A native and lifelong resident of Charleston, South Carolina, Emma S. Gilchrist significantly shaped local art education and established an important foundation for its future in the Lowcountry. In 1912, at the age of fifty, she initiated the Sketch Club of the Carolina Art Association by entreating the board to provide financial support and studio space in the Gibbes Art Gallery, the distinguished home of the association since 1905. As envisioned by Gilchrist, the club’s mission was to encourage professional and amateur artists to meet and assist one another. The Art Association monies—usually one hundred dollars—funded visiting artists such as William P. Silva, who led the members, largely women, on outdoor sketching ventures. While selling works of art was not among the club’s original goals, it later held sales in rented rooms at Christmas time and during the tourist season, when offerings were displayed on a fence near St. Philip’s Church. The Sketch Club’s endeavors evolved into the Gibbes Art School, where Gilchrist taught classes.
Gilchrist was primarily a landscapist who worked in an impressionistic style on a small scale. Like many of her peers, she also executed picturesque streetscapes of Charleston. Her paintings were included in eight consecutive exhibitions of the Southern States Art League, which took place in a variety of locations across the region.
When Gilchrist died in 1929, the Sketch Club’s minutes paid her the following tribute: “Deep sorrow was expressed for the passing of the club’s most valued member Emma S. Gilchrist who originated the Sketch Club and worked untiringly for it.” She bequeathed numerous paintings to the Carolina Art Association, including family portraits by Charles Fraser, as well as a landscape by Thomas Doughty.