artists behind Daufuskie Blues, Leanne Coulter and Rhonda Davis, work in the old school house because a visit to their studio includes a real-life, school-book lesson about the history of Indigo and about preserving the historical techniques and skills that can bring out the magic of this amazingly beautiful blue color!
You would learn that Indigo is an ancient dye that comes from the green leaves of a leguminous plant. It is mentioned in writings dating back to 450 BC, and found in remnants of blue cloth recovered from Egyptian tombs. Indigo’s unique chemical makeup makes it different from all other natural dyes (apart from shellfish purple). It needs no mordant. It is insoluble. It is deposited on cloth fibers as microscopic particles rather than forming a chemical bond with the fabric itself. The result is that once dyed, indigo is so colorfast that it can last for centuries!
You would learn that Indigo is deeply rooted in Daufuskie island history which includes indigo plantations from which blue dye was exported to England. So valued was the ‘blue gold’ that by the time of the American Revolution – indigo cubes were accepted in lieu of paper currency! By 1775, South Carolina was exporting in excess of a million pounds of the crop annually. With the American Revolution came the end of bounty and tariff protections and the market for indigo disappeared. Today indigo grows wild along the dirt roads on Daufuskie.
Following the ancient Japanese technique called Shibori, you would watch as Leanne and Rhonda lovingly use this manual resist process to apply the amazing indigo color onto natural fabrics in order to create one-of-a-kind designs. Inside their small studio, you would see natural fibers being dyed in fructose vats which have no chemicals. You would see the artists pulling, clamping, compressing, wrapping or meticulous stitching as they create their designs. From start to finish, a single scarf could take anywhere from hours to an entire day to make. Inspired by ancient cultures, no two pieces are ever quite the same.
Indigo – centuries old, symbolic of the sacred and beautiful, revered for its purifying effect on the soul – is more than a color, it’s the embodiment of a historical journey. Daufuskie Blues just challenges you to wear it and feel the magic of the ‘blue hue”.