Gallery owner provides outlet for artists
Lese Corrigan can relate to the most famous person who bears her last name.
Do you think of yourself more as an artist or a gallery owner?
"I hate that question. I give it to myself every day. It's a real struggle for me. My mother taught business skills before the computer age. It's very practical and pragmatic. My father is very creative, ideas man. That practical stuff, na-hah. I inherited both aspects and I think both have to be fulfilled."
American aviator Douglas Corrigan earned the nickname of "Wrong Way Corrigan" when, in 1938, he flew nonstop from New York to Ireland after filing a flight plan to go from New York to California.
If you go
What: Charleston Fine Art Dealers' Association's 11th Charleston Fine Art Annual.
When: Wednesday, Friday and Nov. 7:
--6 p.m. Wednesday: The Women in Art lecture series (organized by the Gibbes Museum) kicks off at the Gibbes. $10 for Gibbes members, $20 for nonmembers. www.gibbesmuseum.org.
--5 p.m. Friday: Association's 13-member galleries will have openings. Free.
--9 a.m.-noon Nov. 7: Painting in the Park at Washington Park. Free.
--11 a.m. Nov. 7: Sixth annual High School Art Competition at Washington Park. Judges will announce winners at 11:30 a.m.
--7:15 p.m. Nov. 7: Charleston Art Auction, including all work from Painting in the Park, at the Renaissance Charleston Hotel. $50 to attend. Reservations are recommended.
Who benefits: Money raised from the art auction benefits the arts programs of Charleston County high schools.
More information: www.cfada.com or 722-0128.
He claimed the error was due to bad weather and reading his compass wrong. For many Americans, who were down after years of suffering in the Great Depression, the supposed gaffe offered an opportunity to make jokes and laugh. And as a result, Wrong Way Corrigan became a national folk hero.
Yet many later speculated that Corrigan, who had been denied the request to fly to Ireland, just claimed the flight was in error and that, in fact, he went exactly where he wanted to go. He never 'fessed up.
Similarly, some of Lese (pronounced like "lease") Corrigan's decisions in life may have appeared to be going the wrong way, but today she feels as if she's arrived at her intended destination anyway.
Though she started adulthood studying French and being a Navy wife, Corrigan has become a major contributor to the Charleston art community, as an artist and art teacher,owner of the Corrigan Gallery and in gallery leadership roles. She is the outgoing president of the Charleston Fine Art Dealers' Association, which celebrates its 10th anniversary celebration next week with a series of events on Wednesday, Friday and next Saturday.
At home on Queen Street
Corrigan was born in 1956 to Mabel and Gene Corrigan, who lived on Queen Street. Mabel was a teacher and a "Southern lady," while Gene was a New York transplant who worked in advertising and public relations.
Besides Lese, they had two other children, Rick and Chan.
"It was calm and peaceful. In some ways, it was idyllic," says Corrigan of her childhood in Charleston and later on James Island. "Living on James Island, there weren't many houses. In some senses, we were almost in the country. We had a next-door neighbor on one side and an empty lot on the other side that we called the snake-blackberry field because that was all that was there. It was wonderful."
Though life would take her away, Corrigan kept finding herself returning to Queen Street to work at the Gibbes Museum studio, the Art Thomas Gallery, to live in a basement and eventually to open her gallery.
"Queen Street is so short -- just a few blocks, but in my life, I keep coming back," she said.
A winding path to art
Before spending much of her last 20 years on Queen, Corrigan's life took her away.
After graduating from Ashley Hall, she went to Loyola in Baltimore. While intending to study art, she decided to pursue French. Three months after graduating from Loyola, she married a naval officer and did what Navy couples do. She moved. Thirteen times in just over 10 1/2 years. Because employers knew the transience of Navy spouses, she landed only small jobs, usually in sales or administration.
"It was a good, interesting experience, but probably not the most ideal format for my personality," says Corrigan, adding that her main artistic pursuit during the marriage was photography.
From her father's creative energy to her first drawing class at Ashley Hall in fifth grade, the seed for art was there. It just took a while for it to germinate and blossom.
Before the marriage ended in 1988, she started both teaching herself the basics of drawing and teaching others, namely teens, about art. She started selling her photography at Charleston Crafts in an era before photography was accepted as art in many of the galleries in Charleston.
While her art experience grew out of Charleston, she's often taken the contrarian approach from the time she took afternoon art classes in high school.
"Everyone was doing Charleston watercolors, and I didn't want to do that," says Corrigan. "I spent most of my time wandering around looking for ways to do something different. I would do spider-webby abstracts. I would do stuff in marker and stick them under water. I was seeking out stylized, iconographic things."
As her art developed while holding jobs as a teacher and gallery manager in the 1990s, she continued to create art that didn't follow the conventions of Charleston. That, in combination with her gallery experience, led her to the next step: opening her own gallery.
"My work didn't fit in galleries in town. Even though it was of a traditional bent, it wasn't traditional. I got tired of waking up every morning and trying to figure out how to get people to see my work. I knew there were so many other artists in town whose work didn't necessarily fit," says Corrigan. "One day, I passed this building (62 Queen) and saw a 'for lease' sign."
She called. The price was right. Corrigan became a gallery owner.
And while she aspires to a larger space, the "under 500-square-foot" gallery offers many of the contemporary artists in town a space to show their work. Granted, the work is contemporary by Charleston standards from "the outer edge of traditions as far into the abstract as I can get. ... I couldn't bring a zebra in a tank of formaldehyde and expect people to come in," she says.
Some of the artists currently showing work tend to make their living doing something else but still have artistic desires to fulfill.
"I'm lucky. I have artists of all backgrounds," she said, offering a partial list. "I have Gordon (Nicholson). He's an architect. I have John Moore, a structural engineer who photographs rust. Duke Hagerty is a plastic surgeon (with paintings inspired by Picasso and Dali). Kevin Parent (who photographs with a pinhole camera) is an archival framer. John Hull is a professor and head of the College of Charleston art department."
Weathering hard times
The challenging economic times have put a strain on artists and galleries.
"It has been horrible," says Corrigan. "Only one or two of the galleries have been protected from it, but it has hurt people badly. ... It's the hardest times that 95 percent of all of us have seen."
Having associations such as the Charleston Fine Art Dealers' Association and the French Quarter Gallery Association, two organizations that didn't exist 20 years ago, has helped coalesce the art community.
"The community of artists and businesses have pulled together. We (artists) are not independent. People won't come to Charleston just to see me," says Corrigan, noting a general spirit of cooperation of gallery owners. "(Losing galleries) could hurt because you need to have a certain blend to be a good art market versus just a tourist art market."
Reach David Quick at 937-5516.