Charleston’s French Quarter District is bustling with groups gallery hopping on a still-warm October evening. This section of the walled city, where Huguenots settled, worshipped, and conducted business, earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places as recognition of the area’s storied past. These days, four times a year, the moniker takes on a thoroughly modern aptness when the French Quarter Art Walks transform the district into an oh-so-European feast for the senses.
“I feel like I am in Les Misérables,” exclaims Mount Pleasant resident Judith Smith on one such evening as she stands at the intersection of Church and Queen Streets, admiring the antebellum architecture, cobbled streets, and gas-lit alleys that inspired her outburst.
Misery, though, is nowhere in sight. On the contrary, the mob assembled at these crossroads appears downright giddy, mingling and carousing in and outside of the galleries. A shout rings out from the doorway of Anglin Smith Fine Art:
“This is a good one!”
“Good art, good food, or good wine?” Tim Rowan calls back to his friends, thoroughly amusing the group of bon vivants. Rowan is with his daughter, Elle, a recent graduate of the College of Charleston, who confesses she is new to the experience, though her friends often attend the Art Walks. She proclaims the event to be a perfect activity for disparate generations to do together, which evokes a tongue-in-cheek response from her dad. “Yeah, there’s a lot of other old people here.”
From retirees to babies in strollers to middleagers on double dates, the wide variety of visual, culinary, and oenological offerings attract people from every stage of life. Also well represented…twentysomethings, checking out each other as they check out the art.
In Robert Lange Studios a diverse throng clusters around pop surrealist painter Nathan Durfee, whose solo show opens tonight. Numerous teenagers, including a handful of budding creatives from Charleston County’s School of the Arts, populate the steady stream of enthusiasts questioning Durfee about his work. Their eager demeanors parallel the look of superfans in line to meet a favorite rock star. It’s unlikely the kids will pull out checkbooks, but that, says Durfee, is not the point.
Though plenty of red-circle stickers will go up this evening, Art Walk patrons more often use the stroll as a go-see, according to artist and gallery owner John Carroll Doyle. “We have sold [pieces] during Art Walk, but it’s very rare. People will take notes, get a sense of what’s out there and what the market is. Then they’ll go to dinner and discuss what they liked. Sometimes it’s two months later before we see them again, but it is not unusual for us to find somebody at the gallery the very next morning…ready to buy.”
Estimating that tourists make up 10–20 percent of the crowd, Doyle says the majority live locally. “Tonight has been one of the best turnouts we’ve ever had.”
That popularity delights Marty Whaley Adams Cornwell, who founded the French Quarter Art Walk in 1989 with two other artists, Nina Liu and Art Thomas. “We hoped we could revive the Charleston Renaissance,” she explains. She is referencing the city’s historic, cultural rebirth, which began in 1915 and engendered three decades of extraordinary work across many creative disciplines. “But I don’t think we knew the impact it would have. I am thrilled with this blossoming.”
Though Adams still paints—and sells her work at Dog & Horse Fine Art on Church Street—she says it has been a while since she’s had the chance to indulge in the French Quarter Art Walk. She’s looking forward to experiencing it anew. “In France artists are known as the lighthouses,” she says, alluding to Baudelaire’s famous poem “The Beacons.” “I think art helps strike a match in our souls. It helps people use their imaginations. It makes me want to kick up my heels and fly through the sky with wings!” — e.a.
The French Quarter Art Walk takes flight on the first Friday of March, May, October, and December, from 5 to 8 pm. For more information, including a
map of the thirty-plus participating galleries, visit frenchquarterarts.com.