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An American surrealist in the Lowcountry

The Colleton Center in downtown Walterboro hosted Dr. Duke Hagerty, of Charleston, on Thursday November 5. Jean Harrigal invited the now retired plastic surgeon to exhibit some of his artwork in the gallery, so that art patrons could review his style before the lecture. The new coffee table book, “American Surrealist,” captures four decades of colorful madness, which is the art of Richard Hagerty.
Walterboro resident Marsha Johnson was shopping at the local Goodwill Store and found a piece of modern art that she appreciated. After purchasing the art and returning home with it, she saw both geometric shapes and S-curves melded together and thought to herself that the artist must have steady hands. Her hunch proved correct after she researched the artist’s signature and found that he was a skilled surgeon in his professional career.
The Hagerty family owns land on Edisto Island, and they are both conservationists and stewards of the ACE Basin, so he was glad to visit Walterboro to speak and to sell books. Johnson was one of the first to have her copy of “American Surrealist” signed by Hagerty, and the artwork she purchased at Goodwill was on display, too. That piece was dated 1998, and is just one of the hundreds of creations that Hagerty has put on canvas thanks to his prolific rate of production.
“Surrealism means beyond real,” stated Dr. Hagerty. The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition for surrealism is “a 20th century art form in which an artist combines unrelated images or events in a very strange and dreamlike way.” “The term came out of Paris, and I was influenced by this type of art when I was at a young age. Many of my images do come from my dreams, and I rely on my lifetime of experiences to provide the rest of the material.”

Dr. and Mrs. Duke Hagerty at the Colleton Center, in front of Aniche

Dr. Hagerty followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a second-generation plastic surgeon after attending Medical School at Duke. He refers to wife Barbara as his muse, and they traveled extensively as Hagerty taught plastic surgery techniques such as cleft palate repair in developing countries. While symbols from Charleston and South Carolina are heavy themes present in his artwork, the landscapes he witnessed in places like Vietnam are also present in some renderings.
“During a trip to Africa, I had my watercolors with me, but became short on paper,” said Hagerty. “Part of their landscape includes an ample supply of animal bones, so I picked one up and painted it, and unknowingly started a new habit.” Hagerty now regularly paints bones, and has even had fans send him a bone to embellish with his trademark designs and colors. He will paint driftwood, too, and he had an example of a painted bone and wood with him at the Colleton Center.
“If I had to paint my self-portrait, I would paint a bull,” said Hagerty. “Because I’m like a bull in a china shop with a mix of energy and chaos. One of the hard things for painters to know when practicing surrealism is knowing when to stop adding more imagery.” You might think that adding a title to his artwork might also be a tough chore, but he does so regularly, and no

Art patrons listen to Dr. Hagerty at the Colleton Center. Photo By Jeff Dennis

less than five of his creations have appeared as the official poster for the Piccolo Spoleto arts festival in Charleston.
The first page of his new book shows the name Hagerty printed backwards. “Since I have had dyslexia all my life, I began signing my art backwards later in life, to embrace the condition as part of my story,” said Hagerty. Still tall and thin, Hagerty has an athletic build, and he retired from his surgical practice to become a full-time artist. “I see this as a creative process that has been ongoing since I began painting in 1976, and my wife and I are looking forward to the next chapter in life.”
This keen birdwatcher showed a photo, during his lecture of a Sandhill Crane that visited his Edisto Island pond in September. “I don’t hunt and I don’t fish, but I do watch the birds while mowing, and I do an awful lot of mowing out there,” said Hagerty. Serving a term on the board of the Edisto Island Open Land Trust, Hagerty contributed to the strong conservation ethic found on the entire island today.
Hagerty wishes he could do more to protect the environment elsewhere, and his intellect as a deep-thinker was on display at the Colleton Center. “We wouldn’t be anywhere without the planet Jupiter,” said Hagerty. “The gravity around Jupiter soaks up something like 99.9 percent of the meteors heading for earth.” Hagerty also mentioned Newtonian physics and philosophical beliefs as factors that can come into play when he is at work.

Artist Duke Hagerty signs his book for a happy customer. Photo By Jeff Dennis

The image ‘Aniche’ on page 121 of the book was painted in 2008, and the premise is that Charleston will eventually disappear under rising sea water. Given that 6 of the top 18 all-time high tides recorded in Charleston came in October and November of 2015, this premise doesn’t seem all that outlandish. Of the more than 20 distinct images present in Aniche, the prominent depiction of the now-extinct Carolina parakeet signifies Hagerty’s vision that change is already underway.
The City Gallery at Waterfront Park in Charleston will exhibit Hagerty’s art from November 10 until January 10, 2016. His book features interviews, sketches, photos, and of course, the brightly colored artwork that makes “American Surrealist” a real treasure for art fans. Copies are available for sale at $64.95, and, for more information, visit the Internet at www.RichardHagertyArt.com.


Jeff Dennis, Contributor (270 Posts)

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com