In Charleston, a Modern Art Scene Thrives

Four Charleston tastemakers explain how the city inspires their art and fosters a sense of community. Plus: an insider’s guide to exploring the city.

Historical downtown area of  Charleston, South Carolina

A connected community, regular festivals, and a host of galleries and events spaces all make Charleston an uniquely creative city.

Photo By f11photo/Shutterstock

Perhaps it’s the sea-soaked air that weighs on your skin, the aroma of jasmine and gardenia, or the pink and blue cotton candy winter skies, but Charleston has long captivated artists of every medium by simply being itself. There are countless creative minds throughout this city’s nearly 300-year history who’ve captured its essence and helped shape the area into one where creativity, curiosity, and community thrive.

With many layers to explore beyond its pastel walls, wrought iron gates, and cobblestone streets, Charleston is an enviable place to live—and an intoxicating place to visit. Take a closer look at this dynamic historic town, and you’ll find unique avenues to explore. And if you can, sneak in a conversation with these four inspiring locals who have a thing or two to share about what it means to make a place your own and live out of the confines of your imagination.

Henry Riggs & Maari Suorsa

Comedy Duo Nameless Numberhead, Founders of RIP City

It’s a familiar tale: two kids with a penchant for comedy move to Chicago after college and fall in love working front of house at a theater. Maari Soursa and Henry Riggs, hailing from northern Massachusetts and Charleston, respectively, formed the comedic duo Nameless Numberhead and moved south together with the belief that they could build several things here: a family, a community, and a career in the arts. Dubbed “The SNL of the South,” their brand of art and comedy takes center stage at RIP City—and makes space to celebrate counterculture expression.

Henry: “There was such an eclectic arts scene in Charleston when I was growing up. There was this fusion between the Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto Festivals [an international and local arts festival, respectively, that run in tandem for two weeks each spring], visual art, street performance, and lots of gritty experimental stuff. It lit my little brain on fire. Maari and I wanted to raise a family and I felt called back to this weird little town where I grew up. We took notes from [folk duo] Shovels & Rope, who enjoy life in Charleston and also get to tour the country. We thought we really could build something here.”

Maari: “When I moved to Charleston at 27, I wondered how I was going to make friends as a grown-up, but I’ve made really wonderful ones who are also working creatives. They inspire me, especially the artists who are getting themselves out there by going around the obvious choices—like our friend Jeremy Croft, who put his art up at a neighborhood wine bar Stems & Skins [before] he and his wife Lindsay Collins painted their walls white at home and invited friends over for an art show. We all look back at stuff we did and think, how did we ever do that? We just did.

“We started RIP City at Charleston Jazz House downtown. Once a month, we’d have 10 performers up front and all of 6 people in the audience staring at us. Our friend and artist Nathan Durfee was one of our original supporters. He did some stand-up with us and helped us get the space with his connections. He was always nervous we were going to ruin his reputation with the jazz community. He’d come in after our shows with a vacuum to make sure everything was perfect.”

Henry: “RIP City is like an experiential variety show. We build our own sets, all our props are handmade, and so are our costumes. We’ll put artists on a random bill together. We’ve had everybody from poets to pole dancers. RIP City has created crossroads and intersections where people might see each other, get inspired, and add something to their routine. It’s created a little pocket and so much collaboration. The people involved in RIP City are amazing; they’re activists, they’re aligned with good causes, everyone is plugged into something. Cool stuff happens in Charleston all the time. It can be hard to sift through, but you can very quickly start digging and begin to see where people and things you’re interested in are connected. It’s a very involved, dynamic community.

“Our mission is to show Charleston that art doesn’t have to be put in a box. We want to create more visibility for the stranger side of art in Charleston, and open minds to the possibility of other ways to do something. People are hungry for that, so it’s a space we’re etching

Asiah Mae, left, and a scene from Charleston

Poet Laureate Asiah Mae is also the co-creator of a writing platform, For The Scribes, and an associated podcast, FTS Presents: Penpals.

Photo by Raven Greene of New Moon visuals (left); photo by Jimmy Woo/Unsplash (right)

Asiah Mae

Charleston Poet Laureate, Showrunner for Holy City Vintage

If you moved in artistic spaces in the early aughts in South Carolina, chances are you heard Asiah Mae in front of an open mic or felt their hand in illuminating experimental art. A theater kid, lifelong writer, and lover of film, Mae grew up outside of the city but felt the pull of the Lowcountry coast for art school in Charleston. As its second poet laureate, Mae advocates for literacy and encourages folks to embrace art forms of all kinds—especially those that stir the soul.

