A First Date with Joe Maffo

Man holds alligator

Joe adorns me with a snake necklace while showing off  one of his toys; a baby (live) alligator.

If you haven’t yet been to the Joe Maffo’s exhibit at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn, then you are missing out on something special.  Held outside on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, from 11:00 am – 3:00 pm, Joe and his staff of students and volunteers educate delighted crowds about reptiles, chickens, and rabbits, among those he had the day I visited with Johnny D.

Brothers  Brothers, Miles and Owen, share a python.

kid holds baby gator

Local student assists Maffo as summer job.

kid with snake

Visitor from Beaufort, Miguel wears a python “hoodie” with Maffo.

Joe carefully wraps onlookers with his friends, then explains how and what they eat, and why they should never be approached in the wild.

“I want people to educate people to respect our wildlife, but not fear it.  We are all part of the same eco-system,”  says Joe.





And we’re not the only ones who appreciate Maffo’s expertise.  Featured in August’s Men’s Health magazine, pg. 34, he’s gone nationwide.  Also look for a piece in the Wall Street Journal called What’s in My Bag, for a look at what Joe Maffo carries around with him… maybe you don’t want to know!

chicken on guy's shoulder

Johnny D bonds with a chicken.

For more information about Critter Management call, 843-681-8050

Or check out the exhibit schedule here: http://www.coastaldiscovery.org/home/discover-and-learn/site-tours-programs/








Hilton Head Island, South Carolina; An Oasis For Artists

Nancy Mitchell paints outside on Hilton Head Island

Hilton Head Island Plein Air Artist, Nancy Mitchell, loves to work outdoors whenever possible.

*One of the joys of living on Hilton Head Island is knowing that, when it comes to retiring from a lifetime of ‘the grind’, the relocation aspect is already knocked.  The next thing to check off – while taking that last ride home on the commuter train – is pursuing a lifelong passion that, for many people, is to follow an artistic vision.  So now, the question arises, if one is a working artist, living in Hilton Head, South Carolina, where does one go, and what does one do, when it’s time to retire?  Hmmmm.

Brucie Holler, Artist, works in her studio.

Impressionist painter, Brucie Holler, at work in her studio.

Hilton Head’s natural surroundings are further blessings to those lucky enough to wake up here each day.  To many people around the world, the natural habitat of the lowcountry, is truly a work of art, and cannot be overstated as a luxury, especially, when considering that much of this community’s resort development began during an era when little, if any, consideration was given to the environment, and greenhouse gases hadn’t even made it into the political lexicon.  Landscaping in the sixties and seventies on the east and west coast of the United States consisted of razing shoreline forests to erect high-rise dwellings with penthouses, and city skyscrapers.   It simply wasn’t vogue to leave trees standing, where rent could be collected.

Joe and Marilyn Bowler

Portraiture Artist, Joe Bowler pictured left, with late wife, Marilyn, in 2008

Yet, in spite of this, Hilton Head developed as it did, creating a land/seascape on the southeastern shoreline, second to none.  Ancient live oaks, veiled with Spanish moss, and wax myrtle trees grow unhindered, where alligators, snowy egrets, and herons fish standing next to each other.  Really, one can almost hear them talking to each other.  And, as recently as two years ago, Asian community developers began visiting Hilton Head to understand what made it so aesthetically pleasing to investors and vacationers, so they could mimic it in their own resort planning.

Which begs the question, how does one feel artistically inspired in a place that is itself, a natural work of art?  Hilton Head Island is a glorious little nook, a most pristine example of developed shoreline in the lowcountry along the eastern seaboard.  The answer is that inspiration resides within the artist, evidenced during the research and interviewing of this article highlighting four distinctly different, renowned Hilton Head working artists who live and create just around the corner from one another.

I. Robert Rommel

predator bird catches fish

‘Osprey Catches Flounder’, in this award-winning photograph, by Robert Rommel.

Schoolteachers on Hilton Head make great use of field trip opportunities inherent just by virtue of living and learning on the island.  Any numbers of locally protected areas easily bring textbook illustrations to vibrant life, so that everything learned in the classroom, can be applied to the immediate natural habitat.

