ST. HELENA ART TRAIL - LOWCOUNTY SOUTH CAROLINA
by Anne Jenkins
A day drive along the art trail of the atmospheric island of St. Helena in South Carolina's Lowcountry offers exciting original art, a fascinating African-American museum and delicious food. You can spend all day dawdling the mere 14 miles loaded with live oaks dripping Spanish moss, glimpses of salt marshs and brilliant blue sky. You'll meet the nicest people along the way as you buy fabulous art and learn about the vibrant Gullah culture in a collection of historic buildings, known locally as "the corner". The general area is also known as Frogmore named after a nearby plantation.
You can't miss "the corner" just eight miles south of Beaufort on Hwy 21 where Sea Island Pkwy meets Martin Luther King Dr. There's major roadworks taking place and causing some confusion, but don't give up - look for The Red Piano Too Art Gallery as the central spot, prominently visible on the corner. The old building used to be the St Helena Island Farmers Cooperative building.
It's a 3-room treasure trove of local and regional self-taught artists, folk artists, fine artists and there's a small Gullah history musem upstairs. Mary Mack has owned the gallery for 18 years and has a vast knowledge of art and a fine respect for her artists. An artist herself, and a South Carolina native who attended Queens College in New York and received her Masters from Fordham University, she retired after years in the health services field and is following her passion full time - art.
"Art is more of a passion than a business," Mack said. "Choosing a work of art is an investment - spiritually, emotionally and financially."
Collecting art is no longer considered to be just for the wealthy or elite, Mack expalined, and she encourages others, especially young people, to collect art as part of their personal achievement. Follow her advice and hear her stories of the art and the artists, it makes for a rewarding experience - and will make your art purchases so much more meaningful.
Catty corner to The Red Piano Too, another lovely historic building dominates the scene. Originally the Sea Island Cotton Exchange building, one of the front rooms used to be the post office for the area, it now houses Robbie and Lauren Deloach's What's in Store, a dazzling display of collectibles.
They also own Octopuses and Bellavista just a few hundred yards south of The Red Piano Too. Lauren makes gorgeous furniture and is an accomplished artist. His furniture has a simple, powerful design and is in Bellavista nestled amongst the antiques and home decor items.
After this you'll definitely need some good Gullah Grub to keep your strength up for the rest of the tour. Across the road from The Red Piano Too is a lovely old building housing the Gullah Grub Restaurant. Feast on the outstanding fish chowder and shrimp gumbo. The shrimp n'shark plate is out of this world. They use the local lemon shark which has a sweet tender meat. They have daily specials and by good chance you might find goat curry or conch stew on the menu. Al, owner Bill Green's brother, on occasion serves as waiter and he told me their Frogmore Stew is very good - and he's not biased of course! There are a variety of versions of the local Frogmore stew and theirs consists of corn, crab, shrimp, potato cubes and sausage. Sounds like it's worth a trip back if it's not on the menu during your visit! Eating at Gullah Grub is an experience in it's own right. Stories of Bill's riding as a drover at the local hunts and local patrons coming in with their stories make for a memorable meal.
On some days you're run across Mrs. Jery Taylor sitting on the restaurant's deck weaving and selling her stunning Sweet Grass baskets - she's an extroverted character and her baskets are beautiful.
There's more restaurant choices - right next door to The Red Piano Too is The Island Grill and their shrimp, grits and gravy is highly recommended by Mack and other locals.
Now you're well fed and ready to absorb history at the Penn Center, a couple of miles down Martin Luther King Drive. This is a thought provoking and interesting museum housed on the 50 acre campus of the first Gullah school - it opened in 1862 as one of the first schools for freed slaves and focused on teaching self-sufficiency during the transition from slavery to freedom. The Penn School Historic District is comprised of 19 buildings, most notably the Darrah Hall which is one of the oldest buildings on the island and Gantt Cottage where Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed. The York W. Bailey Museum houses four galleries and a gift shop, holds monthly art shows and offers various workshops. This is truly an honest experience and you need to give yourself time to absorb it all.
Head on back down Sea Island Pkwy, 3 miles past The Red Paino Too and you'll see Bradley's Seafood on the right. Turn up into their drive and buy some of sweet local shrimp. They opened in 1971 and their motto is "Friends don't let friends buy imported shrimp" and their shrimp is delicious - we take a cooler every time we go there.
Further on down the road, tucked off the road you'll see a colorfully decorated former produce stand on the left - if the sign says "Artist is in", don't hesitate - pull over and go visit the "Picasso of Frogmore," aka Lynwood Polin. He produces eye-catching carvings of boats and fishing shacks that he's attached to driftwood or old fence pickets. Then he paints them vivid colors and you have an exciting work of art.
Finish the tour off with a visit to Gay Fish Co, renown for their fresh seafood and also their shrimp boats being used for the filming of Forrest Gump and Prince of Tides. It's an evocative setting often painted with shrimp boats and the fish shop. If you're lucky, you'll get to talk with one of the shrimper captains.
Location and business Information:
The Red Piano Too: 870 Sea Island Pkwy, St Helena Island SC 29920. www.RedPianotoo.com. Tel (843) 838-2241
What's in Store, 853 Sea Island Pkwy. Tel (843) 838-7473 Octopuses 872 Sea Island Pkwy (843) 838-0005 Bellavista 8672 Sea Island Pkwy (843) 838-3355
Ray Lynwood Polin, artist, 1909 Sea Island Pkwy (843) 575-5376.
Gullah Grub Restaurant, 877 Sea Island Pkwy (843) 838-3841 www.gullahgrub.com
The Penn Center: The museum is open to the public Monday through Saturday from 11:00 a.m. - 4:oo p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for senior citizens and $3 for children. Groups over 10 people get in for $3 p.p. They have maps with detailed explanations available at the museum. There are cultural programs, lectures, demonstartion and lessons all year. Check out www.penncenter.com for details or call (843) 838-2432 for information.
Bradley's Seafood, 173 James Bradley Drive (on Sea Island Pkwy) (843) 838-2924
Gay Fish Co., Inc 1948 Sea Island Pkwy (843) 838-2763