We've all seen the 1977 Spoleto Festival poster. The wily monkey, the statuesque topiary, all shrouded in foliage, Charleston's idyllic blue sky peeking in the background. It was just a hint of what was to come to the festival and the Holy City after the excitement of an inaugural year.
The hidden wonder of South Carolina artist Christian Thee was a perfect fit for Spoleto Festival USA founder Gian Carlo Menotti. "It was pretty simple, really," Thee says humbly from his Columbia, S.C. home. "He wanted to know if I'd do his Spoleto poster, and I said yes." The rest is history.
Thee will be celebrating his life and work with an exhibit at the Charleston Library Society from May 24-June 8. "As the oldest cultural institution in the South, the Library Society seemed to be the perfect place for a survey of my work," he says. "This will be a show that you can walk through."
In 1977, Thee was living in New York, painting sets during Broadway's golden age, as well as his popular scenic art. Collector and philanthropist Fred Koch first saw Thee's work at a solo show and then mentioned him to Menotti, who asked Thee about doing a festival poster.
These days, Thee is known around the world for his stage designs, scenic art, and trompe l'oeil ("fool the eye") style, an art technique that creates an optical illusion of three-dimensional objects on a flat surface — perfect for stage design and performance-level magic. Thee was originally drawn to magic by an uncle. "Magic for me was like sowing seeds in fertile ground," he recalls. "Theater is magic — they are synonymous."
Thee's magic has taken him far and wide, from commissioned set designs on Broadway to custom windows for Tiffany & Co. and Bergdorf Goodman. Locally, you can see his work on the iconic backdrop for the Charleston Chamber Orchestra at the Dock Street Theater, the orientation room at the Columbia Museum of Art, and St. Peter's Catholic Church in Columbia.
One of the highlights of Thee's career was his commission from the Royal Family of Britain to paint a life-sized portrait of Prince Andrew for the young royal's 21st birthday. But there's also Joan Rivers' foyer, Donald Trump's Taj Mahal Resort in Atlantic City, and two ceilings for the Buccellati Showrooms in New York's Trump Tower.
Thee spent the majority of his life living outside of South Carolina, but he was born in Columbia and first inspired artistically by his mother. After years in New York and Connecticut, Thee found the perfect Midlands home and was ready to be rid of snowstorms. He's been back in Columbia for 11 years now. "I am inspired by my home and what's around me," he says.
Thee's show will feature a collection of pieces done over the years, from scenic art to decorative, tryptic screens. "These are works that you can handle and have in your home," Thee explains. "I'll also be including a few contemporary pieces."
Like the illusion enticing viewers to look closer, Thee keeps his fans guessing; many are ready to see his work in Charleston again. "Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto are absolutely wonderful presentations of art festivals," Thee says graciously. "I have connected to it before, and I can't wait to do it again."