By Michele Roldán-Shaw
oug Corkern has been sketching since he was a young boy. Now that he is retired from his successful career as an architect, he is free to devote more of his time to the many art forms he loves. There is an incredible breadth and scope to his talent; he can handle the most tedious architectural rendering or the most spontaneous gesture drawing with equal ease. Some of the projects he has done over the years include a set of pen & ink drawings depicting the rice plantations of his hometown (Georgetown, SC), whimsical fish carvings, beautiful and emotive chalk sketches of the female figure, a series of postcards made from drawings that he did of the historic houses in Bluffton, not to mention the countless sketches held together by the wire spirals of his notebooks. He also does delightful little watercolor paintings of exotic locations that he and his wife Jean have traveled to, such as Spain, England, Venezuela and the Greek Islands.
I totally enoyed getting up close and personal with Doug Corkern.
Bluffton Breeze: When did you first realize you had a talent for art?
Doug Corkern: In grade school. I grew up during the Second World War when you couldn’t buy toys, so I used to carve my own toys. We played cowboys and Indians and I would carve rifles and pistols out of wood. I took a musket that I had carved to school and one of the teachers took the gun and showed everybody in the school, then gave it back to me at the end of the day with a comment, “Son, you ought to be an architect.” We didn’t have an architect in my hometown, I didn’t even know what that was.
BB: What kind of stuff did you draw back then?
DC: I was drawing horses, airplanes, rifles, lots of things.
BB: When did you get into the architecture part of it?
DC: I decided in the 10th grade that I wanted to be an architect. I went to Clemson, started in 1953 and took a five year course, then after graduation I started work right away. I worked in Columbia and Charlotte and then I came down here to do a survey on a house and I met Charles Frazier. He offered me a job and I immediately took it because it was really exciting what was going on here back then.
BB: How would you describe this area back at that time?
DC: Different from now. It was all natural. Back then, believe it or not, it was offensive to me to see an azalea plant with all that bright color because it was not akin to the South Carolina earth-toned woods. It was offensive to see a splash of color in the Lowcountry. But I guess we’re through that period in our history; I call it the golden age of Lowcountry architecture and design.
BB: What period are we in now?
DC: [laughing] The mega hotel home period.
BB: During the time that you were working as an architect, did you continue to do art that wasn’t related to your renderings for buildings and that sort of thing?
DC: Very definitely. I’ve always made time for leisure: fishing, playing golf, and particularly art. I found out a long time ago, if you really want to do those things you’ve got to make time. Nobody’s going to let you do them. I make the time to carve and sketch because it’s important to me. As a matter of fact, I don’t like myself when I don’t do them.
BB: When did you retire from architecture?
DC: Three or four years ago.
BB: Would you say you had a pretty successful career?
DC: Oh yes, I was really happy to be a part of it. It was terribly exciting. I look back and I really had a good a life. I enjoyed it, and I’ve been able to do some things and create some things that I don’t mind riding by and seeing.
BB: So what all are you doing now?
DC: Sketches, watercolor, carving, and a little fishing. We might call that yachting because if you don’t catch a fish it’s called yachting. I stay excited every morning when I get up and think about what I’m going to do that day. I’ll start sketching and before I know it, it’s five o’clock.
BB: It seems like during your career you were focused on creating new stuff, whereas now your sketches are mostly of the old stuff. Old buildings and churches and whatnot.
DC: Well, I’m sort of recording now.
BB: Do you look at that as having any significance beyond just your own personal art?
DC: Hadn’t thought about it. No, I don’t think it has any significance. I guess I’m at the age where I’m trying to leave something. I’d like to leave a sketch that someone would say, “Oh, Doug Corkern did that 40 years ago. That’s nice.”
BB: What inspired you to do the Bluffton postcards?
DC: Bluffton. I started sketching the old houses and thought, boy these might make nice postcards.
BB: What is it about an old church or house that makes you want to sketch it?
DC: The fact that it’s out in the country, the fact that it’s probably not being used now and that it’s in danger of fire or deterioration. It makes me want to do something to save it. I’ve had several that burned after I photographed them. It hurts to see that.
BB: What do you think are some of the most scenic places around the state?
DC: The South Carolina Lowcountry is absolutely the most beautiful. And Bluffton is right in the middle of it. My friend Ed Pinckney and I used to take Sunday drives with our wives, back up through Hampton and Garnett and Estill and Robertsville and those places, and they all have old churches. It’s just beautiful country and a lot of people don’t see that. They see it going through at 55, 65 miles an hour. But if you ride around in the Lowcountry, there’s some great views.
BB: So would you say that maybe your art could inspire people to slow down and take the back roads for a change?
DC: Oh, I don’t expect my art to do anything for society. My art is really more for me than anybody else.
BB: When you go on those outings, what sort of art supplies do you bring with you?
DC: Just a sketchbook and pen. One of the first times I went to Europe I took my camera, and when I got back I hadn’t seen anything. The next time I went I took a sketch book and a pen and I really saw things for the first time.
BB: What type of pens do you use?
DC: Crow quills. It’s the type pen that the old masters used, and you have to dip it in ink and everything. Now they have all these pens with cartridges and all that, but the quality of the Crow quill lets you do a flowing line that the technical pens don’t have. I like to do a lot of chalk drawings, especially the life drawings. I developed my own technique after reading some of the things the old masters used to do. They didn’t just draw with the chalk, they’d take a piece of leather and rub the leather on the chalk, then find the form with that.
BB: If you had to estimate, how many sketches do you think you’ve done over the years?
DC: There’s no way to count. It’d have to be up in the thousands. I do a lot of sketches on napkins, too.
BB: Personally, I find it pretty amazing that you can do the detailed architectural drawings just as well as the looser and more spontaneous figure drawings.
DC: Well, I don’t think I’m unique. It’s just a matter of wanting to do it and applying yourself. People don’t believe it, but anybody can draw. You just have to learn how to see. You want to see the negative shape instead of the positive shape. If you start to draw an eye, you don’t want to draw an eyeball, but a curve in the top of the eye and the corner. But people are taught as a child that an eye is round with an iris in the center of it. You need to really look at what you’re drawing.
BB: After spending a delightful afternoon with Doug, I asked if there was anything else he would like to add?
DC: Just that I’ve had a great career and I’ve really enjoyed my practice of architecture. It’s been wonderful to be able to do that, and I have no regrets. My wife and I love living on the cove here in Bluffton. This is the place to be.