Finding A Voice On Canvas 

Artist Tammy Papa finds inspiration in her home on Isle of Palms. By Anne Hassold Harris Photos by Steve Rosamilia


From a young age, Isle of Palms resident Tammy Papa was known for her artistic abilities — at least within her family. “I have always been visual and have drawn and done well in art, even starting in grade school. My sister commented that my drawings got up on the board, whereas hers did not,” Papa laughs.

Cotton and Teal Vase, 20 x 10 oil on canvas

Cotton and Teal Vase, 20 x 10 oil on canvas

Despite her early promise, Papa started o­ her college career majoring in music. She soon found that she was making more As in art than her chosen major so she made a switch. Papa received a degree in Art and Advertising Design from the University of South Carolina and began a career in graphic design.


Papa won numerous Addy Awards in her former career as an art director for David Rawle and Associates and Lee Helmer Design, where she created distinguished designs for clients such as Spoleto Festival USA, the Gibbes Museum of Art, and Charleston Place.

Go West Young Woman

 After becoming a mother, Papa ended her design career and began taking evening classes at the Gibbes museum. Her  rst mentor was Charleston artist Rhett  urman, who taught her watercolor. “I would rush downtown a‑ er getting the babysitter to get to that class. I loved it. I studied with Rhett for a number of years,” Papa says. “One summer, maybe 1996, she took a few of us out to Taos, New Mexico, for a workshop — my  rst workshop. I called my mom and said, ‘Mom, can you keep the kids? I am going out west to become an artist.’ She was wonderful and said ‘Of course.’” Papa has been pursuing her passion even since.

 Despite her start in watercolors, Papa now works primarily in pastel and oil. “I love pastel because of the color — it is practically pure pigment and the colors are astoundingly brilliant. I love oils for the luscious, creamy, beauty of the paint. Watercolor's transparency is exquisite. [But] I don't really work in watercolor any more — two mediums are enough!”

Papa’s subjects range from beautiful Lowcountry scenes and the marshes and beaches near her Isle of Palms home, to architecture, still life and  gures. Having been a military brat, she has lived many places in her life but has called Charleston her home for the past 36 years. Papa says her place on the islands is the perfect inspiration for much of her art.

“One of my favorite spots to paint is at the end of our street.  ere is a dock that leads out to Dewees Inlet and there is a little meandering creek. Talk about shi‑ ing tides and sand! It is di­ erent every day. I really have no words to describe it — hence painting — a language without words.”

Papa’s work is featured on the islands at the Sandpiper Gallery, located on Sullivan’s Island’s Middle Street, as well as its sister gallery, the Edward Dare Gallery, in downtown Charleston. Gallery owner Julie Cook says she has known and admired Papa’s work for years and the timing was right for her to join the galleries in 2013. “Tammy’s work can be subtle or dramatic; either way it has a poetic quality with a gentle  ow leading you through it. However, as it leads you through the story it is telling, it leaves room for you to  nish the story,” Cook says.

A Master Class in Color

Papa’s awards are numerous, and include several from the Piccolo Spoleto Outdoor Exhibition. One of her proudest accomplishments is having her work accepted to the Pastel Society of America’s premier pastel show in New York: Enduring Brilliance. Out of a thousand pastels, hers was one of 175 featured in the show.

 In an example of life coming full circle, Papa now teaches workshops at the museum where she got her start, the Gibbes, as well as numerous other venues in and around Charleston. Papa also teaches private and semi-private classes. “Art classes amaze me,” she says. “You can have 12 artists in the same room, looking at the same still life and each and every one comes out with a di­ erent painting. We each have our own voice.”

In fact, Papa remembers a year at the Piccolo Outdoor Art Exhibition when a man came by to look at her work. A‑ er a few moments, he wandered over to look at other artists’ work. “He came back and gave me the best compliment ever: ‘Your paintings make me feel the way I feel when I read poetry.’ He seemed genuinely moved by my work. It was one of the best things anyone has ever said to me about my art.”

 It seems that the same child whose drawings made it on the board in grade school became a woman who still knows how to make her art stand above the rest.