Nancy Ricker Rhett

The Southern Artist's Way

Nancy Ricker Rhett is an original in every sense of the word and as multi-layered as one her paintings. Completely true to herself, she is a self-made artist, historian, avid birder, world traveler, and consummate Southerner. She can identify and tell you the names of indigenous birds, flowers, trees, and shrubs off the top of her head. While she enjoys hunting, she is just at home in the kitchen cooking her famous sweet potato soufflÈ from an old family recipe. A true Renaissance woman, she is whip smart, fascinating, fun, and tough in the most gentle of manner.

I met her at the Rhett Gallery on Bay Street in historic Beaufort. There, one can step in, and step back into time. The walls are covered in art, all created by the Rhett family. Nancy is a fourth generation artist on her father's side, and her husband, Bill Rhett, Jr., is a third generation artist. The Rhett Gallery, which has been in business for 31 years, is part art gallery, part museum. Art from generations of family members cover the walls and fill every corner of the gallery, including Nancy's paintings, Bill's carvings and paintings, and their son, William Rhett III's, work as well. It is also a welcome spot well-known for antique maps and art, and Civil War relics and memorabilia.

Originally from Gardens Corner, located on the beeline to Charleston between Beaufort and Walterboro, where large Southern plantations used to dot the landscape, Nancy's childhood was unique, to say the least. Her family owned a restaurant and hotel, the nicest place to stay between Savannah and Charleston, where the arrival of renown businessmen, artists, and writers was commonplace. Perhaps being around such accomplished people in her childhood somewhat prepared her for the day the mayor walked into her gallery and informed her that current President Ronald Reagan would be arriving in Beaufort in three days. "He asked if I would do a special painting for the President. I said only if I get to meet him," she smiled. Somehow I knew the story would end with her getting her way, and I was right. After being told that the mayor could not gain clearance for her to attend his arrival, she made one phone call and had it all arranged. When President Reagan was presented with her painting, he looked directly at her standing behind the access line and thanked her. Later, a personal handwritten note arrived from the President, stating how much he admired her painting. The painting now hangs in the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, with a placard that simply reads: A Gift from South Carolina. "That one's a plume," stated Nancy proudly.

Nancy cannot remember a time when she didn't paint. "We always had art supplies out. It was just normal to paint. I thought every family did that. I taught myself." As a boarding student at Ashley Hall in Charleston, Nancy's talent was obvious to her high school teachers. "I was allowed to play hooky from sports. They planted me in the art room." However, higher art education did not seem to suit her. "I tried to study at South Carolina, but I wanted realism. I like realism, but it was discouraged by my professors. So I tried to study in Philadelphia, and my professor got mad at me for using Plexiglas as a palette. He wanted me to use a "proper" artist's palette with the little indentions to hold my paints. That's too restrictive. He chewed me out for not using orange and purple, too. Look around. I still don't use them very much." she exclaimed.

Nancy has done just fine in the world of art by doing it her way. She has created thousands of paintings and people love them. She's a is simply who she is and what she does. She claims it helps when her inner muse is on duty, but she can always make it happen. She never thought about being anything but an artist. "I paint by ear. That's the only way I can explain it."

Up Close
Words to live by: Don't worry 'bout it til it's time to worry 'bout it.
Three famous people she would invite to dinner: Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Winslow Homer.and Frederick Church.and, of course, my whole family!
Another claim to fame: Nancy's first cousin's daughter wrote the book, The Help.
Her mother's family, The Elliot's: Developed Sea Island Cotton
16: The number of years in a row her art has been on the cover of the Beaufort telephone book.
12: The number of years Rhett Gallery has been voted best art gallery.
Sunday ritual: Completing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle. "I can almost do it in ballpoint."
Nominated for: Ashley Hall Lifetime Acheivement Award