Debra Sorenson

When Debra Howard Sorenson turned 40, she liquidated her successful Coleman Boulevard design studio, took off on a sailboat, and started traveling. Caught in rough seas, she landed on St. Simons, Ga, where she took a stack of her oil paintings into a local gallery. When they accepted every single one, Sorenson determined to keep painting professionally. She quickly realized that it wouldn’t always be that easy. But she’s weathered some lean times and continued to paint colorful, impressionistic landscapes and darker, more personal pieces.

Based in a studio near Charleston Harbor Resort, she has a grand view of the Cooper River. Enamored with the fireworks that lit up the Ravenel Bridge last year, she created an image that won last year’s Cooper River Bridge Run design contest. Her distinctive vistas can be seen at the Edward Dare, Sandpiper, and Fish or Cut Bait galleries, but it’s her many Mt. P. fans who helped her reach the top spot this year.

The winners of the Best Artist category have been a varied bunch over the years. Here’s a look at the four other painters who’ve left their mark, as it were, on voters in the past decade. —Nick Smith

John Carroll Doyle (1999, 2000, 2002)

The BOC’s only three-time-winning artist has hooked three different sets of admirers. His black-and-white photography highlights women in candid, intentionally vulnerable poses. His jazz-themed portraiture blends 20th-century African-American history with Doyle’s own subtly tinted childhood memories of Southern life. His landscapes often include a glimpse of wildlife, and he was picked as SEWE’s featured artist in 2005. More recently, Doyle was convinced to postpone his retirement and keep his gallery open after he was made a financial offer he couldn’t refuse. He has a studio and two galleries downtown — one for originals and one for reproductions.

Kevin Taylor (2001, 2005)

Armed only with a wild imagination, a dark palette, and a curmudgeonly dog named Bobbie-Shannon, Taylor has won many fans in Charleston’s alternate art world. Horny angels, portholed whales, and cadaverous cats have all guest starred in the Charleston native’s wittily wrought paintings.

Taylor moved to San Francisco in 2006. Their gain is our loss. But despite staying busy with work in SF’s Mezzanine and The Shooting Gallery, New York’s late, lamented CBGBs, and A Bitchin’ Space in Sacramento, his paintings still pop up around town from time to time. A couple of months ago he curated New Year’s Revolution II, a North Chuck group show that featured graphic artist (and fellow expat Charlestonian) Shepard Fairey.

West Fraser (2003)

Trad fans rallied round Fraser with this nod for the French Quarter favorite, whose representational landscapes include idyllic takes on local architectur, with painstakingly pretty light motifs. While his plein air inspirations come from as far away as Europe and South America, he’s also well known for his paintings of bough-shadowed local buildings.

The most traditional of all our Best Artist winners, he’s based at the Fraser Fox Fine Art Gallery, where he’s a formal but friendly face on Charleston’s quarterly art walks.

Julio Cotto (2004, 2006)

With paintings in Meritäge, Tsunami, Torch, and Vickery’s, Julio Cotto Rivera’s memorable work is a perfect fit for bar patrons looking for a shot of erotic visual art to mix with their drinks.

By the time Cotto won his first Best Visual Artist award, his art was a downtown fixture, adorning the walls of Max Jerome, B’zar, Meritage, Atomic Comics, and Belle Muse. His distinctively bold style, clear, smooth lines, and striking blood-colored figures are informed by a background in graphic design, comic book, and illustrative art.