Ralph Ballantine help art take root on Hilton Head

September 18, 2010 


Hilton Head Island artist Ralph Ballantine is shown here in his studio Thursday afternoon at his home. Ballantine worked as an illustrator and advertising agency artist before moving to Hilton Head in 1967.


Ralph Ballantine's artistic skills gave America the good hands of Allstate and the Schlitz Malt Liquor bull.

He was a model for the Jolly Green Giant.

"I looked much more like a green giant in those days than I do now," said Ballantine, who will celebrate his 91st birthday Tuesday.

In "those days," Ballantine was a prolific illustrator, his work coveted by Chicago's top advertising agencies churning out American icons like Morris the Cat, Charlie the Tuna and Tony the Tiger.

"Those days" came before Ralph and the late Sis Ballantine, and their sons Todd and Peter, vacationed on Hilton Head Island, then moved here in 1967.

"I was ready to leave Chicago," Ballantine said. "I'd had it. I'd had a good career. I was drinking too much. Working too much. I decided there was a better life."

His better life came with an artists' roundtable that met every Thursday morning for 15 years at the Red Piano Gallery. At the table were other great illustrators -- Coby Whitmore, Joe DeMers and Joe Bowler. Whitmore was an apprentice to Haddon Sundblom, best known for creating a warm, friendly and pleasantly plump Santa Claus in Coca-Cola ads. The "mere illustrators" who filled America's magazine covers were now gathering with like spirits -- including Walter Greer, Wayne Edwards, Louanne LaRoche, Mary Aldwyth, Katie Hodgman -- to discuss Ted Wolff's column in the Christian Science Monitor, "The Many Masks of Modern Art."

The better life would have the brush of artists whose canvas was a new community rising from a once-desolate sea island.


Ballantine got his first glimpse of the Lowcountry as a Marine Corps recruit on Parris Island. He remembers training on Hilton Head one weekend.

"It was a jungle," he said. "It was a lousy jungle."

Like today, Ballantine always had his sketch book nearby. He drew caricatures of his fellow recruits.

"That kept me in cigars and candy bars," he said.

A caricature of his drill instructor got him in trouble until a major saw it. The major wanted Ballantine to draw him. He was working with chalk, which made it easier to give the major a little extra hair. While other Marines were shipped out to the Pacific, Ballantine was sent to Leatherneck magazine, its staff brimming with artists and cartoonists.

It was the best art school you could think of, Ballantine said. He went on to study sculpture at Ohio State University in his home state but found it didn't always pay the bills. He returned to the drawing and painting he'd seen his mother and grandmother do before him.

And he constantly fed a voracious hunger for art, history and travel. He clipped art and articles. He took his family for winters in Cuba and to the sand dunes of Indiana. Some posters he brought home from bullfights in Spain became the inspiration for the Schlitz Malt Liquor bull.

In the advertising world, he built a reputation as someone who could produce a wide variety of art quickly. His specialties were the human figure, and machinery. He was prized for his drawings of hands, and his meticulous paintings of massive Ingersoll Milling Machines are still considered classics in detail, scale and perspective. But Ballantine has always told people what he produced wasn't real art.

On Hilton Head, Sea Pines founder Charles Fraser hauled Ballantine around in a jeep before he paid $8,000 for a lot near the ocean. Shortly after moving to the island, Ballantine asked Fraser for a job. Fraser asked what he could do. Ballantine casually picked up a Fortune magazine and flipped to one of his illustrations, a double-page spread. Fraser hired him, without a firm grasp on why.

Soon, Ballantine was selling real estate. An hour and a half after being assigned a desk, someone walked in and bought a Twin Pines unit for $7,500. Ballantine led the small Sea Pines staff in sales that year and still had time to take regular beatings in afternoon rounds of golf with his sales colleague, Ruthven Vaux.

But art -- not sales -- would be Ballantine's gift to Hilton Head.


Before Sis Ballantine died in 1992, she was active in the Community Playhouse, even playing the lead role in "Hello, Dolly!" Ralph built and painted sets and created many of the playbills.

Both their sons became artists. Peter Ballantine is an art director and art restoration expert in New York City, specializing in Donald Judd sculptures. He lives in a building in SoHo he and his dad bought.

Todd Ballantine is an artist, writer and environmental planner who lived on Hilton Head for many years, starting a Montessori school, writing and illustrating nature columns and producing a local best-seller, "Tideland Treasure."

Ralph Ballantine crafted another local best-seller, a map of Hilton Head that looks almost like "Where's Waldo" with all the children's activities it depicts.

Ballantine designed the first buildings in the Harbour Town area. He created what is now CQs restaurant from his study of Lowcountry rice barns. It was his studio. He also designed the Saddlebag Building next door. Charles Fraser was all for that because he always wanted an artists colony on Hilton Head.

Fraser asked Ballantine to design the Old Fort Pub restaurant, next to a Civil War-era fortification on Skull Creek in Hilton Head Plantation.

"He said he wanted something that looked like it belonged there," Ballantine recalls.


Joe Bowler, who on Hilton Head became a highly sought-after portrait artist, said Ballantine is wrong to say an illustrator is not an artist.

"He's not only an incredible draftsman and commercial artist, but a tremendous sculptor," Bowler said.

Ballantine's bust of their guru, Coby Whitmore, captures him so well that people cry when they see it. Both Bowler and Ballantine have castings of it in their homes.

Ralph and Evelyn Byatt-Ballantine celebrated their 15th anniversary last week in their home on the marsh in the Point Comfort neighborhood. Evelyn also is an accomplished artist, with her paintings filling many walls.

But there also is a white plaster bust Ballantine sculpted of Charles Fraser as a middle-aged man.

The bronze casting graces Fraser's grave at the Liberty Oak, which overlooks Harbour Town, his creative masterpiece of community planning.

"Charles Fraser used awfully good people," Ballantine said. "He was willing to gamble on me without a thought."

In an earlier life, Ballantine was in charge of the Jolly Green Giant drawings for a while. He made the giant jollier, more inviting, more animated.

On Hilton Head, he again helped sketch a new feel.

"The art community on Hilton Head was a quiet, but strong, center in the early days," said his son Todd. "It set up Hilton Head as a place where quality was welcomed and where there wasn't too much show. We all depended on each other in those days. It was the integrity and intuitive skills of the people that made it a successful community."

Todd said that point is perfectly illustrated by his father. And it must be the focus of Hilton Head's future.

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