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Chase Allen makes a big splash everywhere

Artist and sculptor Chase Allen shows off some of his work in his Daufuskie Island, S.C., gallery

Chase Allen is living out his dream.

He awakes to the view of a picturesque coastal island. He has a 30-second commute to work. He spends the morning welding and hamming metal sculptures until mid-afternoon when he knocks off the rest of the day to go fishing. At night, friends drop by to share the day's catch and ponder the day around his screen porch.

Thanks to the Internet, the 39-year-old artist sells his marine-life sculptures to customers all over the world, even though not a single bridge connects his remote Daufuskie Island home to South Carolina's mainland. Of the 1,000 handcrafted iron fish, crabs, lobsters, and mermaids he sells each year, Allen "ships" about half of them, to customers, some as far away as Australia.

Allen used to ferry his art on his own boat. "I'd go over for groceries and supplies every other week," he says, "and I'd load up my art to be shipped. I quickly realized that logistically I was in trouble. I had a lot of business and a lot of boxes, but not a lot of boat."

It looked as if Allen's growing success might actually force him to move away from the very place that made his dream of being an artist a reality.

"Daufuskie Island had become my inspirational home. I really did not want to move," he says.

He didn't have to. A small boat, subcontracted by UPS, now chugs across Calibogue Sound from Hilton Head island for package pickups. "UPS solved my problem," Allen says. "Now, when I have art that needs to be shipped, I simply print the label and schedule my pickup. Even though all of my boxes must travel first by boat, UPS so far has a 100-percent success record for not damaging my work on its way to my customers and collectors."

The problem-solving has been "critically important to my success," Allen says.

The inner artist

Back in 1999, straight out of college, Allen came to Daufuskie Island with a different career in mind. He hung his marketing degree on the wall in a realty office, and began angling for real estate deals instead of redfish.

But every lunch hour, he would sneak away to another part of the island to a welding shop. Piece by piece, he taught himself to melt metals together into fantastic nautical shapes. Allen had discovered his inner artist in North Carolina during his final semester in business school and for some reason, it stuck.

By 2001 Allen felt ready to sink or swim as an artist. He maxed out his credit card with $7,000 worth of investments in fabricating tools and put a sign in the front yard, announcing his debut into the art world.

Word spread. Visitors to the island found their way to the self-taught artist and his work, much of which included quaint sculptures standing on view in his yard. Tourists went out of their way to buy his pieces, carry them back to their homes, and proudly put them on display.

Online challenge

One savvy decision made a world of difference. Allen created a Web site (www.ironfishart.com) to sell his sculptures. He was in fact, ahead of the curve – e-commerce in those early days, glittered with promise, but few small businesses had found ways to master its potential.

"Not many people were selling art online back then," Allen remembers. "And honestly I never thought through a 'what if this actually works' scenario. The Web would turn out to be a blessing, but I was ill-prepared for success."

Producing enough art wasn't the problem. Getting the pieces to his customers, however, posed a challenge.

Business exploded after Coastal Living magazine profiled his shop, The Iron Fish Gallery & Studio. Online orders poured in, which eventually led to his choosing UPS.

"Why UPS and not some other carrier? Because UPS knows how to figure it out," Allen says.

"We live on a place with no grocery stores, no commercialism," Allen explains. "We shop online ourselves, and we don't buy anything from anybody if they don't ship UPS. We tried another carrier, but things always get stuck on the other side. We'd have to go pick it up. Somehow or another, the UPS system is flawless."

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