By Dylan Sell
Chase Allen’s Iron Fish Art Gallery isn’t a place the average Lowcountry tourist happens upon by accident. Though a few visitors might wander down the dirt path tucked deep in the forest of Daufuskie Island and be drawn to the metal decorations on the walls of an old cottage, more and more are actively seeking out Allen and his seascape of fish and mermaids wrought from steel. The Iron Fish Gallery has become a real destination and one of the most successful art galleries in the Beaufort area.
“Life is too short to not do what you love.”
But years before the Iron Fish Art Gallery existed, there was an unhappy business school student who happened to take a class in ceramics. Throwing pots inspired Allen: “I realized the pleasure of working with my hands.”
Through this happenstance ceramics class the creative seed was planted, but before it could sprout, Allen had finished school and went to work as a real estate agent. It wasn’t long before he realized that selling property was not something he enjoyed. It was, however, what introduced him to Emily and Lancy Burn, owners of Silver Dew Pottery on Daufuskie. Remembering the joy he found in the pottery class and seeing that others were pursuing their art, Allen decided to take a huge risk. “I decided to live across from them. Life is too short to not do what you love. I quit my job and rented the place with a friend on Daufuskie.”
Some might say that moving to an island accessible only by boat to start a business might not be the wisest financial strategy. But Allen was determined. “I got a job as a waiter at Marshside Mama’s. I could bring in $150 a night, which was good money.”
Once he had the income to cover his basic living expenses, Allen had time to make friends. He started meeting the other sculptors in the area and became friends with Jacob Preston, a potter and gallery owner in Old Town Bluffton renowned for his expert skill. Although ceramics was his first love, Allen didn’t want to move in across the street and compete with his friends Emily, Lancy, and Preston. So he found another medium in which to work: metal. He started welding iron scraps together into abstract sculptures, which later turned into making fish, mermaids and other marine subjects that he is known for today.
When he decided to open his gallery, Allen looked at the shops of artists he admired for inspiration. He was impressed by how his friend Preston operated his gallery. Sales are under the honor system; there are no salespeople, and visitors who wish to make a purchase simply leave their information on a sheet. So, following Preston’s model and advice from a friend, Allen put his art on his porch with a hand-written note telling visitors that they may take the art they liked and leave their money in the “honor box.”
One day Emily and Lancy stopped by and bought one of his pieces. “It was the greatest vote of confidence they could have given me,” and Allen started to believe that he could make it as artist.
Tools of an artist
As Allen experimented and refined his craft, he began using blacksmithing tools to hammer and create indents in his material. As his fish sculptures became more and more popular, his success created a problem. The fins of the fish sculptures required crimping, which creates regular ridges in the metal. Though the results might look similar to the simple crimped edge of a pie crust, crimping iron is physically demanding. It involves using a blacksmith hammer and a sheet metal crimper tool to get the desired effect. The sculptor must hammer the tool every few inches of the metal, which is a long, difficult process. “I thought I was going to develop a shoulder problem!” Allen explained.
For the sake of his throbbing shoulder, Allen realized that he needed to make his crimping process more efficient. He knew of an industrial crimping machine, but its cost was prohibitive. Recalling the old adage, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” Allen, a creative problem solver, solicited several friends to pool their money, knowledge, experience and tools and construct their own industrial iron crimping machines. Each person contributed $1000 to purchase the necessary supplies. These craftsmen, artists, and industrial engineers gathered in an assembly line and they built their own crimpers!
Years later, Allen has an odd looking machine with a tire topping it in his blacksmithing shop. This peculiar creation is actually the crimping machine that accelerated Allen’s production to an industrial level and thereby helped him become financially secure.
Part of a community
But besides the problems of equipment, an artist living on Daufuskie Island needed a way to connect with other artists, his friends and his existing and potential patrons. Social media was the perfect solution. Allen started a Facebook page and he posts regularly about his work. When someone sends a photo of one of Allen’s sculptures installed in their home, Allen posts it on Facebook. Facebook not only allows Allen to communicate with the people interested in his work, but it also gives Allen a great way to garner feedback and ideas from his fan base. For example, when one of his patrons made a suggestion to backlight some of the creations with LED lights, Allen took the suggestion, and the new lighted sculptures became very successful.
Allen strongly believes in giving back to the community. In 2014, 13 years after his daring leap out of office life, Chase Allen competed with over 1000 artists for the American Made Audience Choice Award sponsored by Martha Stewart Living. 55,000 votes later, Allen won the award and its $10,000 prize. He donated the greater portion of his winnings to the Holmes Team, an organization dedicated to finding a cure for brain cancer. The organization is named for Holmes Desmelik, a six-year-old boy with an inoperable brain tumor who is the son of Allen’s high school friend. Allen donated the remainder of his winnings to the Alzheimer’s Association, Doctors Without Borders, and Ankylosing Spondylitis Association.
Despite his professional success, Allen never turned his back on the people that supported his craft. Just last year he wrote an article for his website urging Daufuskie visitors to check out Emily and Lancy Burn at Silver Dew Pottery and to this day speaks with immense respect of Jacob Preston’s Gallery to journalists.
14 years after abandoning a career in the office to become an artist, Chase Allen has not only turned his dreams into a reality, he’s used his success to bolster his local community.