It’s become the third event in a not-exactly-holy trinity of family gatherings that no one in my crowd wants to miss: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in Charleston, South Carolina. That last event, SEWE as it’s known, is a three-day festival (February 17–19) of wildlife art, handcrafted goods, sporting gear, and live entertainment, not to mention the always raucous Dock Dogs competition.
In three days I will visit every single art kiosk, custom knifemaker, firepit manufacturer, and wood carver. I’ll come home having lost my voice from talking to so many people, and having filled up my calendar with all the cool stuff I’ve stumbled across. SEWE is a wildlife art show, for sure, but it’s also a distillation of what makes the South such a sporting nirvana. Here are five artists, vendors, and gatherings that are at the top of my list this year.
This year’s SEWE featured artist is North Carolina’s Ryan Kirby. I went turkey hunting with Kirby a couple of years back for this feature in Garden & Gun. I learned two things while spending time with him for that profile. First, the best wildlife paintings are inspired by time spent on the ground and in the woods. And second, never go mountain turkey hunting with a CrossFit maniac. At SEWE, Kirby’s movements will be severely constrained, so it’s the one time of year I can talk to him without risking a heart attack. And thankfully, his is the kind of work that rivets me in place. Kirby’s painting The Departure is featured on the official SEWE 2023 poster.
While you’ll see original paintings so large that the lions and wild turkeys are life-sized, there’s plenty of smaller-scale art on display at SEWE. A can’t-miss stop for me is Tom Boozer’s display of scale models of historic watercraft used by old market hunters. Boozer is widely known for his exquisite hollow-body duck decoys; I profiled his work in this story a few years ago. But Boozer also crafts Lilliputian renditions of battery boats, punt guns, bushwhackers, and other small wooden craft plied by market hunters of the Chesapeake Bay at the turn of the century. His boats and dioramas include people smaller than green army men and tiny decoys the size of a pencil eraser. Each one is hand-carved, hand-painted, and historically accurate.
I’d be better off financially if South Carolina’s Mark Lexton would just stay the heck home, but he doesn’t, and each year I buy my wife, Julie, a piece of his gorgeous Lowcountry-themed jewelry. We’ve been on a sterling silver oyster shell kick over the last few years—Lexton even used a pair of family pearl earrings to craft oyster shell-and-pearl cufflinks—and we’ve forayed into antler necklaces and equestrian themes. But Julie recently spotted a new dog bone necklace on Lexton’s website. Go ahead and put one behind the counter for us, Mark, and once more—thanks a lot!
There’s lots of pretty stuff to nourish the spirit at SEWE, but all that art-gawking demands some bodily nourishment as well. Each year we pilgrimage to Hamby Catering’s kiosk at Marion Square for a bowl or three of steaming hot chicken bog. Hamby is the oldest continually operating caterer in the Holy City, so it’s had plenty of time to perfect the slow-cooked South Carolina staple. And if chicken bog isn’t your cup of perlou, no one will talk behind your back if you opt for the righteous house-made pimento cheese.
This year marks the debut of the reimagined Sporting Showroom. A collection of exhibitors and outfitters will transform the second floor of the Charleston Marriott—a new space for SEWE—into a bazaar where hunting and fishing guides, sporting gear and apparel makers, outfitters, taxidermists, and other purveyors of outdoor experiences can gather. The new Showroom is a smart effort to spread out the crowds at SEWE venues, and give guests and exhibitors the space and time to meet in person. Which is a good thing given my history of talking the ears off of every exhibitor I can find.
Follow T. Edward Nickens on Instagram @enickens.