Out of the Ashes

December 2018
Written By: 
Dawn Bryant
Photographs by: 
Jon Stell

Tragedy led to newfound inspiration for local artist Sherry Strickland Martin

Sherry Strickland Martin, pictured in the Franklin G. Burroughs-Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum, captures in her paintings the Lowcountry life she loves.

In a fiery flash, everything artist Sherry Strickland Martin owned—including all 300 of her paintings and other art pieces—were gone.

Her husband, Don, was jolted awake about two o’clock in the morning in April 2009 and quickly rushed to the window of their Barefoot Resort home in North Myrtle Beach.

“It was literally raining fire,” Martin recalls.

The couple scurried to put on clothes, get the dog—Martin just happened to grab her art bag with teaching supplies—and drove away as their house literally imploded. There was nothing left.

“We didn’t even have a toothbrush,” she said. “Every single piece of artwork was gone. That was a huge turning point because it’s very humbling. You almost feel like you don’t exist anymore. That was a hard one to swallow.”

But Martin persevered, and the experience, along with other obstacles, helped her return to her roots and what she loves doing. She eventually started painting again, and some of those pieces celebrating the Lowcountry life she cherishes even more these days are showcased in her Roots Run Deep exhibit at the Franklin G. Burroughs-Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum in Myrtle Beach. The exhibit runs through December 16.

The fire is one of a trio of tragedies and challenges in just five years that recalibrated Martin’s life, helping her find her true calling. The devastating Highway 31 wildfire—which torched 19,000 acres, destroyed more than 75 homes and damaged nearly 100 homes—was a reminder that material things don’t matter and helped set Martin back on the path to painting for exhibits again.

“It really hit home what comes first,” Martin said, “and that’s God and family and doing what God put you on this earth to do.”

Now, Martin is finally where she’s supposed to be. A bout with breast cancer brought the Loris native back to Horry County in 2007, and the tragic loss of beloved sister Kimberly Craven in 2012 reconnected her to her roots with family, art and what’s truly important in life.

“Out of every horrible thing, there’s been a huge blessing or learning curve,” Martin said, standing in the art museum surrounded by her work. “My passion has always been artwork. I felt like I’d been missing something. I’ve got to do what I’m most passionate about, which is producing artwork that means something to me.”

On a sunny October Saturday, Martin was getting the first look at her first exhibit in more than two decades, an exhibit that means even more because it is in her native Horry County.

“It feels good,” Martin said, surrounded by her watercolor paintings and mixed media works. “I haven’t done this since 1994. Every piece of me is coming back. Who God made me to be.”

Martin's Roots Run Deep exhibit is on display at the Franklin G. Burroughs-Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum through December 16.

Art has always been a part of Martin’s journey, but in different ways. She grew up in the art scene of the Upstate, graduating from Spartanburg High School before earning a studio art degree from Limestone College. She started her career doing commissioned work and producing art for galleries, then spent years licensing her artwork for use on a variety of products, including throw pillows, notecards and more. She also provided pieces for sports teams and organizations, including player portraits for the Cincinnati Bengals.

But the tragedies and challenges brought her home. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, Martin, who was at the time teaching high school art in Bluffton, moved back to Horry County to be near family as she underwent radiation treatment. She continued to teach at Saint James High School despite side effects from medication that caused throbbing pain.

“I couldn’t even hold a coffee cup in my hand,” Martin remembers, a devastating condition for a painter. She is now cancer free.

The fire struck just two years later. Then, in 2012, Martin faced the unexpected loss of one of her sisters, Kimberly. Her favorite piece in the Roots Run Deep exhibit is “Blessings on Capers Creek,” which captures a moment her family had following her sister’s death. They gathered at her father’s place for an oyster roast.

“We got together as a whole family on Saint Helena Island and we did what she loved to do most,” Martin said, tearing up as she stood in front of the larger-than-usual, detail-rich painting that took a year to complete. Look closely and you’ll notice tributes to “Kimmy Sue” sprinkled throughout the painting: her birthday is the date on the newspaper, a favorite Bible passage, her ring on one of the hands.

While she’s picked up painting art she loves again, Martin continues to teach at Saint James High School. Fellow teachers say Martin has a gift, an extraordinary skill set mixed with an ability to inspire the students.

“She is just such a tremendous talent,” said Beth Mitchell, a visual arts teacher at the Murrells Inlet high school. “Our students are just beyond fortunate to be instructed by someone of her level.”

Martin once started class by pouring coffee on a piece of her art, which not only led to gasps from her students but ended up being a part of the artwork, which is displayed in her exhibit at the art museum.

“Shocking them is the best way to get their attention,” Martin said.

Martin’s work at the high school caught the attention of Liz Miller, a curator at the art museum in Myrtle Beach. Miller had consistently been blown away by the watercolor paintings produced by Saint James students that were featured in the art museum’s annual Horry-Georgetown County High Schools Juried Art Exhibition.

“When I discovered that it was Sherry who was teaching the students how to see and how to bring what they see to life in watercolor—which happens to be one of the most difficult media to master as far as painting goes—I knew this woman had to be extremely talented,” Miller said.

When Miller contacted her, Martin invited the curator to her Murrells Inlet home studio to see her work.

“Needless to say, I was in awe of her work and knew I wanted to exhibit it at the museum,” Miller said.

(Left) Sherry Strickland Martin; (Right) “Blessings on Capers Creek” (left) is Martin’s favorite painting in her Roots Run Deep exhibit.

Each of the vivid, detail-rich paintings in this 47-piece collection bear a part of Martin’s heart: the sweet faces of her granddaughters, the authoritative expression of her Nobel Prize-nominated father, the breezy presence of a former student posing with her horse, the direct look of a Lowcountry basket weaver whose fingers are hard at work.

“I love every single thing about the Lowcountry life,” Martin said. “That’s what I paint because that’s what I love.”

Many of the paintings were inspired by photographs—Martin loves shooting—but it’s not just the faces in the photo that make it ideal for painting; the lighting also catches her eye, though there’s no magic formula for what she’ll re-create in paint.

“I take pictures like crazy,” Martin said. “It just hits me that that’s a painting.”

Martin’s work reflects the “good stuff” in life that she is thankful for, a gratitude that grew even more generous after every major obstacle she overcame, Miller said.

“After everything she’s been through, I think she recognizes what’s most important in life and, from that, draws inspiration,” Miller said.

It’s not just the students at Saint James that Martin inspires. During the exhibit’s opening reception in October, Kathie Andriano marveled at Martin’s paintings. Andriano, who lives in Myrtle Beach, had recently taken up painting and was impressed and inspired by Martin’s work.

“I think it is wonderful,” she said. “The colors, the detail. It just looks so real. I just love it. It’s beautiful.”

Whether you’re a painter or not, Martin has a few words of advice: “Whatever your passion is, do it.”