Fortunately, the lowcountry is a veritable biosphere of wildlife, encouraging constant outdoor studies.  Science classes often include trips to the beach, trolling for shells and exoskeletons scattered, layered under eons of tides.  With this as background, research biologist/wildlife photographer, Robert Rommel, takes advantage of his surroundings to amplify the range of his own camera art, as well as, to give him a unique perspective when teaching photography workshops.

Photographer Shoots Fiddler Crab

Wildlife Photographer, Robert Rommel Waits Out the Fiddler Crab Mating Ritual With Extraordinary Patience

Fiddler Crab close-up

Fiddler Crab Prepares to Impress His Date




Fiddler Crab Dance

Wow, She’s Impressed. I am, too.





His current project, conducted on location at Fish Haul Creek Park at Port Royal Plantation beach, includes a scenic trail walk through the park, opening out to one of many of Hilton Head’s awesome, natural surprises.  A constantly changing seascape view including shoreline, huge rocks, tide pools, and just over the waterway, Port Royal Plantation.

The mating ritual of the sand fiddler crab fascinates Robert and his Nikon today.  Yes, fascinates.  In fact, until he gets his shot, one goes on blind faith that the silent, patient, wildlife photographer, lying stretched out prone, for hours on the sand, knows that what he is waiting for, flat on his stomach, is going to be worth it.  And the resulting photos don’t disappoint, (see captioned photo) as he catches the male sand fiddler crab doing quite a dance with one claw waving madly about, trying for the attention of a mate, who has to be totally impressed by this.  But what more could a female sand fiddler want, out here at 10:00 am in the salt marsh of Port Royal? Breakfast at Tiffany’s?
Robert’s work recently won a Wildlife in Focus Contest and a portfolio of his work can be found on his website, http://www.robertrommel.com, where one can also find out when and where he teaches photography workshops.

Impressionist painting, 30 Panels

‘Murmurations Squared,’ by Impressionist Painter, Brucie Holler

II. Brucie Holler

In the Gallery of Shoppes, overlooking Greenwood Avenue just before the Sea Pines gate, Brucie Holler’s more recent “starling murmurations” –inspired paintings can be found.  Vibrant acrylics on paper abstracts decorate the walls, floors, and tables of her studio, compelling the gaze over and over as her brush strokes mimic the reverberations of a flock of starlings that hauntingly sweep the skies.   YouTube videos set to music, illustrate this wildlife phenomenon, and Brucie’s abstract interpretations are breathtaking.

“As a non-representational painter, I am interested in exploring the source of inspiration,” writes Brucie.  She wonders how people experience the natural world, life, beauty, music, language, “and translate that into authentic, personal transcendent art?”

Prior to the mixed media murmurations studies – a wondrous, mixed media panel consisting of thirty, eight by eight-inch squares, can be bought as individual squares, or as a whole (see captioned photo, above) – and concurrent with this work, is much of Brucie’s abstract art which distinguishes itself by the use of multi-layered aqua-teal colors, and charcoal strokes (see abstract painting, right).  Her work is mainly informed by two constant sources, language and the natural world.  Language, as expressed through poetry, as well as the natural energy created by wind, gravity, and stillness, inspires her lines and what happens between the forms as aroused by the starling murmurations.

Impressionist painting, oil on canvas

‘Sky’s Big Hand’, Oil on Canvas, 60×72

A South Carolina native, Holler pursued graduate work at the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore, after receiving a BA in painting at Florida State University.  She has pursued her artistic vision through teaching art, and working administratively, while constantly honing her own craft studying with other internationally known artists, including Richard Smith, and Truman Lowe.  Her work has been shown in galleries in Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, and Colorado.

Represented by Camellia Art locally, and Parker Gallery on St. Simons Island, Brucie appreciates that she can be prolific and evolve, as she is inspired.  Her work can also be viewed online, at http://www.brucieholler.com/

III. Joe Bowler

Portrait of Little Girl, Regan Boyse, by Joe Bowler

‘Whistler’s Daughter,’ by World-renowned Portrait Artist, and Long-time Island Resident, Joe Bowler

One island neighbor, award-winning and world-renowned commissioned portrait artist, has lived locally in surprisingly, well-preserved privacy, since 1972.  What an honor for native islanders to grow up near such an eminent, prolific artist, whose credentials extend from 1952, when he was elected to the Society of Illustrators, all the way to 1992, being inducted into the Illustrators Hall of Fame.  In between, Joe established himself as an internationally acclaimed illustrator/portrait artist, whose commissioned work has kept patrons queued up for ten years at a time.

