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Arts: In a Calmetto State of mind

By Carrie Humphreys
For the Coastal Observer

You won’t find a “Calmetto” tree growing along the South Carolina coastline. Indeed, “palmettos” scatter our shore, but no “calmettos.”

Calmetto roots are in the imagery of Calhoun Harrelson.

“My name is Cal and I paint palmettos, thus the name,” said the artist, who is harvesting what is fast becoming a Calmetto forest. His brother thought up the Calmetto trademark when it was obvious that Harrelson was on the verge of something big.

And he is.

Harrelson is selling Calmettos like “hotcakes.”

If the momentum continues, which Harrelson seems to believe it will, who knows the future of this charismatic South Carolina native and his interpretation of our beloved state tree.

The seed was planted long ago when he first painted his one-of-a-kind, palms on glassware to give to friends as gifts, explained Harrelson, seated in the beachy Murrells Inlet residence he shares with his wife Julie and son Julian.

Two years ago, while living in Greenville, recovering from surgery, he began to once again paint his Calmetto trees. This time his canvas was plywood and his trees were created from a multitude of acrylic hues, often dashed with splatter. Each intricate palm is unique. The iconic Carolina crescent moon punctuates each.

Once again, Harrelson used the plywood paintings as birthday and wedding gifts. “People said I should sell them, but I said ‘No, I can’t. Nobody would buy them.’ ”

He was coaxed, however, into placing some in a store in downtown Greenville and they quickly sold out. The owner asked for more, and the Calmetto craze was launched. Since then, he’s donated his works to charity, created T-shirts for local events and placed his work in about a dozen carefully selected shops. They’re sold locally at Pawleys Island Mercantile in the Hammock Shops, Brookgreen Gardens and through his recently created website calmettos.com.

Gov. Nikki Haley is a fan of his Calmetto, Harrelson noted proudly. “I had been talking with the governor’s office, her people, about presenting her with a Calmetto painting. About six weeks before Christmas last year they called and said Governor Haley was going to be speaking at the Rotary Club in Georgetown and she would have a few minutes afterwards, if I would like to present her with a painting.”

He presented her with three. One now hangs in the Governor’s Mansion and one in her office, he said. But what was truly amazing to Harrelson, Haley purchased 47 of his creations to give to her staff as Christmas gifts. He gave her a break on the price, he said. Prices for his art normally range from $45 to $300.

Harrelson said that he has only just begun. “The neat thing about all of this is that the Calmetto can go on just about anything, from serving dishes, to belts, to golf hats, shirts and visors, to china, to coffee cups to shower curtains to charcoal grill covers. Eventually we’ll get into the apparel industry, but it is such a different world,” he said.

Harrelson is taking it slowly, an inch at a time, he said. He now produces T-shirts, notecards and decals and is toying with Camo-Calmettos, a camouflaged themed artwork. He also paints on canvas and his newest venture is limited edition prints.

“We’ll start with 500 and then once they start going, we’ll do another one, and another one, and another one. There are so many possibilities,” he said.

Harrelson has no plans as yet to give up his day job, however. Once into public relations and marketing, and a former Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce president, Harrelson has spent the last 22 years selling resort real estate.

“Resort property meaning somewhere close to the saltwater where you can smell the pluff mud at low tide,” he explained.

Harrelson is immersed in all things Southern. His great, great, great uncle was South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun. His grandfather, among the first 50 families in Myrtle Beach, was its first mayor. Harrelson Boulevard is named after him. Harrelson’s father, 91, now living in Conway, founded the Myrtle Beach Times back in the 1950s. It was the precursor to the Sun News.

Born in Myrtle Beach, Harrelson grew up fishing, hunting and enjoying the outdoors and what he calls “the sweet tea lifestyle.”

“Today people come here from everywhere and learn to love the Calmetto lifestyle,” Harrelson said. “Things haven’t really changed since Dad’s day; his stories could be repeated today. We still enjoy the saltwater and what it affords. We still boat on it, fish and ski on it. The oysters are still oysters, the shrimp and flounder, are just as good today as they were 50 years ago.”

And our beautiful palmetto trees have withstood it all, from hurricane force winds to English cannonballs. “The palmetto represents strength with its tightly woven fibers while at the same time serving as an icon that reflects what is good about South Carolina, ”Harrelson said. “It’s refreshing, outdoorsy. Its fibers are so closely knit, symbolic of our closely knit group. We stick together. We can absorb anything that anybody can throw at us.”

And if Harrelson achieves his dream, his whimsical version of our state tree will captivate everyone who lives here and visits here. Anyone who loves the South.

“I feel very blessed to have been born here and I’m very proud of my Southern roots and will never get tired of painting my Calmettos,” he said. “The Palmetto State has become the Calmetto State. I’ve put a new twist on it.”

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