VISUAL ARTS ‌ Bright Spark 

A new gallery's in a class (and a neighborhood) of its own

click to enlarge 'Incubation Tank' by Jake S. Morris at the new Spark Studios and Gallery
  • 'Incubation Tank' by Jake S. Morris at the new Spark Studios and Gallery
Spark Studios and Gallery
12 Hagood Ave.
577-6906

A keen canoeist, Daniel B. McSweeney was paddling down the Edisto from Columbia when he first fell in love with Charleston. The besotted sculptor decided to open a studio here, ignored the usual downtown gallery hotspots and settled for a space on the crosstown, on Hagood Street just opposite McDonald's.

"I wanted to reach people who don't usually get reached," says McSweeney. "When I found this place, there was a garage door and a board over the window. I had to build the kiln, remodel, and get permits. The only way I could afford it all was to lease the second floor as well and live there." Eight red tape-tangled months later, Spark Studios and Gallery opened in the midst of Spoleto's annual hoo-hah.

Four weeks on, Spark is starting to fill up with ceramics created by McSweeney and John Davis, who rents a small studio in the building. McSweeney's pieces are smooth and imaginative, with titles like "Flexi Straw 1" (a brown, curvy vessel that seems to have bounced straight from a potter's wheel) and "George Jetson Family Tea Pot" (realizing a space age object with muted green colors).

"It's art you can use," says McSweeney, who gives his functional work a food-safe glaze. "Some art hanging on walls just gets ignored. But when people dip a hand into one of my pots and take something out, they see it and appreciate it more."

"The Bridge" is proudly displayed as the first sculpture visitors see as they enter the gallery. McSweeney's not afraid to use negative space to enhance the bowed, skinny little structure. He's also placed the three-dimensional "Union" on the wall, an abstract relief that creates a nice segue between his functional pottery and the paintings of Jake S. Morris, which are impossible to ignore.

The most eye-popping piece from Morris is "Captive Audience," showing graffitied freight cars bound by a barrier, flyovers, and tower blocks. Because of its strong lines, red, white, and brown color scheme, and wayward Hanna-Barbara symmetry, the painting juts out from the canvas. The mixed media "Incubation Tank" combines snaking cables and the innards of old TVs with a painting of two golems in an eerie bacta bath.

Morris enters more abstract territory with "They're Coming" from his "Boogeyman" series, in which floating, belimbed televisions head for a media barrage depicted with circular shapes. He's equally at home with contemporary figurative work like "Gamers," a loose portrait of two lads hunched over their controllers.

On the opposite wall, R. Royal Seabrook's acrylics on paper combine stained glass shapes and colors with modern composition. Seabrook also toys with heraldry and depictions of pinned butterflies in his untitled paintings, while mixed media pieces show coathangers, feathers, and fishhooks arranged in neat patterns. Although Seabrook's use of these items is ingenious, the artist's sick palette of green, pale red, and white makes for a colder, more subdued experience than Morris' contributions.

John Davis, who has reached a new-found peak of activity after a decades-long hiatus from sculpture, rounds out the inventory with mugs, plates, and bowls that are less about glaze, more about texture; many sport the faces of mischievous myth-beasts, but these playful brown ceramics are a cut above the kind you'll find in The Briar Patch, and it's fun to see Davis' skills and interests develop as he creates new work.

McSweeney's thoughtful layout of artwork that he thinks visitors "might not usually find in Charleston" makes it worth hitting Hagood to take a look. Pottery classes start next week, with some 650 pounds of clay to learn with. While the classes will help to pay the rent, McSweeney's real focus is on his own work and that of his fellow artists. "As long as it's different and interesting," he declares, "I'll show it."

As the gallery finds its feet, the sculptor's making good use of its location; his real reasons for choosing the place aren't all about its potential as an alternative art space. "I'm only two blocks away from the Ashley," says McSweeney. "I get on that river as often as I can."


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