GULLAH HERITAGE & MODERN ART, St. Helena Island, S.C.
A day drive along the art trail of the atmospheric island of St. Helena in South Carolina's Low Country offers exciting original art, a fascinating African-American museum and delicious food. You can spend all day dawdling the mere 14 miles loaded with live oaks dripping Spanish moss, glimpses of salt marshes and brilliant blue sky. You'll meet the nicest people along the way as you buy fabulous art and learn about the vibrant Gullah culture in a collection of historic buildings, known locally as "the corner". The general area is also known as Frogmore named after a nearby plantation.
You can't miss "the corner" just eight miles south of Beaufort on Hwy 21 where Sea Island Pkwy meets Martin Luther King Dr. Look for The Red Piano Too Art Gallery as the central spot, prominently visible on the corner. The old building used to be the St Helena Island Farmers Cooperative building.
It's a 3-room treasure trove of local and regional self-taught artists, folk artists, fine artists and there's a small Gullah history musem upstairs. Mary Mack has owned the gallery for over 18 years and has a vast knowledge of art and a fine respect for her artists. An artist herself, and a South Carolina native who attended Queens College in New York and received her Masters from Fordham University, she retired after years in the health services field and is following her passion full time - art.
"Art is more of a passion than a business," Mack said. "Choosing a work of art is an investment - spiritually, emotionally and financially."
Collecting art is no longer considered to be just for the wealthy or elite, Mack explained, and she encourages others, especially young people, to collect art as part of their personal achievement. Follow her advice and hear her stories of the art and the artists, it makes for a rewarding experience - and will make your art purchases so much more meaningful.
After this you'll definitely need some good Gullah Grub to keep your strength up for the rest of the tour. Across the road from The Red Piano Too is a lovely old building housing the Gullah Grub Restaurant. Feast on the outstanding fish chowder and shrimp gumbo. The shrimp n'shark plate is out of this world. They use the local lemon shark which has a sweet tender meat. They have daily specials and by good chance you might find goat curry or conch stew on the menu. Al, owner Bill Green's brother, on occasion serves as waiter and he told me their Frogmore Stew is very good - and he's not biased of course! There are a variety of versions of the local Frogmore stew and theirs consists of corn, crab, shrimp, potato cubes and sausage. Sounds like it's worth a trip back if it's not on the menu during your visit! Eating at Gullah Grub is an experience in it's own right. Stories of Bill's riding as a drover at the local hunts and local patrons coming in with their stories make for a memorable meal.
Now you're well fed and ready to absorb history at the Penn Center, a couple of miles down Martin Luther King Drive. This is a thought provoking and interesting museum housed on the 50 acre campus of the first Gullah school - it opened in 1862 as one of the first schools for freed slaves and focused on teaching self-sufficiency during the transition from slavery to freedom. The Penn School Historic District is comprised of 19 buildings, most notably the Darrah Hall which is one of the oldest buildings on the island and Gantt Cottage where Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed. The York W. Bailey Museum houses four galleries and a gift shop, holds monthly art shows and offers various workshops. This is truly an honest experience and you need to give yourself time to absorb it all.
Further on down the road, tucked off the road you'll see a colorfully decorated former produce stand on the left - if the sign says "Artist is in", don't hesitate - pull over and go visit the "Picasso of Frogmore," aka Lynwood Polin. He produces eye-catching carvings of boats and fishing shacks that he's attached to driftwood or old fence pickets. Then he paints them vivid colors and you have an exciting work of art.
Finish the tour off with a visit to Gay Fish Co, renown for their fresh seafood and also their shrimp boats being used for the filming of Forrest Gump and Prince of Tides. It's an evocative setting often painted with shrimp boats and the fish shop. If you're lucky, you'll get to talk with one of the shrimper captains.
Location and business Information:
The Red Piano Too: 870 Sea Island Pkwy, St Helena Island SC 29920 RedPianotoo.com (843) 838-2241
Ray Lynwood Polin, artist, 1909 Sea Island Pkwy (843) 575-5376
Gullah Grub Restaurant, 877 Sea Island Pkwy (843) 838-3841 gullahgrubs.com
The Penn Center: The museum is open to the public Monday through Saturday from 11:00 a.m. - 4:oo p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for senior citizens and $3 for children. Groups over 10 people get in for $3 p.p. They have maps with detailed explanations available at the museum. There are cultural programs, lectures, demonstartion and lessons all year. Check out penncenter.com for details or call (843) 838-2432
Gay Fish Co., Inc 1948 Sea Island Pkwy (843) 838-2763