Powell takes the reins of SEWE
By Prioleau Alexander
When the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition came to town in 1983, it was a boutique affair, hosting 100 artists and welcoming 5,000 visitors. Oh, what a difference 40 years makes — today, it is Charleston’s largest festival, hosting approximately 500 artists, exhibitors and wildlife experts with 40,000 attendees annually. The estimated $50 million in economic impact every year is no drop in the bucket, either.
When famed CEO Jimmy Huggins announced his retirement, supporters of SEWE were interested to see who the board would choose to fill those legendary shoes, and in the end, they didn’t have to look far. The board chose John Powell, a full-time member of the SEWE team since 2007. The decision was a wise one, as John brings to the CEO’s position almost two decades of experience — experience in dealing with the endless array of details, large and small, that make SEWE such a well-oiled machine.
A native of Greenville, North Carolina, and a graduate of Davidson College, John is a passionate hunter and fisherman, and lives downtown with his wife Davy — which is another benefit to the organization, as his downtown residence makes him acutely aware of how 40,000 visitors impact the peninsula.
“Last year we experienced the post-COVID desire of Americans to travel, and had our biggest year ever,” John said. “If that happens this year is yet to be seen, but every year we spend a great deal of time refining our plans to minimize inconveniences to locals. If we break records again, we may need to limit ticket sales — we don’t want to, but that’s a small price to pay when compared to retaining such a great relationship with residents and the city.”
When artists make it big, traveling to art shows no longer becomes necessary. SEWE is different, as many of their big names return every year out of loyalty to the organization that played a critical role in their success. This year returning artists include John Banovich, Thomas Brooks, Grant Hacking and Julie Jeppsen.
“This year’s featured artist, Ryan Kirby, is younger than usual,” said John, “and we’re excited to see what kind of reception he receives. We think he’s a rising star and will finish the Expo with thousands of new fans and followers.”
One of John’s goals is to continue Jimmy’s work of telling “the whole story,” that SEWE has expanded far beyond the early years’ “dog and duck art.” It has evolved into a holistic family event.
“There’s something for everyone,” John explained. “Of course, world-class wildlife art will always be at the heart of our festival, but now the experience has vastly expanded. We host wood carvers, custom knife makers, sculptors, jewelers, cookware and both big-brand and custom clothiers. The falconry demos, dock dogs, sheep herding, and Jack Hannah’s shows are huge hits with the kids.”
The events and offerings of SEWE have become so vast that only their website can do it justice: oyster roasts, music, the signature gala, the list goes on long enough to pack every minute of all three days — and a VIP ticket expands the offerings even further. Hunters attending the Expo will be happy to learn Griffen & Howe firearms will be exhibiting, as is the Beretta Gallery.
When asked about SEWE’s relationship with Charleston’s city government, he’s quick to answer, “Couldn’t be better. More than a festival could hope for. Their entire team is behind us, and they are quick to respond to our needs and requests. I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that the Parks Department is absolutely amazing.”
One of John’s favorite memories of a SEWE event was when Jeff Foxworthy took part — as a sketch artist, not a comedian.
“We got him to sit on stage at the auditorium for a Q&A session, and there in the audience I saw Jack Hannah — just attending like every other visitor. It was a great moment.”
It’s clear that John’s goal is not to grow the festival for the sake of ticket sales, but to focus each year on improving the experience of the guests. Taking the torch from Jimmy Huggins is no small task, but he’s obviously the right man to do it.
This year’s SEWE festival runs February 17-19. For information about tickets, events, artists, and exhibitors, visit SEWE.com