It was 1989, and Candace Martin was anchored in her 42-foot ketch in the Ashley River along the western shore of her native Charleston. It had been an active hurricane season and when “Hugo” formed and started taking aim at the Southeast coast, Martin didn’t take any chances. She wisely set sail for the relatively safe harbors of Maine’s mid coast. It was there that she later found her calling in the art world, managing a gallery in Rockland and meeting artists from all over the country and the world.
Martin returned to her roots nearly 10 years later and opened the eponymous Martin Gallery, bringing many of those artists with her. Though small, the 750-squarefoot space on Queen Street was one of the first Charleston art galleries devoted to contemporary art.
“When I came back down here to open this gallery, even though I had this fantastic group of artists, I was terrified. It was a real leap of faith for them to send me their work!” Martin exclaims. Imero Gobbato, an artist friend and mentor she met in Maine, helped to steel her confidence. “He told me to put my name on this gallery and to stand behind it. He believed in me, because we had a relationship of trust and that’s the philosophy I run the gallery on to this day,” she says.
In 2004, Martin acquired a much larger, more permanent space within the historic People’s Building on the corner of State and Broad streets. Home to a former bank, the building’s Grand Salon boasts a soaring vaulted ceiling, banks of high windows and plenty of space for the gallery’s now impressive stable of contemporary artists.
The work of Leo Osborne is of particular significance to Martin. “We wouldn’t be here without our artists,” she says, “but Leo has really been the backbone of the gallery. He is a sculptor, a painter and a magician! Leo has a special, spiritual relationship with each and every one of the pieces that he creates.”
Reaching up playfully from a pedestal in the center of the gallery stands one of Osborne’s most captivating sculptures. Though he is perhaps best known for his work in wood burl, Splash was fashioned from a single piece of large driftwood that washed up near Osborne’s studio on Guemes Island, Washington, and was discovered to be a rare piece of curly quilted maple. As he carved and polished, the wood’s fluid grain and curving nature organically revealed to Osborne the mermaid within.
Nearby, the abstract expressionist paintings of William Crosby make a bold statement. His technique is action-driven, the strokes made in emotional response to his experiences within the landscape. The resulting compositions offer structure and form rather than defined lines and minute detail.
In contrast, Wanda Steppe reflects on themes of vulnerability, fleeting beauty and the nature of spirituality with her painstakingly detailed still lifes and imagined landscapes. And Montreal-based, Canadian artist Joan Dumouchel’s dream-like paintings, populated with portraits of theatrical performers and circus artists, are filled with emotion and introspection.
“My artists, and my staff, are my family. I’ve represented some of them for over 18 years!” Martin says. “Many of them will come and visit, and the resulting work resonates with that time spent in the Lowcountry—the history of the place, the light, the water—it all gets imparted into their work.”
Coming up, Martin Gallery will host several of its artists during First Friday Artwalks: William Crosby and Wanda Steppe (October), pastel and oil painter Simon Kenevan and photographer Don Dudenbostel (November), wildlife and landscape photographer Pamela Cohen (December), and don’t miss a special appearance by Leo Osborne (February). So whether you make the Lowcountry your home, or you’ve blown in from other shores, Martin Gallery’s extensive and carefully curated selection of contemporary paintings, photography, works on paper, sculpture and exquisite fine jewelry is reason enough to sail through the doors!
Jessica Dyer is an arts professional, freelance editor and writer currently living in Charleston.