Artist in Residence // 7 min Read

Painting Wild

Written by Palmetto Bluff

Jan 03, 2024

Story by Sandy Lang and Photographs by Lawson Builder

In early May, The Arts Initiative hosted renowned Lowcountry painter West Fraser as our esteemed Artist In Residence. Throughout his stay, residents were treated to an array of events, including a painting demonstration at the Moreland Village Green, a book signing at FLOW Gallery + Workshop, a guided art walk a Montage Palmetto Bluff, and a reception at the Full Moon Rising On The May River exhibition. As a highlight of the week, six fortunate participants had the privilege of joining Fraser on an unforgettable painting excursion through Anson. It was an extraordinary week celebrating the finest in Lowcountry art.

Dawn’s first light breaks through low clouds over a sandy causeway. Artist West Fraser sets his easel askew- a hinged wooden box atop telescoping legs, placed at nearly a right angle to the saltwater scenery.

An expanse of islands and tidal creeks at the southernmost end of Palmetto Bluff is the morning’s painting subject, viewed from a historic rice dike that’s about eight (unpaved) miles from Moreland Village. “This is some of the most productive landscaped on earth,” Fraser will note later, talking of the rich ecological complexity of spartina grass, blue crabs, and tidal flats that stretch toward the horizon.

For now, though, there’s only the sound of morning birdsong as Fraser opens tubes of paint and squeezes greens, yellows, blues, and pinks onto the edges of his well-worn palette. Six other artists are here, too. They’d all gathered in the dark a half hour earlier for coffee and hellos and to load satchels and collapsible easels into the back of Palmetto Bluff’s Conservancy Director Jay Walea’s safari truck.

This morning’s excursion is the final event of Fraser’s Artists in Residence in a series of events – gallery hours, art walks, and receptions. He has also spent a good deal of time out in the wilds of Palmetto Bluff, painting.

Pine branches and spiky palmetto fronds leaned in so close to the narrow, unpaved lane to get here that branches sometimes brushed the truck, and the passengers had to duck and avoid being scratched. Walea was at the driver’s wheel and led the group to the remote destination—at one point slowing as a bobcat dashed across the dirt and sand roadway ahead.

Fraser nods knowingly about the morning excursion’s safari-like feel. The renowned American landscape painter happens to have pluff mud-deep roots in the Lowcountry. Born in Savannah in 1955—with a family lineage in South Carolina dating to the 17th century—he spent part of his youth at his family’s timberland on Hilton Head Island in the 19060s and 19070s. Fraser watched firsthand as the island evolved form forest to resort. It was his father, Joe Fraser, and his uncle, Charles Fraser, who led the Sea Pines Company and the vision and development of modern Hilton Head.

Fraser’s familiarity and love for the Lowcountry grew organically. “I was an environmentalist by age fifteen,” he says. And he decided to focus his art on coastal subjects, from downtown Charleston scenery to undeveloped island vistas. His paintings seem to offer a subtle message— look at this. This is beautiful. This is important. And he has painted in the wildest parts of Palmetto Bluff since its beginnings. He says he was ecstatic for the chance to return.

Glancing over his right shoulder, Fraser studies the marsh and islands for a few moments. With narrow brushes in each hand, he begins tracing a loose outline onto a wooden panel. The flowing lines are the start of his next painting, or at least a study for a larger painting. It’s the variety of forms in the landscape, “a symphony of shapes,” that will become the basic composition, he explains. He paints quickly in thin brush strokes. To an observer, he’s an efficient, confident painter in his element. (That his easel is positioned sideways-and differently than the other painters-has no significance, he says when asked. He didn’t even notice.)

Remarkably, the day’s painting will be his eighth such work in one week as Artist in Residence at Palmetto Bluff. It’s a bit of a homecoming for the prolific artist, whose oil paintings of Spanish moss-draped trees and spartina grass waterscapes hang prominently throughout Montage Palmetto Bluff, originally commissioned in 2001 by the community’s first owners. He’s a veteran of predawn, plein-air outings on the Southern coastline. During this weeklong residency this spring, Fraser has kept an industrious schedule, beginning paintings at various locations around the property to finish at the Artist Loft on Boat House Street, where the Bluff’s Artists in Residence frequently stay. As part of his residence with The Arts Initiative, Fraser also led an art walk along the May River, and he set up his portable easel for a painting demonstration at Cauley’s Creek on the Moreland Village Green. Then by the week’s end, his just-completed works were hung for a show and reception at FLOW Gallery + Workshop, where wine flowed and guests studied his freshest works more closely. “I’m drawn into every on of his paintings,” a woman visiting from

Savannah said to her companion. To other painters who joined him for the plein=air session are members of Artists of the Bluff, a group of professional painters, potters, and jewelers who live at Palmetto Bluff, either full time or seasonally. Their work is also on rotation at FLOW Gallery + Workshop. Fraser says he enjoys the camaraderie of painting with others outdoors. Members of the group ask questions or stop by to see his painting progress during the three hours on the causeway. At one point, there’s a conversation about gnats becoming just part of the paint and paintings, and then talk of how best to paint Spanish moss- “lighter” is better, Fraser suggests. 

And, when asked, he talks of his process and philosophies. Fraser prefers to paint in a subtle range of colors. His subjects are specific and often familiar, so in many ways he’s documenting a specific moment in time, sharing the beauty and importance of natural and built places. But he stresses that his works are not renderings. Rather, he’s a painter aiming to “suggest reality, not recreate it.”

His style can be described as Naturalistic Impressionism, and his intent, he explains, is for the viewer “to believe that what they are seeing is observational truth.” Continually inspired by Palmetto Bluff, he’d been eager to return to paint again in the watery landscapes. “You’re still, and you sort of blend in when you paint,” Fraser explains. And you can have palpable, unforgettable moments here. 

He recalls looking up from his easel to see whimbrel shorebirds fly past, wings beating the air. Or the sensory memory of painting solo one morning when a herd of deer swam across the saltwater from Savage Island. “It was the strangest sound,” Fraser says, “of the deer breathing and hooves splashing.” The herd soon walked past him- obliviously within yards of this artist who is so at home, painting from the pluff mud world of the marsh.

West Fraser’s painting are in permanent museum collections in the midwest, southeast, and California, including the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston and the Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center in Savannah. The University of South Carolina press has published two retrospective books on his art: Painting The Southern Coast: The Art of West Fraser and Charleston In My Time: The Paintings of West Fraser. He is represented by Helena Fox Fin Art at 106A Church Street in Charleston, South Carolina.

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