Doug Corkern helped design the Hilton Head look.
He was a young architect out of Clemson University when he arrived in 1960. He designed the 10th house in Sea Pines, and hundreds more — along with buildings like the Sea Pines, Dataw Island and Haig Point golf clubhouses — before retiring 13 years ago to the banks of Huger Cove on Bluffton’s Lawrence Street.
Now he makes drawings of a different kind. His lines these days don’t hold up shake shingle roofs or marry a subtle home to its trees and sunlight.
His new drawings — mostly pen and ink, sometimes splashed with watercolor — reveal simple sights that are the load-bearing walls of a way of life.
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“I’m doing the same thing you’re doing,” he told me. “I’m recording my Lowcountry. That’s what I feel that I’m doing. That’s what I want to do. I love its people, its places and animals.”
The ‘look,’ if that’s what it is, is almost the absence of a look.
An exhibit of his work is on display through March 19 at the Four Corners gallery in Bluffton.
And a to-do list sticks to the Apple computer in his studio. Heyward House. Secession Oak. Bobby’s friend’s dog. Large barred owl.
They come from the rare perspective of an 81-year-old man.
“I feel very lucky to have been here for what I call the golden age of architecture and now to be in Bluffton for its regeneration as an arts community,” Corkern said.
Corkern was a child of the Depression in Georgetown, where his dad worked at the smelly paper mill.
His biggest thrill was to get hold of a dime. He would buy Blue Horse typing paper because it had no lines and he could draw on it. A grade school teacher told him he should be an architect and those words never left him.
He would end up designing a home on Hilton Head for the owner of the Blue Horse paper company. But that came after he married his high school sweetheart, Jean, and went to work for a Charlotte firm that was hired to design a home on Brams Point in Spanish Wells. Corkern came down to survey the lot.
It was Charles Fraser. We started discussing things.
After the survey, he explored the sparsely-populated island and found himself peering at an odd sight near what is today Sea Pines Circle. It was a geodesic dome. Beneath it was a display of what Sea Pines might look like.
“A young man walked up in white trousers and navy blue, short-sleeved shirt,” Corkern said. “It was Charles Fraser.”
What happened next was typical of the Sea Pines founder: “We started discussing things.”
Corkern had studied geodesic domes when the spacey visionary Buckminster Fuller came to Clemson. Corkern had built one, and figured out that you could forever build one geodesic dome per day using one acre of bamboo.
Beneath Fraser’s dome in the woods were sketches of West Coast homes done by the Hideo Sasaki landscape architecture office in Cambridge, Mass., which made the original land plan for Sea Pines. It represented what Fraser would like to see in the Lowcountry.
Fraser had his architect, John Wade, call Corkern. Wade wanted help. Doug and Jean Corkern bought in, thinking the place offered five years of designing summer beach cottages before they would move on. It didn’t turn out that way. Corkern and others like Pete McGinty, Ed Wiggins, Jakie Lee, Robert Marvin and Ed Pinckney would give Hilton Head a feel that was all its own.
By 1977, Corkern could tell journalist Jim Littlejohn what it was all about.
“I wouldn’t say that we have any particular architectural style on the island,” Corkern said.
“And the ‘look,’ if that’s what it is, is almost the absence of a look. In many parts of the island, it is difficult to tell that a house is there. That’s what many of us aim for.”
Corkern’s art lessons have been limited to a few sessions on watercolors.
But he has always drawn, carved things from wood and even made furniture.
Jean is an artist. She works with clay. She operated the Fox Grape Gallery on Hilton Head long ago, when Corkern’s office was in artist Walter Greer’s former home on Fox Grape Road. Fraser had envisioned that area becoming an artists’ colony.
“Charles didn’t realize artists could not afford to live in his colony,” Corkern said.
Corkern credits Charlene Gardner, owner of Four Corners Fine Art & Framing, for turning his sketching hobby into a rewarding second career.
He now does “sketch crawls,” taking small groups on ventures of plein air drawing.
And he fills stacks of Moleskine sketch books with drawings of children, old women, tractors, alligators, barns, churches, dogs, country stores, rice plantations, neighbors, chickens, cars and birds on watercolor paper that the children of his three children will inherit.
He tries to do one sketch per day, on paper with no lines.