Some say it’s the art. (Though there are those who insist there’s little to no real art anywhere to be seen). Others like the local restaurants, or the historic ambience. But for whatever reason, the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition draws an estimated 40,000 people to Charleston for a single weekend every year. I’d heard enough hype about SEWE to make me wonder what the real fascination was, so I went to find out and discovered a diverse world of chatty painters, Labrador lovers, and seasoned collectors all packed onto the peninsula.
Last Wednesday, purveyors of everything from etchings to duck decoys to African safaris arrived to set up shop. By Friday morning, Marion Square was packed with tents, stalls, animals, and families, the latter drawn to a “Children’s Square” area. In Eudora Farms’ exotic petting zoo, kleptomaniac camels tried to steal the feeding cups from wary young hands and baboons shook their moneymakers. But, pleasingly, the zoo and other attractions like the Edisto Island Serpentarium tent didn’t charge for entry. Sharing an interest in wildlife welfare seemed as important to these organizations as turning a profit; for the many conservation exhibitors in the Square, saving a buck seemed as important as making one.
Tell that to the hunters who like to cull with kindness. Surely it was no coincidence that most of them were placed at the other end of the peninsula, in Brittlebank Park, too distant to take potshots at the zoo creatures. I saw more than one bumper sticker this weekend that read, “Keep Honking, I’m Reloading.”
Not all hunters shoot first and preserve nature later, though. Duck stamp star Jim Killen is a sportsman and conservationist as well as a wildlife artist. A few of his original paintings were on display in the Embassy Suites amid 26 years’ worth of waterfowl prints. These products of the S.C. Migratory Duck Stamp and Print program, which is separate from SEWE but has enjoyed a longtime natural concurrence, were chosen annually to be used as “stamps” for licensed hunters. On Friday, the Suites were quiet and the wide space of the atrium afforded plenty of room to appreciate the paintings from different angles.
Killen is one of several artists at SEWE who’ve stuck around for the long haul — he was Featured Artist back in 1987. Over at the Charleston Place hotel he told me that the one major change he’d seen over the years was an infusion of African-themed art about 15 years ago. “It was at the forefront for a number of years,” he explained. “Now it’s balanced out.”
In Killen’s own work, the balance is tipped in a canine favor. Many of his paintings displayed at Charleston Place were dog portraits. But he’s highly regarded for his waterfowl art as well — in a break from tradition, the duck stamp competition for entries has been discontinued this year; Killen will provide four new scenes through 2010. “It’s one of the strongest state programs in the U.S.,” said Killen, pointing out that print sales support breeding and nesting habitat projects for Atlantic Flyway migratory waterfowl.
Other artists at Charleston Place were just as concerned with wildlife and the environment, and not just in their own back yards. David Kitler sat with a small canvas on his knee, adding the finishing touches to an acrylic piece. “It’s too hot in the jungle for watercolors,” he’s found, “and oils take too long to dry, so I tend to use acrylics.”
Kitler was surrounded by images of the harpy eagle, the world’s most powerful bird of prey, which he’d studied in the Panamanian rainforests. He’s passionate about preserving the eagles and their habitat and aiding the subsistence farmers who live there. “This isn’t just about painting pretty pictures,” he told me. “Through art we can change lives.”
While the animal art at the Expo was rarely life-changing, it was mercifully varied. Kim Shaklee’s skillfully wrought “Nature in Bronze” sculptures rubbed antlers with Larry Seymour’s realistic gouache paintings, Art Lamay’s subtle watercolors, Frank Gee’s bright acrylic boat scenes, Rick Reinert’s plein air landscapes, and Sarah Brown’s blooming flower studies. Like Kitler, many of the artists were happy to discuss their work and their desire to create expressive, exuberant animal portraits.
Nearby, this year’s featured painter Edward Aldrich looked surprisingly chipper, considering he’d been sitting at a table for two days signing copies of his official SEWE poster. Despite a 13-year absence from the event, he felt that little had changed. “There’s classy nature art here, the artists are treated well, and the whole thing’s well-run,” he said. “Other Expos have come and gone. Out west there are more game hunting and safari shows for tour groups, but there’s nothing like this that’s been running for 25 years.”
So maybe that’s the draw — the combination of contented wildlife artists, varied art subjects, and an efficient team of organizers, including President and CEO Jimmy Huggins and Exhibit Coordinator Lainey Halter. SEWE has a reputation for efficiency, and festival organizers deserve it. Sure, everything about it reveals it as the anti-Spoleto — the patrons, the artists, the locations, the politics — but Charleston seems big enough to accommodate both. And, as the local hospitality industry knows, a SEWE dollar goes just as far as a Spoleto dollar.
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