After contracting polio in 1958, Bowler nonetheless, committed himself to his art; indeed, grew and evolved, with each passing decade from the business world of nationally recognized illustrations, to commissioned portraiture on Hilton Head, where he found time to create his own inspired art between and around commissions.

Joe Bowler portrait, Regan Boyse

Portrait, ‘Regan Boyse – 2010’, by Joe Bowler

Referring fondly to his years working as errand boy, palette and brush cleaner at Cooper Studio in the early years, his first break came when Saturday Evening Post artist/illustrator, Coby Whitmore, took a sample portrait the nineteen year-old Bowler had been working on, and sold it for him to Cosmopolitan magazine for $1000.  Bowler made $35.00/week at that time.  In 1967 the Artists’ Guild of New York named Joe their Artist of the Year, and by this time, magazines were commissioning him to do portraits of well-known people including a McCall’s article portraying eight presidential candidates’ wives; works that landed the covers of such well-known publications as the August 1971 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal portrait of Rose Kennedy, and a Saturday Evening Post cover of Julie and David Eisenhower.

Encouraged, and managed by his late wife, Marilyn (see captioned photo near the top, by Mark Staff), Joe drew inspiration from her tireless support, inherent understanding of the working artist, and fifty-eight strong years of marriage.  Currently, daughter Jolyn Bowler, is the organizer and keeper of the Bowler flame.

Joe Bowler’s works can be viewed online at http://www.joebowler.com,  http://www.morriswhiteside.com, or in person at the Morris-Whiteside Gallery at The Red Piano, 220 Cordillo Parkway, Hilton Head Island, SC  29928; phone, 843-842-4433.  Anyone with inquiries regarding portraits or non-portrait works can either call Jolyn Bowler, at 843-671-2702, or send an email to bowlerportraits@gmail.com.

IV. Nancy Mitchell

Recent painting by Nancy Mitchell

‘Gullah’s Ark’, by Hilton Head Artist, Nancy Mitchell

For the same reason Hilton Head Island stands alone as an incredible testament to the art that is inherent in nature, renowned muralist, wildlife painter, and now, sculptor, Nancy Mitchell, has carved out an artistic niche for herself over the past thirty years; the shared motivation being, environmental respect.  Because, just as Hilton Head Island’s early developers insisted on maintaining the natural beauty of the island during building, Nancy’s profound respect for native flora and fauna is always evident in her work.  And, not only does she draw inspiration from local land/seascapes, she belongs to the Lowcountry Plein Air Society, an organization devoted to nature, and painting outdoors.

Nancy lives her art, and her art lives within her.  There are no other words to describe this totally dedicated, talented, authentic, artist on Hilton Head.  Her work evolves through natural textures and hues, and she is unafraid of learning new tricks.  As a commissioned muralist through the years, she graciously gives of herself through her art donations to animal relief charities and other non-profit organizations.  A true renaissance woman in the new millennium, Nancy’s artistic output is matched only by her glowing smile and sincere desire to return to the earth its natural resources, in any way possible.  If Hilton Head Island were personified as an artist, Nancy Mitchell would be its muse, without a doubt.

“Making a living as an artist has only been possible because of diversity. Murals and faux finishes are still an important part of my repertoire as is commission work for clients and designers,” states Nancy.

Nancy Artist, Plein Air Society Artist

‘Beachpath II’, by Nancy Mitchell, Was Recently Completed on the Easel in Her Back Yard (see Photo at the Top of Artist at Work)

Her love for animals, especially rescued pets, and the local marsh tackies indigenous to coastal Carolina, has led her to animal drawings, mixed-media works, and animal sculptures more recently.  Much of what she has learned has been adding to a fifteen-year brainstorm that has culminated in her current work-in-progress, Life is a Carnival, which will include large, highly textured, sculpture pieces of mixed media, silhouettes, and dynamic shadows, a project inspired largely by the Shriners’ Savannah Carnival.

