Suzy Hart paints a portrait

Suzy Hart paints a portrait during the Piccolo art exhibition. 

With the range of Piccolo Spoleto's offerings, not to mention the enthusiasm the festival brings to the Holy City, it’s easy to overlook events that have anchored the festival for years. One such event is this year’s 39th Piccolo Spoleto Outdoor Art Exhibition, a consistent family-friendly, free event hosted in the open air at Marion Square. After nearly four decades it continues to thrive as a local showcase for more than 70 of Charleston’s finest artists.

Produced and directed by the city of Charleston's Office of Cultural Affairs and affectionately referred to as art “camp” by a host of participating artists, the Outdoor Art Exhibition is one of the lengthiest and largest fine art outdoor festivals in the Southeast. And certainly the largest one in the state.

The special connectedness of the setting — outdoors, in artist tents and booths — and the duration of the exhibition create a perfect set of circumstances for lasting friendships, unusual experiences and exquisite painting demonstrations.

"Yes, 17 days can be a bit grueling, but we have a blast,” artist Scott Penegar says. "It’s like art day-camp for grownups.”

Scott and his wife, Kaye Penegar, have participated in the exhibition for 13 years and are the only husband-and-wife artist team. Scott and Kaye will host a "He Painted/She Painted” demonstration this year, a series where they each paint the same subject but in their own distinct styles. To add to the familial bond of the exhibition, this year their daughter, a School of the Arts attendee, will help out in their booths.

The Outdoor Art Exhibition also is incredible event for children. The location is perfect for families to view art together outside of typically quiet galleries.

“One of my favorite parts of the exhibit is the children,” artist Joyce Harvey says. "Parents don’t often bring kids to art galleries but Marion Square is filled with families enjoying art. And art transcends age. I’ve seen a 2-year-old in a stroller having a truly visceral reaction to a painting.”

Also, you never know when such a reaction will plant the seed for potential artists to grow.

Artist Tim Greaves once offered his paintbrush to young girl and quite possibly inspired a new love of painting.

"I was working on a landscape or beach picture at the time that featured some large, billowy clouds in the sky and I asked the little girl if she wanted to paint,” Greaves says. "She enthusiastically said ‘Yes,' so I loaded a brush and let her help me with the clouds, which she, with a serious and determined look, immediately did."

Her parents purchased the painting and asked that the clouds remain untouched.

"I hope the little girl still has it hanging somewhere in her home,” he says. "That was a neat experience."

And new generations keep showing up to keep the art camp connection alive, too.

Three years ago, artists at the exhibition plotted a small surprise wedding celebration for artist KC Collins. Collins and her husband eloped prior to the surprise ceremony, but now Collins and her expanded family — twin girls — return to the park this year to make it a true family affair.

No doubt Collins' extended family of art campers will be thrilled to welcome the new additions.

“We all have developed friendships,” Scott Penegar says. "We have watched each other’s kids grow up. And it really feels like a family.”

Take your family to the Piccolo Spoleto Outdoor Art Exhibition at Marion Square through June 10. Daily painting demonstrations are scheduled throughout the day; a schedule is available online and at the park welcome table.

Reach Scott Elingburg at scott.elingburg@gmail.com.

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