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 metal. The Iron Fish gallery has become a real destination and one of the most successful art galleries in the area.
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 had gone 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 Island. 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 on Daufuskie with a friend.”
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 Cafe. I could bring in $150 a night, which was good money.”
After he had the income to cover his basic living expenses, Allen focused on making friends. He started meeting the other sculptors in the area and became friends with Jacob Preston, a gallery owner in Old Town Bluffton and potter 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 Jacob. So he found another medium in which to work: metal. He started welding iron scraps together into abstract sculptures, and later he began welding metal into fish, mermaids and other marine subjects that he is known for today.
When he decided to open his gallery, Allen looked for inspiration at the shops of artists he admired. He was impressed by the way his friend Jacob 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 like 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,” remarked Allen, and he 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 indentations 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 to create 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 achieve 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 in order to construct their own industrial iron-crimping machines. Each person contributed $1,000 to purchase the necessary supplies. These craftsmen, artists and industrial engineers gathered in an assembly line, and they built their own crimpers!
Years later, in his blacksmithing shop Allen has an odd-looking machine with a tire on top. This peculiar creation is actually the crimping machine that accelerated Allen’s production to an industrial level, thereby helping him become financially secure.
Part of a Community
Besides having equipment challenges, as an artist living on Daufuskie Island, Allen 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 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 1,000 artists for the American Made Award sponsored by Martha Stewart Living. With 55,000 votes, Allen won the Audience Choice 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; Holmes 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 the Spondylitis Association of America.
Despite his professional success, Allen has never turned his back on the people who 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 Allen speaks with immense respect of Jacob Preston’s pottery gallery to journalists.
After abandoning a career in the office to become an artist 14 years ago, Chase Allen not only turned his dreams into a reality, he used his success to bolster his local community.