As the First Thursdays Art Market opens its fourth season in The Shops at Sea Pines Center on April 6, it’s important to note that its success is one sign of a much bigger story. In the summer of 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, local artist Pam White was looking for a way to bring her art and that of her neighbors back to the attention of Lowcountry art lovers.

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“Local artists had been in their homes for the past six months, creating art,” White said. “We couldn’t recall ever being more productive, but where could we show it?”

At the same time, Mark King, founder and chairman of The Club Group – property managers for The Shops at Sea Pines Center – was looking for a way to keep a promise.

“We put up a big poster, facing Lighthouse Road, as the precautions began earlier that year,” King said. “A graceful swimmer in a tank suit was headed for the surface, where the words said, ‘Adventures are ahead. This will not last forever.’ I was sure we meant that. I just wasn’t sure yet how we would do it.”

How First Thursdays Celebrates a Local Treasure

The irrepressible Lowcountry arts scene provided the answer.

“The Artists of Sea Pines’ home gallery is located in the Conference Center at The Shops at Sea Pines Center, so it was a natural extension to step out into the plaza and meet people there,” said King. “And we had some ongoing experience in practicing sensible precautions in the plaza, thanks to hosting our Farmers and Makers Market every Tuesday.”

White offered to organize an outdoor event, and, in September 2020, The Shops at Sea Pines Center premiered a monthly celebration we call the First Thursdays Art Market.

With a pattern already developed for such an event, that first market showcased a dozen Sea Pines artists, posted with care throughout the open-air plaza, with several favorite local musicians (who were also having a tough time finding an audience for their work) serenading and setting the mood.

“The precautions made people more comfortable all around,” King said. “The setting, music, and even the time of day with evening approaching, it felt like a big, outdoor reception.”

A Wider Embrace

The inaugural First Thursdays Art Market was a hit, so the monthly celebration continued.

“I have had many people tell me that First Thursdays was their only regular outing during COVID,” King said, “and the only time life seemed somewhat normal.”

From the beginning, artists and fans alike asked if the Art Market could include artists from beyond Sea Pines, and a few months later, the answer became a resounding, “Yes.” More artists, more art forms, and more fun became possible, thanks to the warm reception people gave to the early First Thursdays – and thanks to the abundance of art available here.

“People really seem to enjoy the chance to talk with the artists about their work,” said Club Group CEO Andy Sutton. “The feeling at First Thursdays is so relaxed that you might say the art becomes interactive.”

Why Art Loves the Lowcountry

Residents and visitors alike sometimes wonder why there is such a vibrant arts scene here in the Lowcountry.

“Inspiration is the reason that comes to mind first,” said Jeff Keefer, owner of VIVID Gallery. “Established artists who visit our region have been known to drop everything and move here in response to the different world of beauty they find. The birds, the trees, the subtropical plants, and even the ground itself – all these remarkable sights prompt practicing artists to see things in a different light.”

And many who’ve kept the artist within them as they lived a life of careers and families are inspired to let that artist loose when they move to the Lowcountry.

In fact, Keefer himself is one such artist. The Ohio native had a successful career with DuPont, rising in the ranks to executive vice president and CFO, before retiring to Hilton Head in 2010. Inspired by his new surroundings as well as what he calls “a new awakening” after a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, Keefer began experimenting with photography, eventually opening VIVID Gallery in The Shops at Sea Pines Center. “The beauty of this place and the time to devote to a longtime interest just came together,” Keefer said.

His success as an artist also enables him to support his other passion – research for a cure for Parkinson’s Disease – as Keefer donates the proceeds from VIVID Gallery to the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

Musical Artists Add Their Magic

From the beginning, music has been an essential ingredient in the First Thursdays Art Market, and the musicians are as homegrown and authentic as the visual artists they accompany.

It was Jeff Keefer’s VIVID Gallery that introduced singer-songwriter Sara Burns to the First Thursdays scene, and Sara’s songs have been a cornerstone of the relaxed and expressive atmosphere that takes over the plaza ever since. Long respected for her originality, Sara honors her roots with her devotion to the local arts scene.

Hilton Head’s own Jazz Corner ranks as one of the nation’s leading venues among jazz lovers and musicians alike, and Jazz Corner resident artists Davey Masteller, Martin Lesch, and Chris Russell have been part of First Thursdays, too, often accompanied by other impressive area musicians. Over the past few years, the lineup of musicians performing at the market has read like a “who’s who” of local favorites, including John Cranford, The Nice Guys, Mike Kavanaugh, La Bodega, Cheryl Christine, Tommy Sims, and Phillip Cox.

“The artists and customers alike told us that music is part of what sets the scene for First Thursdays,” Sutton said.

Why We Celebrate

“Our support for the artists has a really local intent,” Sutton said. “As a group of local businesses ourselves, The Shops at Sea Pines Center thrive partly because of the energy, the creativity, and the power of attraction that the Lowcountry arts scene provides.”

First Thursdays Art Market was seen as a way to give back.

“Beginning with the Artists of Sea Pines, whose home gallery is right here, we saw the opportunity to spread that support beyond, and to include local artists from all around the area,” King said.

And it’s good for business, too, as First Thursdays Art Market gives residents and visitors an opportunity to support the locally owned shops, restaurants, and businesses at the center.

“Shopping local is so important to a community,” said Andrea Bragg of Forsythe Jewelers, who chairs the merchants’ association at the center. “We are your neighbors, we shop in your shops, we eat in your restaurants, so please support your local businesses and local artists.”

Art Market guests will get to do just that while ushering in the evening every First Thursday of the month from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., now through December, strolling the shops, talking with the artists, listening to the music, and relaxing in the plaza.

“Seeing the pleasure that art can bring to people, we are excited to have a setting that adds to it,” said Bragg. “We hope people will continue to join us, to enjoy, to support, and to celebrate the local art inspired by our lovely Lowcountry.”