Represented by The Red Piano Too, Art Gallery, 870 Sea Island Pkwy, St. Helena, SC 29920; phone, 843-838-2241, http://www.redpianotoo.com/ Email: redpianotoo@islc.net, The Filling Station Gallery, 69 Calhoun Street, Bluffton, SC;  phone, 843-263-4796, Mitchell divides her time between shows, commissioned works, and selling her art at farmer’s markets, and weekend art festivals.  Those who would like to learn more about Nancy’s passion for oil painting, can take her October 2014 workshop, at the Art Academy.

Each of these artists works in a unique setting of their choosing.  Joe Bowler and Brucie Holler prefer their own studios, while Robert Rommel and Nancy Mitchell would rather work outside.  The two things they all have in common are 1.) inspiration to create, which only comes from within, and 2.) the extraordinary protective landscape that is Hilton Head Island.  Of course, a work of art in and of itself.

*Please note: This article was commissioned by, and first appeared in, the July, 2014, issue of Hilton Head Monthly on page 22, in the magazine’s, Vibe section.  This is the writer’s uncut, final version.  Any errors of spelling, fact, or inaccuracies that occur herein, please email me, Carmen Hawkins DeCecco, carmenhawk1@gmail.com, with your concern and contact information, and I will address promptly.  Thank you.

Hilton Head Wrack and Roll!

Seaweed, known as wrack.

Seaweed, known as wrack.

We are ever grateful that this island is home to so much carefully preserved and honored wildlife that we, the domesticated, evolved and reasoning creatures that we are, tend to step back on occasion screeching thusly…. “AAAGH!!! DID YOU SEE THE SIZE OF THAT SNAKE?”, forgetting for a moment that we have intruded upon their (their, being Nature that was here waayyyyyyyyy yonder before us), territory in recent years, which, if you measure in geologic time amounts to about the size of a quarter against the globe of 4.6 billion years, which is how long the earth has been in existence.  Apparently, they say we (we, as in humanoids) have been here only a short burp compared to the earth’s raging gastrointestinal offspring of dinasaurs, ice ages, and meteor she-bangs, and I believe them, (“Who?” You might ask is saying we are only a blip on the earth’s radar screen, if eons were measured as blips on radar screens, and I will answer, “people who have made it their business to research and dig in the dirt to prove and make us feel like we are an ego-driven, selfish race of species that will self-sabotage before any asteroid comes close to the widening hole in our ozone layer.”)

Neanderman seeking birdie

Neanderman seeking birdie

I mean really, we’ve got alligators (prehistoric), enormous, birds of prey that spread their wings and you think a seven-forty-seven is taking off from the lagoon at the 16th tee of the Sea Pines Club Course, some days. Turtles get bigger and bigger, and forget sea turtles… have you ever seen a loggerhead up close?  You’d think you maybe took a step back to the Pleistocene age sometimes when walking around our pristine and scenic sand dunes.

Which brings me to my point, believe it or not (I know you’re thinking, ‘is she ever going to get to the point, or what?’), which is that seaweed – also a prehistoric life form, but has not evolved much from then to now – a natural and necessary feature of our delicate ecosystem, sometimes crowds the beach after a super moon tidal party that does not involve us, except as spectators.  Having applied all my literary skills to describing this beautiful ocean algae that sustains invertebrates such as crabs and insects, as well as providing nesting for shorebirds, I shudder to call something so essential, accenting the beaches like eyebrows, gracing our shorelines, and harmless, as “wrack”, but there you have it.  That’s what it’s called. Wrack.

Having said all that above, I and my dog Sam, know the true purpose for wrack; Beach Beagle Back Scratcher!

Celebrate World Ocean Day with the Coastal Discovery Museum Friday, June 8, 2012

World Ocean Day, June 8, 2012


What better way to wind up a Hilton Head vacation week, than to visit the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn for a full day of presentations honoring our delicate ocean systems and wildlife? (That was a rhetorical questions… there is no better way.)  Beginning at 9:00 am on Friday, June 8, with Dr. Michael R. Denson of the Waddell Mariculture Center, followed by six more forty-five minute presentations ranging in subject from seafood in lowcountry restaurants, hearing measurements of bottle-nosed dolphins, sea turtle habits, sharks (natch), and human impact on marine environments.

