The Artisans of Daufuskie
Amazing Talents and Unexpected Treasures
It would appear that the diversity of talent found on Daufuskie is rooted in the inspiration of a bridgeless island – a mystical and ancient place, where eagles soar, dolphins play and indigo grows wild.
Although Daufuskie has no sidewalks and no town center with shops and galleries, Daufuskie is alive with artist “hang-outs.” There’s a little cottage deep in Daufuskie’s maritime forest where you might meet an artist making unique jewelry and stained fused-glass gifts. There’s an historic Gullah-constructed house situated along a dirt road where you might encounter a famous, self-taught artisan hammering, cutting, forging and welding handcrafted metal sculptures under the shade of a moss-draped oak. There’s a back porch where, if you follow your nose, you will be greeted by soaps inspired by the scents and smells of the island itself. If you take the time to meander along the sandy side-roads and talk to the islanders themselves, you will discover that incredible treasures await you just off the beaten path.
Among these, you could find:
• Soaps and body lotions touted to make you feel younger and more beautiful or are toxin-free, organic and probiotic;
• Photography of nature, landscapes, and human interest;
• Oil paintings; pastels; and water-colors that speak of island life;
• Coastal wall sculptures crafted out of sheet steel by a self-taught metal artisan.
• Naturally elegant cutting boards, frames and table tops with beautiful live edges made from Daufuskie’s oak, cherry, walnut, pecan and hickory trees.
• Custom-designed mirrors, wreaths, trees, lamps, boxes, ornamental balls and even hanging ornaments made from sea shells
• Scarves and shawls hand-woven on the artist’s loom and/or knitted with an island flavor
• A line of fabulous beachy comfort-casual apparel
• Custom iced sugar cookies which are more like art pieces than something edible
If your side-road meanderings were to lead you to the old two-room schoolhouse where Pat Conroy wrote “The Water is Wide,” you would encounter what is perhaps the most unique treasure in all of Daufuskie art collection: custom hand-dyed textiles (scarves, napkins, hand towels, shirts) being made with organic indigo and other natural colors available on Daufuskie. It’s appropriate that the artisans behind Daufuskie Blues, Leanne Coulter, and Rhonda Davis, work in the old school house because a visit to their studio includes a real-life, school book lesson about the history of Indigo and about preserving the historical techniques and skills that can bring out the magic of this amazingly beautiful blue color! You would learn that Indigo is an ancient dye that comes from the green leaves of a leguminous plant. It is mentioned in writings dating back to 450 BC and found in remnants of blue cloth recovered from Egyptian tombs. Indigo’s unique chemical makeup makes it different from all other natural dyes (apart from shellfish purple). It is deposited on cloth fibers as microscopic particles rather than forming a chemical bond with the fabric itself. The result is that once dyed, indigo is so colorfast that it can last for centuries!You would learn that Indigo is deeply rooted in Daufuskie Island history which includes indigo plantations from which blue dye was exported to England. So valued was the ‘blue gold’ that by the time of the American Revolution – indigo cubes were accepted in lieu of currency! By 1775, South Carolina was exporting in excess of one million pounds of the crop annually. With the American Revolution came the end of bounty and tariff protections and the market for indigo disappeared. Today indigo grows wild along the dirt roads on Daufuskie.Following the ancient Japanese technique called Shibori, you would watch as Leanne and Rhonda lovingly use this manual resist process to apply the amazing indigo color onto natural fabrics in order to create one-of-a-kind designs. Inside their small studio, you would see the artists pulling, clamping, compressing, wrapping or meticulous stitching as they create their designs. From start to finish, a single scarf could take anywhere from hours to an entire day to make. Indigo – centuries old, symbolic of the sacred and beautiful, revered for its purifying effect on the soul – is more than a color, it’s the embodiment of a historical journey.
When asked how there can be so much diverse talent here on the little island of Daufuskie, many of the artisans give a similar answer. They give credit to the island itself. One artist surmised, “The moisture from the low country marshes continually plays games with sunsets. The richness of the sunset colors makes me want to capture the beauty on canvas.” The ever-changing marsh, tides, clouds, oyster beds, and wildlife are breathtaking. They inspire me to try to re-create that beauty.Every time I take a walk on the beach, I am “going to work.” Being an island touched by the Spanish War, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and industrial wars, Daufuskie has its own kind of spirit. The rise-and-fall of international industries such as the cotton, lumber, and oyster packing has left its mark on Daufuskie. It is the only island where its entirety is on the US National Historic Registry. It is one of the few islands without a bridge. Its untarnished beauty and Gullah history make it an artist’s delight.
When you live on Daufuskie, you might be surprised to discover that your neighbor is an exceptionally talented artist. Who would expect that a speech pathologist from Cincinnati and a corporate event planner from Memphis would become creators of hand-dyed soft art? Who would suspect that the paintings of a retired dentist would be sought-after by art collectors as far away as the British West Indies? Who would believe that a scientist, with degrees in biology and chemistry and a focus on genetics and molecular diagnostics, would become the designer of such beautiful woodwork that she can’t keep up with the demand? Regardless of their successes, these enigmatic artists seem to prefer operating under the radar, not wanting any part of the demanding life associated with being in the spotlight. One such artist is Paula Nickels, an island resident who comes from Chicago where she headed up a diagnostic shelter for abused children. It wasn’t until she moved to Daufuskie that she started working with shells, and she never dreamed that she would become a prominent shell artist. She doesn’t have a website. She doesn’t have a gallery. She avoids social media. She may be better known for being the editor of the Daufuskie Island Front Porch, a popular online magazine, than for being a very successful artist whose custom pieces (mirrors, wreaths, trees, lamps, boxes, balls etc.) can be found in homes all over the area. When asked about how she sees her business, she explained, “Almost everything I use in my shell art can be found on Daufuskie. … I love bringing something of nature into a home. I enjoy taking my time with each piece. I don’t want a business that will rob me of that pleasure.”Another such artist is Lynell Linke. In her first life, she was a scientist with degrees in biology and chemistry with a focus on oncology, infectious diseases, and transplant testing. Now she is a wood artist whose work is so popular that she can hardly keep up with the demand. While Lynell explains that her appreciation for art comes from her parents who were both artists, she went on to explain that she never really thought about becoming an artist. It was a process that began when she discovered the beauty of the diverse trees on Daufuskie. “As hardwoods became available after storms, I wanted to create something unique and beautiful rather than having them burned up,” she added. That something unique turned out to be cutting boards, frames, and even table tops which show off the beautiful live edges of the trees themselves. She explains, “the Community Farm has a mill where I can turn logs into customized lumber. After they dry, I cut them to size and plane them to expose their beautiful grain.” What emerges is a piece of debris transformed into a piece of art.
Maybe it’s the distinctive allure of living on an island with no bridge that results in Daufuskie being home to many independent and talented artists. As one artisan put it, “Waking up on this unique island called Daufuskie – with its smells, its sounds, its pristine beauty - is definitely inspirational.” Maybe Daufuskie really is a mystical place for the creative spirit.
- Judy Barth, contributor