Sullivan’s Island’s Artistic Sisterhood
The Charleston Artist Collective has helped nurture and encourage the talents of a group of Sullivan’s Island painters: Janie Ball, Anne Darby Parker, Lynne Hamontree, Emily Brown, Cindy DeAntonio and Susie Callahan. By Sarah Kirk. Photos by Steve Rosamilia.
The palmetto tree in front of Janie Ball’s house is wrapped in strands of colorful Christmas lights. She comes to the front door, curls framing her face, wearing a beige V-neck sweater and wiping paint off her hands.
Her top floor home studio is drenched in natural light from three sides. Mason jars bearing her surname are lined up on the windowsills, holding paintbrushes. On her desk sits a stylish acrylic box of crayons, alluding to her youthful outlook. Everywhere you look are her paintings, which she explains are all at varying degrees of completion. She waves over a collection of naturalistic landscapes and seascapes and laughs, “Lots of different stages of things — where things are almost done, not quite done… starting!” The inspiration for her compositions is at once obvious, “I’m always drawn to the water,” she admits.
Ball is bound tightly to Sullivan’s Island by generations of her family who have lived here. “My grandmother built on Station 18, my great-grandparents at 10.” Although she was raised in downtown Charleston, she says she grew up “a summer person” on Sullivan’s Island. “I’ve been on the island ever since I was born but have lived and owned a home here for 15 years. It’s been such a big part of my life. This has become my adult playground.”
It was on Sullivan’s Island she would meet and befriend other women artists like Anne Darby Parker, Lynne Hamontree and Susie Callahan through what she calls “adult painting playgroups.” The ladies quickly established a club that grew in membership. “We would meet up and paint different places.”
Anne Darby Parker is one of the pioneering members of the group. “Twenty years ago, we started a Sullivan’s Island Plein Air Artist’s group, and there were maybe seven of us. We met every Wednesday, and we still do meet.” Through weekly workshops, taking classes together, and supporting and critiquing one another, she says, “We grew up as artists together.”
Eventually many of the women in the group took their craft to a professional level, becoming members of the Charleston Artist Collective, an online gallery headed by Allison Williamson. The Collective has become a popular virtual destination for art collectors to discover affordable art by local artists. Today there is a brick-and-mortar gallery and studio space in Mount Pleasant. Although the ladies are professionally represented, they still find tremendous value in the group meetings and workshops, which they organize themselves.
Susie Callahan explains the diverse artistic styles within the group. “When we all get together and paint, we might be painting the same subject — like a landscape or the ocean or a group of palm trees. And they will all be different. Very, very different.”
Callahan is a clinical counselor by day with a Middle Street office on Sullivan’s, but she has been painting since she was 12 years old. Some of her pastoral paintings hang on her office walls alongside more dynamic abstract works. “I used to only paint outside,” she says. “I was a plein air painter for over fifteen years and then my kids moved out.” Callahan used the opportunity to transform a room into a studio and, without any distractions, she now finds painting there meditative.
Callahan was raised in North Charleston and after living in Chicago and then New Jersey for several years, she returned to the area. “Sullivan’s Island is just a place I’ve always felt a strong connection with,” she muses. When it comes to the island scenery, she says, “I’m infatuated with the marsh. I take a bike ride several times a week early in the morning and if I could paint only that marsh, I would be satisfied.” Spending time outdoors is one of the ways Callahan picks her subjects, but she admits there is also some intuition involved. “It’s a feeling. I get moved by something. It could be a really subtle landscape and I’ll be moved by the subtle colors in it or by the way the light hits a tree, and that image will stick with me.” Once inspiration strikes, she finds it hard to resist transmitting her visions onto canvas. “If I see something I really want to paint, I can’t stop thinking about it. And then when I go to paint it, those paintings almost paint themselves. It’s funny how your brain just works it all out.”
With parallels to her career in counseling, art is akin to therapy for Callahan and she especially enjoys experimenting with abstract compositions. “To me it’s all about feeling. That’s the bedrock of the work I do. It’s all about getting to the feelings. How you are processing and receiving that feeling. It’s such a similar process for me. You have to explore.”
Anne Darby Parker
Anne Darby Parker is similar in her pursuit of artistic exploration. After growing up on Isle of Palms, she became a professional photographer, and her career spans twenty years. Along the way, she describes feeling a strong pull toward ne art. “As I was working, I was always sort of painting and drawing and looking at art books on the side. I realized I needed to make the move.”
She attests that learning a new skill later in life requires curiosity. “When you start taking on something new as an adult you approach it differently.” Whereas learning and practicing a skill early in life tends to be immersive, an adult learner is often balancing other aspects of life, such as career and family. “I think I’m in perpetual student mode,” she chuckles, which is rather apt because she is now studying for her Master of Fine Arts degree at e Academy of the Arts University.
Parker cites Daniel Coyle’s book Th e Talent Code and says she believes rather than being born with talent, “You grow at it through deliberate, deep practice.” It also requires a certain degree of resilience. “It’s not the repetition of doing something over and over. It’s being at a frustration point, having to make little tweaks and changing things. And having to repeat that process again and again.”
She feels that women artists today have a distinct historical advantage. “We’re in a new place, especially with the Internet, where we can connect to the best teachers in the world, we’re not limited to just where we live.” It’s what makes artistic enclaves, such as the one created by the women of Sullivan’s Island, possible. “I think when you live on an island or removed from the synergy of a city, it really is most important to have that network of like-minded people in your community.” She adds, “When we get together, as females we are like-minded, and we do take our work seriously. It’s the magic piece.” What she’s describing is extremely liberating for female artists, since women often balance so many roles and responsibilities throughout their lifetimes.
