While vacationing from Raleigh, North Carolina, Julie Dare Cooke and her husband peered through a window with a “For Rent” sign on a Sullivan’s Island storefront. The space was full of paraphernalia left behind by Mr. Gruber who’d had a variety store there for years: hulking photo finishing equipment, boxes of assorted mismatched furniture parts, wine bottles that lost their labels floating in Hurricane Hugo floodwaters, nests of wild animals.
“I brought a tape measure. I didn’t know I needed a shotgun!” their contractor joked.
The roof was even missing. But somehow they had vision and Cooke’s motivation to escape the cubicle where she’d worked as a process engineer for 15 years.
Over the next six months they took the space down to the studs.
“We needed 14 dump trucks to clear it out,” she said.
When Sandpiper Gallery opened in 2001, it displayed the work of 10 local artists including Jim Darlington who remains among the gallery’s most collected painters.
Cooke’s passion for her business and highlighting art is unabated.
“Art is a soulful thing,” she told me as she pointed out the myriad of subtle colors in a marsh scene by Leslie Pratt Thomas as an example of what Paul Klee meant when he said, "Art does not reproduce the visible; rather it makes visible.”
These days the gallery represents over 80 full-time painters, jewelers and sculptors that Cooke discovered at shows, through art magazines and from the many inquiries she receives. They’re from the Southeast to as far away as Italy. Although Lowcountry landscapes inspire many of the creations, the subjects are wide ranging: Kris Manning’s stirring Osceola series, Robin Cooper’s whimsical collages of dogs, Pete Rock’s stunning tables with Gullah basket tops by Adeline Mazack, Sarah Sander’s beautifully crafted Goat Island Treasure Boxes and mobiles by Stephen Kishel.
The jewelry is particularly well curated with standouts including Karen Hakim’s cloisonné and Emily Cook’s fused glass pendants that include sand from area beaches.
“I don’t want people to come in and think they can’t afford anything or touch anything,” Cooke explained.
It’s typical for a vacationer to become captivated by a piece on an after-dinner stroll and buy it days later online when they can’t forget it. Designers, too, rely on Sandpiper Gallery for sourcing the best art in the area. Collectors appreciate Cooke’s messages letting them know when their favorite artist has released a new piece.
In 2012, Sandpiper Gallery moved to a larger space near Home Team BBQ. Each night the large windows are lit with colorful pieces. Sometimes Cooke passes by on her way to her cottage near Fort Moultrie and she smiles at the passersby stopping to look. “It’s really fun to drive by at night and see people pointing to the art.”
It took a singular vision and a huge leap of faith to look at that dilapidated storefront and imagine an art gallery. This year, Sandpiper will celebrate its 20th anniversary on Sullivan’s Island. It has become the island's heart of the arts. People flock to the frequent artist receptions where artistic collaborations are born, artists are discovered and careers are made.
“I could not have asked for a more supportive and artful community!” Cooke said.
If you go: Sandpiper Gallery is located at 2201 Middle Street, Sullivan’s Island. Visit sandpipergallery.net.