Columbia’s visual artists are a collegial bunch. Plus, the nuances in their skills, creative philosophies, and artistic ingenuity give every local artist a unique niche in the market.
Julia Seabrook Moore, who paints at Studio Carlisle and owns Over the Mantel Gallery, says Columbia has a wonderful base of artists who are constantly watching to see what other artists are doing. “You have to do homework. You have to see what’s up, what the colors are, who’s doing what.”
In her own studio on any given day, Julia might spend hours painting a piece before she knows what it will become. “It’s funny. Paintings just sort of come to me,” Julia says. She tends to let the colors help her decide what direction the painting needs to take. “It makes me a freer artist; it makes me less restrained. We all go back to what we perceive things to look like, and we’re usually wrong.”
On an easel near her latest unfinished work is a striking painting of Edisto Island’s Botany Bay Plantation, which sold quickly but came back to the studio for a minor repair. A descendant of some of Edisto Island’s early settlers, Julia feels particularly connected to the island, and she and Woody, her husband, a semi-retired commercial real estate agent, have a home on the marsh, complete with an art studio. “I don’t take Edisto for granted,” Julia says. “I think all these nooks and crannies exist that I haven’t even seen yet.”
Ever pragmatic, Julia realizes that many artists paint scenes of the beach because art buyers seek beautiful subject matter and collectors tend to buy coastal art. Despite her marketability as a fine artist, the mother of three and grandmother of nine is always striving to improve her art work. “When it’s your own, and you’re doing it, you don’t think of it as being anything special. I am so touched when people love my paintings, but I almost say, ‘You do?’”
About half of Julia’s work is done on commission, and she enjoys the discipline of confining herself to a set of rules, after indulging her more impressionistic personal style. As a child in Columbia, Julia studied with Edmund Yaghjian, Frances Nelson, and Nell Lafaye, among others, then with Boyd Saunders and Phillip Mullen at the University of South Carolina, where she earned a master’s degree. She draws upon all the art instruction she’s received, particularly from Nell.
“She was the first art experience I had where there weren’t any rules,” Julia says. “Nell Lafaye was teaching us non-objective art when nobody even knew what that was.” Julia explains that non-objective art is subjective, not based on realism. Colors might be unusual, shapes could be distorted, or composition might not be composed of recognizable scenes.
Except for a 17-year period when she served as an administrator at Hammond School, Julia has always considered her work to be a vocation, rather than a hobby. Julia’s large, pricier canvases are offset by whimsical, small paintings of bird nests atop a background lacquered with colorful wrapping paper. These are popular baby gifts. “I do these and sell them like crazy,” Julia says. “You have to have a sense of practicality.”
The speed at which Julia can finish a painting depends on how many layers are involved in the work. Also, if paintings do not flow the way she would like, she ends up painting over them. When she has difficulty determining if a painting is finished, she takes a photograph of it in order to observe the painting more objectively. “Almost every time, that works for me, and when I forget to do it, I’ll find that I’ve made a big mistake. Even in abstract work, I have to make corrections if something doesn’t balance or if my perspective is so far off that it just doesn’t read.”
Julia also relies upon critiques from her fellow artists, particularly at Studio Carlisle. “The people in here are all skilled artists. It’s been very helpful. That’s been important, I think, to all of us.”
Steven Whetstone appreciates the camaraderie of fellow artists at The CLIMB Studio, where he paints and hones his chess-playing skills. While earning a BFA in art from the University of South Carolina, Steven was a pitcher for the Gamecock baseball team. Though arm surgery kept him from getting as much playing time as he wanted in college, Steven signed on as a free agent to play minor league baseball. Ultimately, his passion for art prevailed, and he came home.
“Nobody was hiring,” Steven says about returning to Columbia, “but I ended up talking to Jim Calk, who was the husband of Betsy Havens, who owned Havens Art Gallery. He said, ‘Come back in a month with some bigger paintings, and we’ll see what happens.’ So, I did, and they wanted to show me. They framed one of my paintings that night, a big painting, and it sold the next morning, so I said, ‘I could get used to this.’” He has been a full-time artist ever since.
Like Julia, Steven learned his craft from local teachers. Melanie Ward, who now teaches art at Fulmer Middle School, took a special interest in Steven at Saluda River Elementary School, asking his parents for permission to take him to art shows, including a Steven Chesley exhibit at Portfolio Art Gallery and the grand opening of Blue Sky’s gallery in Five Points. Steven remembers how Melanie could communicate enthusiastically to the younger generation that art is cool. He later realized that Melanie had already taught him lessons that he was meant to learn in college. He is also grateful for continued instruction he received from Pat Kleckley at Northside Middle School and Mary Ellen Dennis at Brooklyn-Cayce High School.
