Mickey Williams returns to Broad Street
By Patra Taylor
The man left the West Fraser Studio and turned onto Broad Street. As he walked, he thought, “I wonder what my old place looks like. Should I walk across the street and look?” His head told him, "No, don’t go! You’re too busy. You need to get back to work because business has taken off in the last four years and you’re a lot of work to do.” Instead of listening to his head, the man followed his heart.
Walking the same path he’d taken for nearly a decade seemed as natural to him as if he’d done it just yesterday. He entered the building at 54 Broad St. and climbed the stairs to the second floor. As he looked around the familiar but dramatically changed studio, a woman approached.
“Are you Mickey Williams?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said, emotions flooding over him. “I used to paint here.” Until his life fell apart.
Growing up, Williams dreamed of being a fighter pilot or an architect … or an artist, though his first art teacher doubted he had the discipline and focus to make much of his art. Working as a waiter to pay the bills, he spent much of his spare time tucked away in an attic painting. “It was like one of those Beaver Cleaver kinds of attics,” he recalls. “No heat, no air conditioning. Sometimes I painted up there when it was 100 degrees.”
Williams remembers that every night when he came home from work, he’d pull down that attic door, shimmy up there, and paint for hours. “I painted under artificial lights,” he says, “and the next day I’d look at the painting and it would always be about four or five values darker than what I expected, so I’d put on another layer. That’s how I learned how to glaze and layer my paintings … like an onion’s thin transparent layers, yet every layer of my painting was like adding a new instrument to an orchestra, giving it a richer sound.”
All the blood, sweat (literally) and tears paid off. In 1990, while still in his twenties, he participated in his first art show … on the lawn of Channel 2.
“I was selling my small paintings for $50 and $75,” he says, the excitement of the day in his voice. “Whenever I’d sell one, I felt like a tycoon.”
He had one painting, a 40 x 60-inch oil painting of the old Cooper River Bridges at night. “If Claude Monet and James Abbott McNeill Whistler had child, it was that painting,” explains Williams. “When an old man shuffles up wearing a veteran’s naval service cap, I figured he was a World War II veteran who survived the Battle of the Coral Sea, and then worked all his life at the Naval Yard.”
“‘How much do you want for this painting’ the man asked me.’
“I wanted $500 for it,” Williams recalls. “I thought that was a fortune. And it was at that time, a real fortune to me. But I thought if I said $500, this guy was not going to be able to afford it. Since I wanted him to have that painting, I said, ‘$200.’
“‘Mark it sold,” he told me. ‘I want to buy this painting.’”
That’s when Williams learned the man was the CEO of a big Detroit corporation.
“‘Hey, kid, can I give you some advice?’ the man asked me. ‘I’m an art collector. I own over 3,000 paintings that I loan out to museums. I think you’re going places, but you’ve got to raise your prices.’ With a chuckle, the man turned and left with the newest addition to his collection.
“Just that endorsement … those words … were priceless to me,” states Williams. “Knowing that I was on the right path in life was worth more to me than the $300 extra dollars. I was so full of confidence. It felt so good that an art collector wanted my painting.”
Before his next show, Williams did his homework. He went to all the galleries in Charleston and noted what their painting were selling for. “I didn’t want to start at the bottom, I wanted to get what I thought my paintings were worth,” notes Williams. “I picked a very fair medium price.”
Williams was working at Magnolia’s as a waiter at the time … part of the original crew staff. It was there at Magnolia’s that Williams’ career took another turn when John Carroll Doyle walked into the restaurant.
“I was a pretty shy person back then,” admits Williams, “but I felt confident enough to say, ‘Hi, John, I’m Mickey Williams. I’m a painter too. It’s my desire to be an established painter like you one day.’”
That’s when Doyle asked Williams an unexpected question: “Where can I see your work?” Williams told the man he had a few pieces hanging in the Colony House. That’s when Doyle turned and left the restaurant.
“I felt a little bit of anxiety, thinking he’s going to the Colony House to see my work, and will really hate it,” says Williams. “He was gone for about 30 minutes or so. When he came back, he stood there looking at me shaking his head. I thought he was going to say something bad, and it was going to crush me.
“Instead,” continues Williams, “he said, ‘Amazing! Fabulous work! I want you to come to my studio on King Street this week so I can show you some things.’ I was so excited. I remember that day I visited his studio like it happened five minutes ago.”
For Williams, the memory consumes his senses as he remembers the day he walked into Doyle’s second floor art studio, a former ballet studio. “It had 14-foot ceilings with 10-foot windows facing the street that allowed the room to be lit by sunlight,” Williams recalls. “Behind a divider was the back portion where the ballet studio once was and one whole wall was nothing but mirrors. Right in the middle, there was a giant skylight with this ethereal light that came down, like it was straight from heaven, and it hit one spot on the floor where John sat painting.”
An amazing sight, to be sure, as the smell of turpentine tingled his nose, with the sound of the painter’s brush stroking the canvas the only thing he heard. “I held back, stood almost motionless for 10 minutes as I watched him work on a giant nude, working in harmonies of greens and lavenders.
“Finally, he laid down his brush and invited me to join him,” continues Williams. “We ended up spending about an hour and a half together, just bonding as artists. I felt really special. Since that day, I have always tried to treat young artists the way John treated me that day.”
In the early 1990s when Bill Mayfield made plans to open the original Wells Gallery on Meeting Street, he asked Williams to be part of it. The young painter quickly decided to join Betty Anglin-Smith, Rhett Thurman and Susan West — Mayfield’s daughter — in the new gallery. John Carroll Doyle soon added his art to the already amazing works of these noted Charleston artists. Eventually, some of the artists left to open their own studios and/or galleries. According to Williams, John opened a studio at 54 Broad and suggested he take the space above him. Both studios overlook a courtyard that’s tucked between two buildings. John used another building toward the back of the courtyard to sell his prints and some of his merchandise.
For most of 35 years, Williams kept a studio on Sullivan’s Island. After taking the space above his friend and mentor on Board Street, he worked between his two studios, doing commissions and working toward two shows a year. “It worked out great for eight or nine years,” says Williams. “But everything changed beginning in 2008. Rents went up, commissions dried up, my business failed, my marriage failed.”
Williams managed to hang onto his studio on Sullivan’s Island, picking up enough commissions and sales to make ends meet. “I became very depressed and reclusive,” he recalls. I remember one day I was sitting alone on the bank of a pond behind my studio, watching a kingfisher when a voice spoke to me. It said, ‘Mickey, if you don’t release your anger and your bitterness, you’re not going to make it.’ I took that message to heart.”
A decade and a half after leaving his Broad Street studio, he’s returned. He leased John Carroll Doyle’s former shop and set up a second studio. He uses it much like he did in the early 2000s before the economy failed, only this time he travels between it, his Sullivan’s Island studio and a house in Hollywood he recently purchased with his fiancé. To celebrate his rebirth of sorts, Mickey Williams has planned his first solo show in 15 years, and the Charleston community is invited. The show will take place during the Charleston Gallery Association’s First Friday ArtWalk at the Mickey Williams Art Gallery at 54½ Broad Street on April 7 from 5 to 8 p.m. In addition to a number of new pieces, he is also working to restore the courtyard garden that John Carroll Doyle designed to honor his friend, artist Ella Richardson Walton’s father. A plaque inscription near the entrance of the garden reads: This peaceful garden is dedicated to Lieutenant William King Richards, wounded in combat in Sicily, June 1943; and to all of those who have put their battles behind them.”
Welcome home, Mickey.