Our First Thursdays Art Market on September 2 means Happy Birthday time for this already well-loved event. Nothing special planned, except everything. The atmosphere in the plaza of The Shops at Sea Pines Center during what many call its most beautiful time of day is barely the beginning.

Morbi vitae purus dictum, ultrices tellus in, gravida lectus.

The sound of local musicians and singer-songwriters who were nurtured here in the Lowcountry always sets a tone of welcome and relaxation and creativity. The very presence of local artists, many eager to talk about their views and techniques, even sometimes to demonstrate their art, makes the First Thursdays Art Market into a real community event. People feel at home, whether they are residents or visitors.

The merchants and restaurants among The Shops at Sea Pines Center step forward to make First Thursdays visitors feel even more at home. The “inside treatment” is a specialty of The Shops at Sea Pines Center.

First Thursdays arose as an answer to unprecedented concerns last year, and so arriving at our first birthday might be counted as a kind of victory. Since beginning with a dozen Sea Pines painters and photographers, we’ve added potters, sculptors, and jewelry makers; artists who work in wood, prism cut steel, glass, clay, encaustic wax, and mixed media. Artists themselves have helped spread the word and keep the market fresh, introducing new exhibitors each month, doing demos, and painting live in the plaza on occasion.

Finding a Way and a Place

Last summer, in the middle of a pandemic, artist Pam White was looking for a way to bring her art and that of her Sea Pines neighbors back to the attention of Lowcountry art lovers.

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

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

“We put a big poster up, facing Lighthouse Road, as the precautions began,” Mark 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.”

A Story of Local Persistence

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,” Mark recalls. “And we had some ongoing experience in practicing sensible precautions in the plaza, thanks to hosting our Farmers & Makers Market every Tuesday.”

Pam offered to organize an outdoor event, and in September, The Shops at Sea Pines Center premiered a monthly celebration they called 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,” said Pam. “The setting and the music – and even the time of day, with evening approaching – it felt like a big, outdoor reception.”

How the Celebration Continued

“I have had many friends tell me that First Thursdays was their only regular outing during COVID,” Pam 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 beginning earlier this spring, the answer became a resounding, “Yes.” More artists, more art forms, and more fun have been possible, thanks to the warm reception people have given to First Thursdays – and thanks to the abundance of art available here.

“People really seem to enjoy the chance to talk with the artist about his or her work,” said Pam, who regularly exhibits and continues to volunteer as the event’s chairwoman. “The feeling at First Thursdays is so relaxed that you might say the art becomes interactive.”

A Vivid Arts Scene

“People who’ve been everywhere move to the Lowcountry and remark on what a big, vital, bubbling arts scene they find,” said Pam.

The success of the First Thursdays Art Market in the Shops at Sea Pines Center is one sign of a much bigger story. Surprising as it might seem to the newcomer, there are reasons behind the abundance of art in the Sea Islands and along our Carolina coast.

“Inspiration is the reason that comes to mind first,” said Pam. “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 the life of careers and families, are inspired to let that artist loose when they move to the Lowcountry.

“Whether it was classes at the Art League or simple self-discovery, this area has produced notable artists from among those who moved here and were inspired to begin practicing their art when they first breathed in the natural beauty they find all around them,” said Pam.

Cause and Inspiration

Jeff Keefer 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,” said Keefer.

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.

The Magic of Local Music

From the beginning, music has been an essential ingredient in the First Thursdays Art Market, and the musicians are as home-grown 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 as the evenings take shape. 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. And thanks to Mike and Debbie Kilgore at Hazel Dean’s, local favorite John Cranford often appears solo – or occasionally forms a duo – outside their gourmet grocery shop. Cranford’s popular rock and alternative band, Cranford Hollow, is a proud product of the Lowcountry art and music scene.

Over the past year, other local favorites – The Nice Guys, Mike Kavanaugh, and La Bodega – have joined the Art Market entertainment lineup.

A Way to Give Back

“Our support for the artists has a really local intent,” Mark King 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. We see the First Thursdays Art Market 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.”

And it’s good for business, too, as the First Thursdays Art Market also 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 get to do just that, while ushering in the evening every First Thursday of the month from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., sampling good wines, strolling the shops, talking with the artists, 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 Andrea. “We hope people will continue to join us, to enjoy, to support, and to celebrate the local art inspired by our lovely Lowcountry.”