At the university, one of his favorite professors was Boyd Saunders. “He made me a better artist while I was there, not so much because of the lessons, but because of the way he treated people. He made you want to work.” Steven also attended a summer program of the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts.
Steven still tends to sell his popular paintings quickly. While he admits it is challenging not to become emotionally attached to pieces, he says, “I’ve learned not to because you have to earn a living. Especially when I started off, the first couple of years, I would hoard a couple of my pieces and not let them go for a while.” Now, he has lost track of where some of his pieces have gone and is sometimes pleasantly surprised to see his work in people’s homes.
For the past seven years, Steven has been represented by Verve Interior Design; he also accepts commissions through his website and his social media pages. He teaches classes at City Art, and he tends to save the demonstrations that he paints for class in order to have smaller, more affordable pieces to offer collectors who are not in the market for large, thousand-dollar paintings.
Steven’s subject matter is all over the map, from jazz musicians in New Orleans to Gullah women weaving baskets to a woman moving underwater. He is still working on underwater scenes; a series of them sold, but two are unfinished. A blue heron painted in November took Steven only a couple of days to complete, despite the fact that he did not like it at first. He scraped away some of the paint and smeared some of the elements in the composition, revisiting it the next day. “You’re not really seeing brush strokes, but you’re feeling them when you look at it from afar. Always, I want people looking at my paintings to feel like they’re there. I want them to experience what they’re seeing, not just see what they’re seeing.”
Steven believes that even still-life and landscape paintings convey movement and energy. He normally paints in oil but is also comfortable with watercolors. In fact, for two decades, Steven has painted portraits in gouache for the USC Hall of Captains at Williams-Brice Stadium, where he previously worked out with the baseball team.
“In college,” Steven says, “my concentration was drawing because I like draftsmanship in my paintings, and I wanted to learn more about drafting objects because I’m not a true fan of looking at work when I know the artist can’t draw.” Looking at some of his en plein air paintings, Steven concedes that at times he does not want to be draftsmanship-oriented or focused on every curve or shape.
“Paintings are not only two-dimensional objects,” Steven says. “You should look at them as three-dimensional objects — the light should pop, the dark should fall back, and it should be thinner. Things should have borders in layers.” Steven, who wants his work to speak for itself, believes many artists feel that way. “You can relate art to music so much — you don’t want the songwriter to tell you what the song truly means,” Steven says.
Mark Conrardy, a native of Kansas City, Missouri, also teaches lessons at City Art and has enjoyed a long career in Columbia. A graphic artist at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources with a background in architectural engineering, Mark used his skills as an illustrator to help transition into being a painter. In 1998, he won first place in the S.C. State Fair’s amateur art division on his first try; the following year, he moved to the professional division and took home two of the top awards. “It was a big piece,” Mark says of his first award-winning piece. “I was taking lessons from Anne Hightower-Patterson at City Art, and that’s where I started painting. I took classes from her for about four or five years. I learned more about glazing one color over the other, letting one color dry, and then painting a different color on top of it.”
At the National Agriculture Center in Kansas City, Mark’s work is on permanent exhibit. Fully embracing life in the Carolinas, Mark has painted at ArtFields in Lake City — Darla Moore owns one of his paintings — and has won awards at art festivals in the historic town of Ridgeway, South Carolina, and in Burnsville, North Carolina.
Spending time outdoors is important to Mark. He rows five miles to the island upstream from Interstate Highway 20 and Broad River Road several times a week with the Columbia Rowing Club. The wildlife and natural scenery often inspire his work.
Mark’s image of an old International Harvester Truck won a first-place award in Burnsville. He sketched it with charcoal and painted it with oils on birch wood, en plein air, in the rain. Letting the paint drip along the grain of the board is one of Mark’s signatures, so the rain worked to his benefit. He also scraped out certain areas of the piece. “I took the red paint off, scrubbed it out to give that chrome illusion, and I took the back of the paintbrush and carved out the back, so those lines became white instead of charcoal. I did that while it was wet; I was just experimenting with what happens if I take paint off as opposed to putting paint on.”
In addition to his own intuition, Mark depends upon colleagues to help him figure out when a painting is finished. “David Phillips is one of them,” Mark says. “He’s really good at telling me when to stop.” The artists regularly participate in the Columbia Museum of Art’s About Face drawing sessions at 701 Whaley. At the drawing sessions, Mark says, “Sometimes I’ll bring my painting and start working on it, and people will come by and take a look at it, and I’m able to get some comments from good artists.”
While Mark paints recognizable scenes, he says, “I’m not trying to do something exactly photographic. You don’t have to have control — and I think that’s part of it, too — letting go of the control and letting it happen.”