By David Farrow
I first met John Doyle in 1976 when he and Manning Williams were building a boat on Cumberland Street. When Harry Cochran opened the Blue Marlin Bar, John did the billfish painting which would later be his trademark. I got to know him during their signature fish fries. His gentle nature belied the sullen mask and we became friends; John and I continued on as friends until the end his life.
The one word that might best describe John Doyle is loyalty. John had some very close friends and he was steadfast to each and every one. One of his closest friends was Danny Petterson. In an exclusive interview with the Mercury, Petterson told us:
“My first recollection of John was at the boat shop on Cumberland, prior to Harry’s. He told me about the time Harry opened the garage door, walked in with a piece of chalk, wrote a rectangle on the floor and split. He came back directly, dragged in a bar, bar back and a few stools. Then he went across the street, bought several cases of beer at the 7-Eleven, opened the door and the rest is tavern history.
John was ten years older, so I was just a punk and he didn’t know me. But his exploits we’re legendary and in Charleston during the late 60s and 70s everyone knew John was wrestling with demons.
In late 1979 or so, John walked into my antique store dressed to the nines, clean, hair cut, slender and elegantly suave. He had on a tweed trench coat and was strikingly handsome. He asked, or said, “You have a van, don’t yah?” I said, “yep.” He asked if I wanted to be an art courier. I said “sure,” and we worked together ever since.
In John’s world, I was I like the tide. Sometimes in, sometimes out, but I always knew l would be back — depending on the gallery director.
The last time the tide came in my duties changed considerably. Last February, John had an ill-fated knee replacement. I was charged with taking him to physical therapy every day. I also became his chef: Weekly, I would smoke salmon on a cedar plank, cut melon and whip up a spinach salad. He was determined to work out and eat well and he did.
But John painted standing and the new knee would not cooperate. Normally, he could paint a typical eight-hour shift but was now reduced to two at best. His work was still superior but instead of three to five paintings week he was down to one every two weeks. 2014 was his least productive and we were expecting great things for 2015.
He was scheduled to go in the Thursday before Labor Day for a triple bypass, but it got pushed back to Tuesday after. We were scared to death because all weekend he was having chest pains. I dropped him off day after Labor Day. I felt great relief having made it through the weekend.
John didn’t wake up for ten days. When he did he could barely breathe. He was congested and too weak to expectorate. An upper ventricle could not push enough blood to the lungs, causing an infection. The blood became infected and attacked his liver and kidney. His blood pressure was critical.
John passed away with his loved ones around him. At that time we all agreed: That is the closest we have and ever could be to God.
John once told me death is like changing hats. He did it like he did everything else, with dignity, class and style. My heart is salved knowing he is where he belongs — with the angels.
Many talented people become larger than life, but John was painfully human — lucky for us it is despite of himself that he was able to be as prodigious as he was and leave us his vision, for what you see in his work is not his reflection, his view, or what he wants you to see. You see what he sees and you are frozen in his reality to the point that you are on that boat or sitting on the upstairs side porch, chimney pots silhouetted by the pale moonlit sky. He gives you but a glimpse of what he feels.”
Danny is right — John Doyle is with the angels and the angels will let him live forever in our hearts. He leaves a vigorous legacy, having painted his passion for the real and living Lowcountry into our souls.