For centuries, the Lowcountry was built on tabby. With the formula lost to the ages, D. Pierce Giltner unveils his modern take on an ancient art.
By Barry Kaufman + Photography by Kim Smith Photo
While they exist now only in ruins scattered across the backroads of the Lowcountry landscape, this was once a land of grand Southern manors. While their exteriors may have been as elaborately adorned as any genteel estate in the world, the sea island’s mansions were built on something different.
“In the Sea Islands, they didn’t have access to bricks or if they did, they were very expensive. And there were no large rocks around,” said artist and craftsman D. Pierce Giltner. “But there were tons of dried-up oyster shells all over.”
Those oyster shells were burned to create quicklime, which was then blended with water, sand and intact oyster shells to create tabby. And despite its popularity here, soon influencing home construction from Staten Island to the West Indies, over time the art behind its creation was lost.
At least it was until Giltner proved how true the adage is, “necessity is the mother of invention.”
“I was commissioned by J. Banks Design on a project to build a tabby fireplace in Kiawah,” he said. “I had worked with it before, and they knew I could pull it off. It took a lot of trial and error to get it down to a science.”
What Giltner had worked with before is a substance you’ve no doubt seen all over the Lowcountry, which is tabby in name only. “You’ll see a lot of stucco that has oysters in it and it’s smeared on. They’ve kidnapped the name,” said Giltner. “It’s a cheap method of building.”
Realizing this job needed to be done right, Giltner got to work replicating the once-lost art of making genuine tabby.
“What I do is the same process, except I’m not burning the shell to make lime,” he said. “It’s a very unique process. As far as I know, no one knows how to do it. Only Joni (Vanderslice, owner of J. Banks) and I know the process.”
Once he had the basic formula down, another complication presented itself, one which would lead Giltner not only to rediscover the lost art of tabby, but to improve on it. If you’ve seen the ruins of old tabby mansions, you’ll be able to see the tell-tale lines where massive bricks of tabby were stacked to create structure. Built in massive forms, the old style of tabby was designed to create massive slabs.
Giltner didn’t just need genuine tabby, he needed it to hold up at just an inch and a half thick, something that had never been done. “It wasn’t easy,” he said. “But I tested it out and had a structural engineer come look at it, and we came up with an application that could be done on or off site.”
The end result was a stunning tabby fireplace, built with the same exacting care as the mansions of the Old South. But more importantly, it has brought back an art form that many thought was lost.
“It takes the heart of a craftsman to make it art,” said Giltner. “It’s a very labor-intensive process, but once it’s all done, it’s absolutely beautiful.”
Inspired by Drack
If you happen to get a chance to watch Giltner in action, you may spot someone who has become his muse in his latest series of paintings. Known only as Drack, this third-generation oysterman helps out on every installation.
“He’s my right-hand man, and he’s always one step ahead of me,” said Giltner.
The two met in 2009, when Giltner ventured out onto the May River to study the subtle variations in color that flow through the river as the seasons change. Seeing Giltner at work, the last of a dying breed, was a flash of inspiration.
“It started out as a commission for two paintings, which took me 3-4 months,” he said. The switch from painting wood to painting with oil came with a learning curve, but Giltner took to it quickly. A full show at FARM restaurant quickly followed, showcasing his dazzling oil paintings of Drack at work. “It was great. A lot of people came. And Drack was a part of the show. He was right there with me.”