The Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, commonly known as SEWE, is a touchstone in the Charleston tourism calendar. It ushers in the spring tourist season, when visitors once again fill the streets, restaurants and cash registers of the Holy City, and entertains the local populace with flying dogs and conservation discussions.
But the centerpiece of this 40-year-old celebration of the outdoors, and its original raison d’être, is wildlife art. With 100 artists and 400 exhibitors, SEWE draws 40,000 visitors from across the country and around the world to enjoy and purchase representations of the natural environment.
“The Fine Art Gallery at the Charleston Place Hotel allows collectors and attendees the opportunity to not only find a new piece of art but to meet the artists and discuss the inspiration behind their work," says executive director, John Powell.
SEWE features artists of all types, including seasoned veterans loyal to the festival and newcomers invited to show their works.
This year’s featured artist is Julia Rogers, a Maryland-based oil painter whose featured piece depicts swans preening in a marsh. It is sure to resonate with art aficionados familiar with the Lowcountry.
“Julia is a stunning wildlife painter. She is not only incredibly good at painting wildlife but also the supporting character of the landscape,” says Mark Horton, 2021’s featured artist and 2022 encore exhibiter.
Of course, 2021 was an unusual year in SEWE history, as the exposition was stripped down and held largely online. SEWE asked Horton, a local landscape artist with half-a-dozen shows under his belt, to return this year and share the spotlight.
Horton says artists like him display 25 or 30 works for public enjoyment and purchase. He is known across the Charleston region for his evocative portrayals of natural scenes dominated by mood-altering skies. “I paint a lot of Lowcountry atmosphere – storms, marshes, time of day and sense of time. I do a lot of figurative pieces in the landscape like oystermen and cast netters,” he says.
Wildlife art is some of the most difficult to create, notes Powell, because the painter must study the biology of the animals, the physiology of their movement and the effect of light on the landscape.
“It’s easy not to get it right,” he says. “If someone spends a tremendous amount of time outdoors, they might know something is off.”
SEWE cannot accept all artists worthy of being part of the show. SEWE must maintain a place for a wide spectrum of artists including emerging national wildlife artists and local favorites.
The expo also makes an effort to diversify its offerings. Visitors can find a variety of landscapes and animals – hippos on the African savannah here and sunsets on the marsh there. Artists bring paintings in a wide variety of sizes, media and styles as well.
SEWE is a great place for veteran art purchasers and those just dipping their toes. Buyers can find works from $500 to $75,000, depending on their size and complexity, and the renown of the artist. Last year, Powell says, inspirational pieces with big blue skies that play with light and sun were popular, but this year it could be something altogether different.
One thing is certain: if you’re searching for that perfect portrayal of nature at its most beautiful, awesome, threatening, quaint or inspiring, you’re likely to find it at SEWE.