When plans for the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition were first announced in 1982, one of the major selling points was bringing people to Charleston in February, traditionally a down time for tourism. The expo’s success has been remarkable, with annual attendance now averaging 40,000 for the three-day festival, which wraps up Sunday.
Many of those visitors come back year after year. Some even return to Charleston permanently. One of those is artist Paul Puckett, who specializes in paintings that celebrate fishing. Puckett, whose works can be viewed at Charleston Place, said the event is the reason he now calls Charleston home. He has shown at SEWE five times.
Puckett, who works in oils and watercolors, is one of four Charleston artists that Sporting Classics Magazine included in a list of “Ten SEWE 2015 Exhibitors You Shouldn’t Miss.”
“I just fell in love with this town. I have a few friends from Wyoming who went to the College of Charleston and I’d come visit them and go fishing. That’s what made me fall in love with Charleston,” said Puckett (paulpuckettart.com).
Puckett, 39, grew up in a fishing family in Texas. It was during his high school years that he said he did his first serious fish painting, right about the time the movie “A River Runs Through It” was released. Inspired by the movie, he did a trout painting.
“My art teacher in high school, I had a fishing theme for everything and she just let me do it. It was her willingness to let me do fishing themes where a lot of art teachers would want you to try different things. That’s probably where it started,” Puckett recalled.
While attending the University of North Texas, he found a niche, doing “Catch and Release” paintings. He would paint fish for clients and include the fly rod and hands releasing the fish.
“There is nothing more enjoyable than capturing an image, a moment in time, on my camera and then converting it to paper or canvas. I love painting people’s fish, too. It’s something I’ve been doing a long time and more or less has gotten me to this point,” Puckett said.
After college, Puckett moved to Montana, where he worked as a fishing guide. He moved to Atlanta in 2003 and said that’s when he began to take his artwork seriously and in 2007 or 2008, he can’t quite remember, he got the opportunity to exhibit at SEWE.
“The first year I did it I wasn’t quite ready,” Puckett said. “I wasn’t very consistent. I think I sold three paintings. The next couple of years I didn’t do too well. This year I think I have the strongest group of paintings I’ve had, to the point if I don’t sell a painting I don’t care. I love them and I’m happy with them.”
He said he considers it an honor when someone does purchase one of his paintings.
“I don’t take that for granted,” Puckett said.
SEWE and other shows can and should be learning experiences for the artist, said Puckett, who likes to spend time talking with other exhibitors.
“You are sitting across from three different artists looking and their art. You’re also looking at your own artwork for 10 straight hours three straight days. So you see things you could have done differently. Other artists come by and you ask them how they would have done things in your painting. There’s no bashing. It’s constructive criticism,” he said.
Puckett also has other art interests that have served him well through the years. YETI coolers commissioned him to do a tarpon drawing for a sun shirt and he also did a tarpon on a fly fishing tackle box.
More recently, he and partner Will Abbott of Beaufort have formed an outdoor clothing company, Flood Tide, which features his artwork on shirts and hats.
“The concept was started about four years ago, but we decided about two years ago if we’re going to do this we’re going to get an office,” said Puckett, adding that Flood Tide now has 23 dealers. “If Guy Harvey can do it, I can do it.”
But despite all the irons in the fire, he still manages to find time for fishing.
“I need to fish in order to paint,” he said. “It’s definitely part of my job being an artist because I wouldn’t be able to get the photos I use. We’re not against sinking some shrimp off a dock, but I would say 95 percent of the time we’re fly fishing.”