Cindy DeAntonio is one of the younger artists the Collective represents. When I arrive at her recently renovated home, she is unfurling a new rug in her sitting room. We sit on her screened-in porch and chat while her 19-month-old son naps down the hall. She talks of growing up in Columbia, then attending the University of South Carolina. After college, she followed her older sister to the Charleston area, which was the start of a true Sullivan’s Island love story. While waiting tables at Poe’s, she met her husband, Matt, himself then a Sullivan’s Island resident of nine years. “This whole area is where we met, fell in love, had a child,” she recalls.
Being an artist with a young child can be difficult. “It’s tough. I’m painting during naps pretty much.” she says. “And a lot of nighttime painting... It’s tough but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do so I just make it work.” With a background in graphic design, DeAntonio describes her artistic style as “graphic abstract,” very linear and structured. “I like balance. Graphic design has changed a lot, but with my paintings I feel like I need to have that balance and symmetry when laying things out.”
She uses bright colors and incorporates them with more organic shades inspired by the Lowcountry. “I get a lot of color inspiration from the surrounding landscape. I drive over the Isle of Palms Connector all the time and you know how the marsh grass has died out and turned that brown autumn color?” It’s a shade she’s been working into some of her recent pieces. She shows me around her studio, and it does seem she possesses a sensitive understanding of color. “One painting will work really well, but I’ll look back and think I wish I had used more greys or blues.”
Of the group, DeAntonio says the support of the other women has been invaluable. “We all have the same struggles,” she says. The group also encourages her to experiment more, though she attributes some of her artistic development to other life changes. She says before she had her son, she painted strictly abstracts, but has now gotten into landscapes and still-life’s. “I’m definitely exploring more,” she declares with a smile.
Lynne Hamontree is in the middle of a major home renovation project on Sullivan’s Island. I meet her at the house she is renting with her husband while they wait to move in. The process has been a lot of work, but she’s handling the challenge with artistic aplomb. “With a renovation you’re forced to carve something out because there’s something already there,” she says. “Instead of just having a blank canvas, you have to carve something out of it. And it takes thought and imagination to do that.”
Speaking of carving out, she has managed to create a lovely space to practice despite being in temporary accommodation. The nook adjacent to the kitchen where she paints is dappled with mood board collages of Madeline Weinrib textile patterns, cutouts from the Laguna Art Museum, and miniature clippings of Cy Twombly and Henri Matisse works. On the wall is a tiny placard which reads, “Do it with passion or not at all” in an elegant font. Stacks of sleek and sumptuous art books anchor the boundaries of this makeshift studio at its imaginary borders. “I’ve never deviated from what I love. I collect art history books and I’m constantly reading. I read them every morning. They’re like novels to me. Some people read fictional novels, I read art history books.”
During this busy time in her life, she has also found comfort and support from the artistic community on the island. Of the other women, she says, “We are always encouraging each other. In one group, we draw the human figure every Thursday. We kind of experiment and do things we normally wouldn’t do because we’re not trying to sell it. We’re just trying to improve our craft.” And the meetings are a bit of welcome relief from all of life’s pressures. “It’s so fun to be with them, because we are all on the same plane.”
Hamontree grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, then lived for a while in Los Angeles with her Californian husband. Eventually, life brought them back to Sullivan’s Island twelve years ago. She talks about the importance as an artist of having a supportive partner. “He definitely helps me and critiques me, and most importantly gives me time, which is not easy.”
Time is a luxury for most women who are balancing an artistic passion with other major commitments — such as careers, home renovations, pursuing advanced education, those embarking on motherhood for the first time, or those downsizing after their children are grown. Emily Brown has three daughters and space in their bright, contemporary home is at a premium. Her studio is packed up and she is moving to an art studio inside the new Collective. In her open, light- filled living room with orchids on the coffee table, she gracefully falls back into a velvet chair. “I’m excited!” she e uses about the move. “I’ve always had my studio at home. I think it will be fun, and I think it will hold me accountable to paint more.”
Originally from Mississippi, Brown lived in Memphis for ten years. She’s now been on Sullivan’s Island with her husband and their three daughters for just over a year. “We love it. It’s so relaxing.” It’s since arriving in the Lowcountry that Brown has really taken up painting. “I’ve always painted o and on. I have an art degree, I was a graphic designer for a while, I’ve dabbled in stationery and illustration and things like that,” but after settling here with all three girls in school she finally found she had the time to focus on painting.
Several of her abstract works hang in the foyer and staircase. “‑ at piece for instance,” she gestures to a monumental piece halfway up the stairs, “is a piece that I painted, and then painted again and again — until I finally ended up with what I like, with little pieces peeking through.” She named the work What Remains, “because it’s what’s le over.” Brown says she visualizes her compositions before she even begins painting. She outlines each piece by sketching directly onto the canvas, then she beings applying paint in layers. She says she always works on more than one painting at a time, “Definitely. And that, to me, is how I achieve depth in a painting.”
“My art has definitely changed since I’ve started painting. I’m not as scared of the colors and I’m not afraid to throw the color on there and let it be.” Her household is ruled by art and her other passion, cooking. “We’re either painting or drawing or cooking. We cook and make art.” Looking at the children’s drawings tacked up on the walls and doors, and the glitter stuck in the woodgrain of the farmhouse style kitchen table, it’s evident Brown’s creativity has fostered an artistic inclination in her daughters, aged 10, 9 and 5. “I’ve created monsters of my kids because they draw and paint and color — that’s just what we do. I must buy new markers every week!” Perhaps she is raising the next generation of female artists? “I hope so,” she says with a wink.
Clearly, she has chosen a perfect place to further her daughters’ love of art in Sullivan’s Island, alongside an ever-growing tribe of female artists.