By Oliver Hartner

SEWE_Peter Frank Edwards_lead.jpg

Peter Frank Edwards


The internet offers plenty of information, but it can’t replicate or replace the value of a tangible connection, where questions are asked and answered with a handshake and a smile. Gatherings such as the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, known commonly as SEWE, offer an exceptional opportunity to educate a broad spectrum of the public about conservation in a unique and exciting way, ensuring that visitors come away with a greater appreciation for our wild spaces, the species that inhabit them, and the people working to protect them.

In 1983, the founders of SEWE chose the third weekend in February to host their inaugural event in Charleston, South Carolina. That event featured just over 100 wildlife artists and drew an estimated crowd of more than 5,000. SEWE now hosts over 500 international artists and exhibitors who showcase their work to more than 40,000 attendees. John Powell, SEWE’s president and CEO, said, “While the event has evolved over time, the chance to interact with the artists and artisans is still there, just as it was over 40 years ago. Our staff works very hard to keep the experience valuable and intimate for our attendees while ensuring that we grow in a responsible way.”

Peter Frank Edwards_EC Oyster Roast.jpg

Peter Frank Edwards

More than 40,000 people attend SEWE every year. They come to experience the outdoors lifestyle through fine art, entertainment, food, special events, and a shared passion for wildlife and conservation.

The only year SEWE experienced an interruption was in 2021, during the pandemic. The 2022 event, which took place after restrictions had been lifted, shattered several previous records for attendance and revenue, generating over $30 million in local economic impact while inspiring a deeper appreciation for our natural resources.

SEWE sprawls across several venues within Charleston’s iconic cityscape, and events range in size and scope from black-tie galas to large casual gatherings. Many patrons choose Brittlebank Park, along the banks of the Ashley River, to launch their SEWE weekend. Vendors stationed throughout the park sell gear and clothing while outfitters offer information about domestic or international hunting and fishing trips.

Peter Frank Edwards_Exhibit.jpg

Peter Frank Edwards

Peter Frank Edwards_Art.jpg

Peter Frank Edwards

Peter Frank Edwards_Decoys.jpg

Peter Frank Edwards

The DockDogs competition at Brittlebank Park always draws a crowd that is eager to see which pup can leap the farthest, all while live bluegrass bands carry an upbeat tune in the background. A bus service carries SEWE guests to Marion Square, where falconry demonstrations and free fly-fishing lessons take center stage amid multiple exhibits that feature cooking demonstrations and information from conservation and agricultural organizations.

From there, show visitors can walk to the Gaillard Center to visit with artists and vendors selling handmade durable goods and to watch the Busch Wildlife Sanctuary’s live animal shows. Or they can proceed to Charleston Place—the heart of SEWE—where artists display paintings and sculptures. Artists who want to exhibit their work at Charleston Place must apply annually, and from this panel of applicants, a featured artist is chosen. Ryan Kirby, a renowned painter and the featured artist for SEWE 2023, said, “SEWE has always been an important part of my schedule for about the past 10 years. It’s something I look forward to every year, and for me to have been chosen as a featured artist in 2023 was an honor, especially after having seen the incredible work from those who came before me.” 

Peter Frank Edwards_DockDogs.jpg

Peter Frank Edwards

A full docket of daytime activities might leave some folks running on empty, but the party continues after sunset with several special events, including the East Cooper Ducks Unlimited Chapter’s Annual Oyster Roast and Lowcountry Cookout. DU and SEWE partnered for the first time in 1997, and now the oyster roast has become one of DU’s top 10 events. Last year’s event raised more than $600,000 for DU’s conservation mission, and tickets often sell out months in advance.

The relationship between SEWE and DU has grown deeper over the years as the leadership teams from both organizations see the need for more concerted efforts on behalf of conservation. In 2023, SEWE featured the documentary film Wings Over Water, which was sponsored in part by DU. The film focuses on the flyways of migratory bird species and the habitats required to sustain them. DU has made a large investment to grow its SEWE presence at Marion Square and plans to do more in the years to come. This ongoing partnership will undoubtedly benefit conservation and habitat projects while enhancing the overall experience for SEWE patrons.

Peter Frank Edwards_East Cooper Chapter.jpg

Peter Frank Edwards

The East Cooper DU Chapter’s Oyster Roast at SEWE has become one of the organization’s top fundraising events. Sporting art and firearms are always popular attractions.

Like many nonprofit organizations, SEWE faces challenges, but none are existential or damaging. In fact, the main challenge is managing continuous growth and demand. “When you have the kinds of challenges we have, that’s a good thing,” said George Bullwinkel III, a SEWE board member. Bullwinkel grew up in Charleston and attended SEWE every year with his father, who has served on the board for several decades. SEWE board members and staff attend at least one retreat per year to sort through ideas while enjoying the sporting life in some way, whether that’s hunting, angling, or both. Some of the ideas hatched from these retreats have resulted in smaller SEWE-sponsored events throughout the year. “We feel like we can help conservation work throughout the year without losing any traction on hosting another great SEWE weekend, and we’re now financially stable enough to entertain these kinds of efforts,” Bullwinkel said. These events will help SEWE manage its exponential growth while also helping to sustain and improve the work being done to protect wildlife habitat.

The importance of gathering avid conservationists together and recruiting new people to take part in the sporting life cannot be overstated. In this unprecedented age of connectivity, people have never been more distant from their community, from one another, and from nature. With record-breaking attendance and a growing list of partners, including DU, SEWE offers hope that sporting traditions and an appreciation for nature will continue to grow in popularity and reach new audiences.