Jo Wood and Steve Chapman explain one of their driftwood art pieces on the Ocracoke beach. Photo: C. Leinbach

Published March 1, 2023

By Connie Leinbach

A brief sojourn on Ocracoke opened two London, England, artists to a new take on following one’s imagination wherever it wants to go.

Steve Chapman and Jo Wood visited Ocracoke in January and while here, they created art on Ocracoke’s beaches with driftwood and other found objects.

It’s all instinct and being attuned to what could be next.

With his art, which can be viewed on Instagram @stevexoh, Steve says, “There’s never a plan. It’s like finding stuff. You just say yes to opportunities.”

An artist, writer and speaker, Steve has 21,000 followers on Instagram.

He doesn’t just post his art but engages his followers in various challenges.

A detail of one of the beach pieces shows a fish licking a lollipop. Photo: C. Leinbach

February was #WTFEB, or “What the Feb.”

This activity is a “daily challenge set on Instagram during February to celebrate the wonkiest month of the year,” he says on his website, in which “hundreds of people from around the world take part each year and produce thousands of weird and wonderful bits of work.”

When he and Jo (@jdwoof) announced that they would visit Ocracoke, some of their followers donated money for art supplies. Since they couldn’t take it all back with them, they donated the leftovers to Ocracoke School.

Steve and Jo came to the island at the invitation of friends Jim and Laura Elms, who live in Wilmington but have homes on Ocracoke.

Finding Ocracoke was like how he finds most of his subjects – letting things happen.

“There were so many good reasons to say no,” Steve said. “It takes two days to get here and I’m a shy person who wouldn’t know anyone.”

But when they got here, they were astonished.

Being on an island with none of the bustle of a world-class city was a refreshing change.

“I still can’t find words to describe it,” he said of his Ocracoke experience. “We were sitting on the beach painting that piece of wood for two hours and there was nothing other than the birds and the ocean.”

One of Steve Chapman and Jo Wood’s pieces at the lifeguard beach with a response by island artist Susan Dodd.

He and Jo discovered the synchronicity on Ocracoke, or “the Ocracoke effect.”

After Jim Elms drove them to the island and dropped them off, the two got around on bicycles and one day rode to the pony pens. On the way back, Steve’s bike got a flat tire.

An Ocracoke Good Samaritan picked them up, packed their bikes into a tiny car and drove them back home.

“Now we’re going to go round to dinner,” Jo said. “That wouldn’t have happened if Steve hadn’t gotten a flat tire.”

“Everything’s an invitation to something else, isn’t it?” Steve noted.

A walk on Springer’s Point led the pair to Ocracoke’s community radio station WOVV 90.1 FM where Peter Vankevich interviewed them and got them to do a few voice overs.

While showing a visitor his makeshift art studio in the Elms’ home, Steve said he hadn’t planned to create art on the beach, but he took his rucksack out there and it just happened.

The first piece was large driftwood tree trunk found on the Lifeguard beach. “I want to be alone,” was seen prominently at the top.

A few days later, a companion piece showed up beside it: a piece of driftwood with a doll’s head attached at the top and a sign on it saying, “Am I in your space?”

Steve was thrilled that another artist chose to respond.

That was islander Susan Dodd, with whom the pair talked on the phone but did not get to meet.

“I really liked talking to them without meeting them,” she said. “I felt like I had met one of my kindred spirits.”

On the driftwood pieces the pair created, they started with white paint, which shows the natural variations in the wood.

One of Steve Chapman and Jo Wood’s

Then Steve adds symbols he uses a lot in his art: shapes and hearts and sea creatures; also, some “interactive” elements like other pieces of wood that spin. Jo adds what she calls “beaky creatures” and other symbols and animals.

The last day Steve and Jo were here they participated in an art film by Elizabeth Miller Derstine of Wake Forest.

Titled “Love Letter to Art,” Derstine will take the 36 hours of film she took on Ocracoke and distill it into a short, possibly to show at the Cucalorus Film Festival in Wilmington.

The film captured art in the making by four different artists with Jo capturing the overall process with her drawings: Steve, who did soundscapes, islander Desiree Christa Ricker, who did movement, Laura Elms, who created a painting, and River Elms, her son, who created with words. 

“It was very loose,” Steve said. “We just let it happen. It was all improvised and inspired by Ocracoke.”

Several days after Steve and Jo left, the driftwood art was gone.

Ed Fuller, chief ranger on Ocracoke’s section of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, said his staff had removed the pieces.

Mike Barber, public affairs officer, said the superintendent’s compendium says that the placement of unattended property on the beach is prohibited between sunset and sunrise.

Dodd said she went looking for them at the dump, but the art was gone.

But that’s OK.

“It is the story and memories that these pieces create that, for me at least, is what the art is,” Steve said.  “Fleeting, temporary, impermanent.”

Steve and Jo receive souvenirs after doing a “What’s Happening on Ocracoke” radio show with Peter Vankevich, left. Photo: C. Leinbach
Steve with some of his paintings. Photo: C. Leinbach
Laura and Jim Elms, Jo Wood and Steve Chapman raise a glass at Zillie’s. Photo: C. Leinbach
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