“I went to the Art Institute of Charleston to study film and all my friends were art students. We knew school wasn’t going to be the thing to push us—we had to get ourselves out there. We’d go to listen to open mics at places like Huger’s downtown [now closed] and 787 in North Charleston. Eventually, I got pushed up to the mic and it boosted my confidence.

“I’d never been very outward about my poetry, but I had my own platform Ill Vibe where I’d write and went to lots of arts events. My friends who were poets inspired me to look at things differently, and my work became quite experimental in a very 2010s way. I’d share in different showcases and venues around South Carolina—garages, warehouses. Sometime in 2016, a friend who knew about my poetry, KJ Kearney, introduced me to Charleston’s first poet laureate Marcus Amaker. Through this connection, I had opportunities to be in different spaces, merging my community with one I didn’t know.

“It feels like there is a renaissance happening in Charleston, and it gives me hope and continues to push me forward. There are so many aspects of the arts that haven’t been explored here, and means for collaboration that our community hasn’t tapped into. But that’s exciting for an artist—to innovate a space, to make it yours. To know you have the ability to change something. Growing up in the ‘90s, the struggling artist trope was such a thing. But art is everywhere. It’s part of everything. Charleston is such fertile ground for creativity, and artists don’t deserve to be left out as the city grows.

“There is a spirit here from Black people who were brought to Charleston and had to create out of nothing. Gullah Geechee culture was built here, on these shores. So much of that story is in the margins of what’s being pushed to the front, but this is our origin. A creative lineage lives here.

“My grandparents grew up in Jacksonville, NC, which has its own Gullah Geechee influence—so moving to Charleston made me feel like I was at home. It hugged me while I was in college. My best friend is from here, my partner is from here. Being able to see Charleston through their eyes—the one they remember, the one they were taught—it makes me feel like I should give something back to this place. It made me who I am. It taught me how to love.”

Tim McManus

Owner & Curator, Hed Hi Studio

When Shepard Fairey and Jasper Johns brought a Power & Glory mural to the parking lot of Tim McManus’s production studio in 2014, he felt a spark of inspiration. He soon took the reins on celebrating street art in Charleston, commissioning artists to cover the walls of his studio. As the pandemic shifted McManus’s business model, he turned the heart of his space into a highly sought-after place for visual artists to share their work. For four hours each month, Hed Hi Studio spills over with new art, music, cold drinks, and anyone looking for a fresh way to get together.

“Before Hed Hi, there weren’t a lot of venues for contemporary, emerging artists to show their work in a gallery in Charleston. I had space—and right in the middle of town—so during the pandemic, I upfit my studio with the vision of creating a progressive gallery of surf art and street art. I placed my bets on people being excited to gather again.

“By design, Hed Hi Studio is less intimidating and more accessible than a typical gallery. We have no sign, and when we’re open, we’re open. Our calendar fills out organically. There’s some sense of discovery in finding this place. When you walk in, it feels like a grand opening at a big city gallery—and it’s just for four hours. All the magic is in that opening night. It’s like with surfing, there’s a saying, ‘You should have been here yesterday.’ It’s the same deal with our art shows, there’s a sense of impermanence.

“Being able to meet such a large swath of local artists has created a little pocket of my own inspirational friends and collaborators. Jonathan Rypkema built our doors and tables and did some murals out front; he also hangs and installs shows and has exhibited a few times in the gallery. My buddies in the surf world who’ve been involved with our shows hijacked the name 96 Wave [a former Charleston radio station], created a podcast, and are now doing short films, board swaps, and other things to get the community together. My teenage kids have this cultural hub in their dad’s office. Taylor Faulkner, who sold out our first show, helps my daughter with screen printing. My son discovered his love for skateboarding through Creighton Barrett, who did a mixed media show with us inspired by his tour date stops with Band of Horses. The importance of having a place like Hed Hi Studio is huge.

How to explore Charleston like a local

“We’ve created a bright thumbprint between the highways that enter and exit Charleston. You look over your shoulder on either route, and you see our murals. This is the last colorful holdout as the city grows. I feel compelled to be a steward of this space.”

Can you teach an old town new tricks? Charleston would suggest it is in fact possible. The past handful of years have ushered in a creative renaissance in a city where history lives and breathes, creating an electric energy. Here’s how you can experience the magic for yourself.