Loggerhead Turtle


Space for each lecture is limited to the first sixty people who arrive.  For more information, check out their Facebook page for a full schedule of events, or call: 843-689-6767 or email: info@coastaldiscovery.org.  And if you can’t make it on Friday, check out the website for daily family and kid-friendly events and classes all about the lowcountry wildlife, history, and environment.


And for those of you who have never been to the Coastal Discovery Museum, take a walk around the gorgeous grounds of what was once known as Honey Horn Plantation… and bring your camera!

Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn

Located at 70 Honey Horn Drive, Hilton Head Island, 29926 just off the Cross Island Parkway:

If You Are What You Eat, This Gator Was a Beer-Guzzling Sports Fan


Soccer, Anyone?

I thought my little Beagle Sam, held the record for most obnoxious objects to put in his mouth (hairclips, eye glasses, underwear…sigh, yes, underwear… and plastic squeaks from inside the chew toys I bring him).  But nooooooooo, Sam must concede to the thirteen-foot alligator that was chased and caught yesterday at Jarvis Creek Park.  This guy likes to kick back and watch the games live, apparently, considering the contents of his stomach.  A real sportsman, is he.  Baseballs, tennis balls, fishing lures, and a beer can were just a few of the items revealed during the autopsy of said deceased gator.  Fortunately, the only body parts discovered were several turtles, and an intact four-foot alligator he had ingested at some point.  I understand now how these creatures have survived since the age of dinosaurs; they can stay alive feeding on literally, anything at all.  And if you had any doubts as to the seriousness of the signs that say, “Please do not feed the alligators,” keep in mind, this one grabbed a soccer ball for his dinner.  For more details, check out the Island Packet.

      By the way, just in case you were wondering, Jarvis Creek is nowhere near The Vacation Company’s vacation rentals.

What Makes Spanish Moss Spanish?

A strand of Spanish Moss

Excellent question.  Tillandsia usneoides, or Spanish Moss as is commonly known, is the gauzy-looking veil that drapes from the branches of southern Live Oaks, Cypress, and even some pines.  Often, at The Vacation Company, we are asked about several wildlife curiousities, the first being “do alligators really roam the golf courses free?” And the second one being, “so just what is Spanish Moss, anyway?”  The following is my attempt to address this odd, yet nostalgic plant ubiquitous to this region.

The only references to it being ‘Spanish’ were in the form of legends.  I found three different tales on the Internet alone.  Two had to do with a Spaniard who dies in a Live Oak tree because of his undying forbidden love of a young Native American woman.  For some reason or other, his beard continues growing until it spreads and populates the other trees, showing that his love truly lived on even after he was gone.  The third tale was about Cherokees who attacked a Spanish couple planning to develop a plantation in Charleston in the 1700’s.  As a warning to any other Europeans to not continue invading their land, the Cherokees cut off the long hair of the wife and threw it into the trees, where it shriveled into gray strands and spread as a way of warning other settlers.


Spanish Moss on Live Oaks at Honey Horn Plantation
on Hilton Head Island, SC


     The air-plant is not really in the family of moss, as it sounds, but is considered a flowering plant (although the flowers are miniscule) that spreads by seeds and by birds who use it to build nests.  While not exactly a parasite, it does depend on the nutrients of its host trees for certain minerals – like calcium and magnesium -while also needing sun and moisture; which is why it grows well in humid regions like the southeastern United States all the way down to Argentina.  Trees generally don’t benefit from being covered in Spanish Moss, as it makes it hard for the tree to breathe and bend in the wind.


Through the years, this plant has supplied both function and art to civilization.  It has been used for pillow stuffing, upholstery filling, and more recently in arts and crafts (Note: it does provide a home for critters like snakes and beetles, so it would be wise to select carefully).  Aesthetically, the romantic and haunting characteristics of Spanish Moss dripping over a swamp, or hanging cobweb-like in a humid forest have also come to represent the genre southern gothic, in novels and movies.

Personally, I can’t imagine looking across a Hilton Head Island marsh sunset, or bike riding through the Forest Preserve without seeing it waving slowly in the breeze.  It has come to signify home for me, lace curtains decorating the scenery as I drive towards the island from any point north.

