Few people in Charleston can claim as long a history with the city’s contemporary art scene as painter Lese Corrigan. For the past couple of decades, she has quietly championed the art and artists working in this under-appreciated genre, watching it change almost beyond recognition. Take, for example, the Lowcountry Heritage Society, a now-defunct arts organization that she worked with in the 1980s. “It was started to give a platform to all the art forms that were either about or influenced by the Lowcountry,” she says. “Now, that sounds silly, because we have all these things happening and artists rushing to move to Charleston so they can paint the marsh scenes, but [back then] it was kind of a quiet time for the Lowcountry.” And it was a quieter time still for the region’s contemporary art.
Corrigan, a Charleston native, left the Holy City in the 1970s to attend college and returned in the mid-1980s. She started her painting career here, inspired by the area’s natural beauty. “I had always wanted to paint, but I never really threw myself into it,” Corrigan says. “Here we have these beautiful surroundings … you walk down the street and there’s all that sky and water glistening, dancing.” Her inspiration carried over into supporting and promoting art, as well as creating it, and she soon found herself teaching art classes at the Gibbes Museum. Shortly after that, Corrigan began running the Thomas Gallery, a contemporary gallery that is now closed. “I guess the bug bit me then, because I didn’t want to just paint pretty pictures. I wanted to create something that went beyond — that pushed [the boundaries].” She also had her hands busy with Charleston Craft, a group she founded with seven others that created the first all-craft public art display in S.C. Today, she has her own gallery, the Corrigan Gallery, which displays the work of 18 fine contemporary artists.
It’s here, at the Corrigan Gallery, that she will soon show her latest body of work, titled Over the Edge. These paintings play with the “glistening, dancing” sky that Corrigan loves and depict birds sitting on telephone wires seen from below, in thick, textured strokes. She started taking photographs of birds on wires several years ago, and just recently decided to explore the images in paint. “I had been collecting these photographs for a long time, and I had one painting I’d done in 2004 that I called “Birds on a Wire.” It kept sticking in my head, and I kept coming across the photograph, and there was just something — I needed to try it big. A whole roomful of them.”
And that’s what she did. The paintings in Over the Edge are a roomful of variations on a theme, with skies that appear variously warm, bright, or stormy and birds that are sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs, resting contentedly, or poised to take flight. In addition to allowing her to explore painting the sky, Corrigan says the series appealed to her sense of artistic balance. “I’ve always been balancing between abstract and representation. This gave me a way to really minimize the representational and have this abstracted sense,” she says. “It gave me that freedom to play with it.”
On top of that, of course, is the joy of painting the simple, natural beauty of the birds themselves. “If nothing else, it’s those beautiful colors, especially at certain times of day. This simple bird will catch the light and suddenly it’s this golden, this pink creature,” Corrigan says. “I can’t wait till they’re in the gallery, with lights on them. We’ll be surrounded by skies.”