Dec 20 2017

Nativity Scene Gets A Facelift

By Susan Hill Smith for The Island Eye News

Artist Bonnie Holden adds fresh paint to the figures of Mary and Joseph as the crèche she created more than four decades ago goes back up again in December.

Paint brush in hand, Bonnie Holden surveys the lifesized nativity figures in front of Isle of Palms First United Methodist Church and can’t help but see needed touch-ups. After all, she designed the scene in the early 1970s, and every December since then has worked with her family to put it back on display, not only for fellow churchgoers but anyone who travels along Palm Boulevard toward the church during the Christmas season. Even at 84, she’s driven by her art and a passion she shares with her husband, Harry, for enriching the lives of others. They purchased their Isle of Palms home with a handshake from J.C. Long in 1967 when Forest Trail was a new neighborhood and there were only 500 full time, island residents. A few years later when the spark for creating the crèche hit Bonnie, she couldn’t ignore it. “It came to me that there was nothing here that meant the real Christmas, so I decided to do it.” Holden had the talent, vision and spirit required to show the story of Jesus’ birth in a way that would get attention. Before she met Harry, she had studied art in New York and started her career in the city as a fashion stylist and illustrator for William Becker Studios with her work appearing in magazines like Vogue, Harper’s and Mademoiselle, as well as the Sears catalog, a cornerstone of American merchandising at the time. The couple would eventually run several Lowcountry galleries, including one that lasted for many years on King Street. They showcased Bonnie’s Victorian-era watercolors of Charleston scenes and later, story-driven paintings around ideals like friendship, that they distributed nationally. Their corporate clients continue to include Disney and Avon. The nativity scene was always intended as a gift to the Isle of Palms community. At the outset, the Methodist church’s mens club provided the wooden boards, and a neighbor who worked in construction helped cut the shapes with a jig saw. The initial effort lasted from May to December as Bonnie painted people and animals that filled the house where the couple was raising their fifth-grade son. In the early years after its debut, her depiction attracted local newspaper and TV news attention. Members of another church asked to replicate it in West Ashley, where that congregation still puts theirs on display. The figures in the Isle of Palms Methodist Church’s collection include baby Jesus, of course, as well as two sets of Mary and Joseph to show them traveling and by the manger. There are only half a dozen sheep left due to opportunists who have occasionally made off with members of the flock. And the 8×12-foot camels are so big and difficult to fix – their legs need to be reattached – that they are not going to appear at all this year. But the wise men are back, including the one that Bonnie repainted because she thought he looked too much like actor Bob Denver from “Gilligan’s Island.” One of Bonnie’s favorite figures was the elderly innkeeper who served as a focal point of the action but got thrown out after Hurricane Hugo washed through the church in 1989. She doubts she could do it over again as well as the first. The figures go up the first Sunday every December. Sometimes the Holdens have more help than others, and this year they got extra assistance from the church and its Boy Scout troop because Harry made a point to ask. Joan Colglazier has been pitching in with plaster fixes the past 10 years. She recalls walking her two children through the nativity when they were young in the 1980s, and her memories of her daughter’s first visits are the most vivid. “She would walk around and learn about Jesus, and it was just wonderful.” The Holdens have a long history of contributing to the community in a variety of other ways as well. That includes teaching CPR to countless people at a time when the island was more isolated from emergency help. As parents, they chaperoned teen dances, and as seniors, they have been a positive force in the Isle of Palms Recreation Department’s Keenagers programs and exercise class for the older set. Their son, Barry, grew up to be an attorney and served on Isle of Palms City Council in the early 1990s. The family usually puts the scene out with little fanfare, though they know people look forward to it every year. “People will come to Bonnie and me and say, ‘Christmas doesn’t start on the island until that goes up,’” Harry says. But these days not as many folks seem to know Bonnie is the one who created it all. “The most important thing is that it’s there for people to enjoy,” her husband adds, “and that’s all Bonnie wants.”

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