This ends this week’s science topic.  There will be a pop-quiz on Facebook.

So Busy This Vacation Season! We Had to Hire a Local to Help Us Out.

Fred Sneggert, Vacation Company valet, here to help

         With so much going on this year on Hilton Head Island, we’ve had to pull in some local help for busy Saturday check-ins.  This is Fred Sneggert, the Snowy Egret, who graciously helped us out last week by valet parking a few cars at one of our many oceanfront villa rental buildings.  Fred’s lived here for quite some time, and doesn’t mind pitching in when the going gets hot.  He retired down here some years ago after a stellar career as a bellhop in Charleston.  We’re so glad he lives next door to this gorgeous condo complex near the south end.  Do you know where it is?  If you do, take the poll to the right of this blog post.  If you’re not sure, but think a hint would help, click here to see another picture of the same complex from a different angle on our Facebook page.

Fred worked hard July 2.  Thanks Fred!

     If you give up, but still want to stay in a villa in Palmetto Dunes – Barrington, Captain’s Walk, Villamare, Windsor – or in Shipyard, Forest Beach – Shorewood, SeaCrest – or in Sea Pines – Land’s End, Beachside Tennis, Turtle Lane, South Beach Villas – or more, and stay in a villa with a view to the Atlantic, call an Angel 800-845-7018.

Mooning in the Morning in Sea PInes

       Living on Hilton Head is truly a gift when any astronomical events occur, because the night sky is clear and stargazing is unhindered by smog and streetlights.  And with all the excitement recently about the moon being so big and full this past weekend, I made a point of looking for it every night and checking it out from various angles.  It was a beautiful sight, and for those of you who have been living under a bucket in a cave for the past few weeks, the news media tells us that the moon has not been this close to the earth in over eighteen years.

Moon sets over marsh in the a.m.

      I have to say, I enjoy the morning moon setting over the marsh as the sun rises across the golf course, almost as much as I like the evening moon.  Today, I was finally able to get a couple of shots of that lovely sight while walking my dog, Sam.

     Are you a moongazer? Let us know your favorite place to watch the night sky on Hilton Head.  And if you have any photos, send them to me, along with the location and date that you took them, and I’ll post them in our facebook album.

     And remember, if you want to get an uninterrupted view of the night sky, call an Angel for rates on some of the best star-gazing Hilton Head vacation rentals on the island! 855.845.7018


Marsh View at Sea Pines Club Course 18th Green

If you’ve rented a property with the Vacation Company of Hilton Head, you have probably enjoyed a great view of one of the island’s many natural scenes; quiet lagoon or marsh, lush golf course, ocean, or the site of a wooded bike path offering tranquility and shade to joggers, cyclists, and dog walkers. You’ve walked or biked to Harbourtown for a dazzling sunset, played the Ocean Course for it’s myriad scenic angles and gator sightings, or wandered over to Jurassic Park (aka the Sea Pines Forest Preserve) to soak up the undisturbed and occasionally mutant-sized flora and fauna. How many other glorious views can you ask for?

Countless, is the answer. But to suggest a couple of favorites, I would begin with the drive over the bridges, including the Cross Island Parkway. In thirty-five years, I have not tired of these breathtaking rides that offer panoramic, moving shots of Lowcountry landscape reminiscent of a National Geographic documentary complete with pelicans dive-bombing the ocean, shrimp boats plowing through the water, marsh grasses blowing, and a vibrantly painted sky that changes daily according to the weather.

Bored? Take a drive.

My other favorite island view is the marsh sunset from the Sea Pines Country Club clubhouse. This one is spectacular and exciting because each one is vastly different from the one before it. Some evenings, the sky is brilliant orange with purple daggers flying out front and others, it is like a watercolor painting, pastel shades melting into each other. This one, I snapped Friday, 6/11/10 just after walking our dog Sam, up past the 18th green.

Do you have a personal favorite shot of a Hilton Head view? If so, send it in, and we’ll post it. Make sure you give us the name of the location and the date and time it was shot and with what kind of camera was used. Send your photos to carmen@vacationcompany.com.