People sitting at outdoors tables at a restaurant near Market Street, Charleston

Charleston’s dining scene has become more diverse in recent years.

Photo By Dana Klein/Shutterstock

Where to eat

Until very recently, Charleston hasn’t necessarily been known for diversity in its restaurants. Thanks to new additions like Filipino restaurant Kultura (helmed by James Beard Emerging Chef nominee Nikko Cagalanan), Ma’am Saab (a Pakistani restaurant on Meeting Street), Bintü Atelier (a spot set inside a home on the east side that features dishes from across Africa), and the Beautiful South for Cantonese, more options are within reach downtown.

A few other newbies on the scene worth a visit: Look for Tully’s hand-painted sign below its order window at the newly renovated concert venue Charleston Music Farm. With its crispy smash patties, shredded lettuce, and toasted sesame buns, you’ll find the best burger in Charleston, no contest. Go early and often to Prophet Coffee in Park Circle. It’s the tiniest shop with the kindest people, buzziest coconut cold brew, and fresh pastries each morning from Cakette Bakeshop. You’d be remiss to visit the Lowcountry without at least a dozen oysters, so saddle up to the bar at the Quinte, a few steps off King Street, for some briny beauties and a cold beer.

Other spots continue to step up their game. Cruise to Chico Feo on Folly Beach, a beach bar that feels akin to lounging in your best friend’s yard—if they lived two blocks from the ocean and fed you fresh fish tacos. Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint on James Island features Orange Crush cocktails and brisket nachos in a shaded courtyard. Chez Nous remains the gold standard for an intimate meal downtown, where you’ll either be wooed by candlelight or sunlight streaming through the windows over a menu that changes daily at this home turned neighborhood restaurant. And maybe it’s the paella or the free-flowing wine porrons, but it’s impossible to leave the Spanish restaurant Estadio without a smile on your face and vermouth in your belly.

What to do

Downtown Charleston is right-sized for exploring without having to drive, so ditch your car and rent a beach cruiser from Bilda Bike on Upper King Street. Weave through historic neighborhoods from Cannonborough and Elliotborough up to south of Broad Street and cruise along the water at the Battery and Colonial Lake before winding down to Hampton Park—an oasis that you might otherwise miss.

Take a scenic field trip to Ambrose Family Farm on Wadmalaw Island and Johns Island’s Sea Island Farmers’ Market on 20+ miles of dreamy, winding roads lined by live oaks and Spanish moss for farm-fresh produce.

North Charleston’s Wit’s End Comedy Club is the spot if you’re up for laughs, with comedy classes, open mics, and good old-fashioned stand-up. Across the street, claim a table at the Burgundy Lounge for strong cocktails and music on vinyl from a rotating cast of DJs. Cap off your night with a live set from local musicians at the Royal American.

In the mood for more drinking with the locals? Hit up Lo-Fi Brewing for beer and the most interesting assembly of live musicians—who will play out much like your favorite Spotify discover playlists. If natural wine is more your bag, check out Bar Rollins for its Wine School Wednesday, chef pop-ups, and the occasional collage class.

The Sand Dunes of Station 18 Beach and Sullivan's Island Lighthouse, Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, USA

Sullivan’s Island is not only home to some stunning hikes, but a variety of boutique shops.

Photo By Billy McDonald/Shutterstock

Where to shop

A day trip to Sullivan’s Island is a must, where you’ll find the boutique Goldbug for swimsuits, jewelry, and beauty finds, and A Maker’s Post, a stunning shop that celebrates makers of all kinds with art, plants, home goods, and books. Back downtown, make an appointment for custom and permanent jewelry at AL&EM’s first storefront, and swing through Philosophers & Fools for a new book and glass of wine.

Where to stay

There are plenty of great hotels in Charleston. The city’s skyline is famous for its sea of steeples and one red-capped cupola, which rises high above the Wentworth Mansion to offer a 360-degree view of the city. Built in 1886, this 21-room historic hotel is one of the most charming, luxurious, and special places to stay. You’ll feel right at home and understand the power of true hospitality with every thoughtful detail.

The Starlight Inn is a new kid on the scene. Bordering on the growing Park Circle neighborhood and downtown Charleston, this renovated motor inn is a refreshing way to stay off the peninsula. Watch your phone stream fill up with snaps of its pink and green facade, retro checkerboard pool, and a bar that feels stuck in the 1960s, in the most delightful way possible.

Ellen Schmedinghoff is a Rhode Island native who writes from her home in North Charleston, South Carolina.
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