Sunset River Marketplace in Calabash celebrates 20 years of being at the heart of artistic expression in southeastern North Carolina.
Strolling through the front door of Sunset River Marketplace in Calabash is akin to Dorothy stepping into the Land of Oz or Charlie crossing the threshold of Willy Wonka’s magical chocolate factory. The explosion of colors, shapes and textures assaults your senses in the most pleasant of ways.
Unlike most small-town art galleries, this one is huge. The 10,000-square-foot venue is a converted furniture store and Owner/Executive Director Ginny Lassiter has filled the building with an eclectic collection of works by some of the finest artists the Carolinas have to offer.
But to think of the locale as only an art gallery would be a mistake. The back of the building houses a spacious classroom for aspiring artists. There are jazz nights on the third Thursday each month and Coffee with the Authors events for local writers to share their work with the public. There are Paint & Party events, jewelry and fashion trunk shows, weddings and anniversary parties, and even Creativity Unleashed activities in which you may learn how to properly pack a suitcase or how to make delectable appetizers.
“There’s really no limit to what we do here,” says Lassiter, an art-major graduate of East Carolina University. “It’s all about creativity, which is art – and life.”
Sunset River Marketplace is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2022. Lassiter, a native of Wilson, North Carolina and an accomplished artist herself, birthed the idea of the gallery when she realized area artists needed someplace to show and sell their works beyond the plethora of outdoor festivals found in and around Brunswick County.
“There were a lot of artists in this area, but not a lot of places for them to display their work,” Lassiter says. “I really wanted to do something to rectify the situation. I found this building, turned it into a gallery and working studio, and here we are 20 years later.”
At this writing Sunset River Marketplace was the fifth most highly rated art gallery in all of North Carolina, according to TripAdvisor travelers — out of 315 galleries rated. Considering the number of galleries located in much larger areas like Raleigh and Charlotte, the popularity of the large gallery in small-town Calabash paints a beautiful picture.
“It really is a gem in the rough,” says Joe DiGiulio, an artist from Raliegh whose work is found at Sunset River Marketplace. “I’ve been in many galleries, but never in anything so expansive — and in such a secluded area. It provides a fantastic opportunity for both established and emerging artists to display their work.”
When the doors opened in 2002, Lassiter estimated she had 30 or 40 artists. Interest in being associated with the marketplace grew organically. “We maxed out the space within a year,” she says. At its peak, the gallery featured pieces by about 250 Carolina artists, but today, to ensure her artists have adequate space to exhibit their work, they feature the work of approximately 150 artists.
Over the years, the Marketplace has evolved into coastal Carolina’s premier location for the hottest new contemporary art, gorgeous artisan jewelry, innovative pottery and more. Displaying only artists from the Carolinas, the gallery offers clay art, oil paintings, watercolors, mixed media, pastels and acrylics. Works in metal, wood, hand-blown glass, fiber and other media are also featured.
Located onsite are a pottery studio complete with kilns and pottery wheels; a custom framing department that services artists and collectors from Wilmington to Myrtle Beach; and art classrooms for both national workshops and ongoing instruction.
Among the mediums taught in the classrooms are oil painting, abstract acrylic, sketching, watercolor wash and collage.
Ruth Cox, an artist from Mrytle Beach who has taught classes at the Marketplace for about 10 years and has her works exhibited there, has seen first-hand what the gallery means to artists. “It’s a wonderful place not only to learn the basics and about composition, but also to get to know other artists,” she says. “The support we give each other is priceless.” She adds that Lassiter makes the group of artists feel like family: “She’s so friendly, inspiring and supportive. She’s such a blessing.”
Ocean Isle Beach artist Rachel Sunnell went from Marketplace visitor to student, then from someone who sold her work there to someone who has her own dedicated space at the gallery. She says the space provides “a unique benefit for local artists. There is so much opportunity to grow there, and the camaraderie we share is precious.”
Dariel Bendin, who handles publicity and advertising for Sunset River Marketplace, says, “The atmosphere here is comfortable and creative, so it’s very conducive to the needs of our artists. Ginny has done a tremendous job of creating an environment that allows people to thrive.”
Artists and visitors are not the only ones who benefit from the Brunswick County gallery. Lassiter says the space is important to the community as well because they open up the gallery for a variety of charities and fundraising events.
One such event was a response to the heartbreaking Russia-Ukraine conflict. In March 2022 the Marketplace hosted a two-week Prayers for Ukraine fundraiser. More than 100 artists contributed works for sale, and 100% of the proceeds were donated to Project Hope/Crisis in Ukraine. The benefit raised $8,569 for the charity.
A May/June exhibition called Birthday Wishes auctioned off art donated by gallery artists, with proceeds used to purchase birthday gifts for children whose families cannot afford to buy presents.
Another unique event, Music Canvas, featured a concert pianist playing a grand piano while two abstract artists painted to the music, with the creations auctioned off for charitable cause.
Lassiter and Bendin planned a full year of other activities to celebrate the gallery’s 20th birthday. The first event, titled Cape Fear Perspective, was an exhibition of four notable Wilmington artists: Janet B. Sessoms, Sandy Nelson, Sharon Jones and David Starbuck. A month-long March event was a group show featuring 12 artists working in a variety of mediums. Several Creativity Unleashed and Coffee with the Author sessions are also planned, as are a variety of special workshops — some of which will be led by Lassiter herself.
“Ginny is a very talented artist,” Sunnell says. “Her teaching skills are amazing, and she’s always available to her students. She’s so welcoming and approachable.”
Her generous spirit and easy-going personality are reflected in her staff, according to the gallery’s artists.
“The staff is fabulous,” DiGiulio says “I can’t say enough good things about them.”
Want to go?
Sunset River Marketplace
10283 Beach Drive SW (N.C. Highway 179), Calabash
Open Monday through Saturday, 11 am to 5 pm
Check the website for all of the 20th anniversary and regular events. Updates are frequently posted on the gallery’s Facebook and Instagram pages as well.