The prolific painter will unveil his first comprehensive exhibition of small pieces in more than a decade this month
In David Boatwright’s home studio, gods and goddesses abound. They’re Southern versions, some with sly expressions and pop culture references mixed in. One looks a bit like Marilyn Monroe; another resembles actress Jennifer Lawrence, but not too closely, just enough to make you look again and wonder about the subjects. What’s the story here?
Many people associate Boatwright’s name with his dozens of murals throughout Charleston—including at Leon’s Oyster Shop, Xiao Bao Biscuit, the long exterior wall of GrowFood Carolina on Morrison Drive, the Renoir-esque picnic scene outside of a former wine tasting room on Queen Street, and the smiling “Delicioso!” woman at Santi’s Restaurante Mexicano, to name a few. While the artist, who will celebrate his 75th birthday in late May, continues to create the oversize scene-stealers around town, he’s also been busy with a flurry of new work, on a slightly smaller scale.
A collection of studio paintings has been accumulating inside Boatwright’s tall, skinny house tucked away off Morris Street, in preparation for his solo exhibition, “LOOK AWAY, LOOK UP,” opening May 13. Produced in partnership with the Charleston Arts Festival, it will be Boatwright’s first big show in a decade.
On one afternoon this spring, a bevy of richly colored works, some painted on drop cloths, are hanging or stacked against the walls. Books and visual inspiration are all around. Sketches, photos, and pages from magazines are tacked to bulletin boards and taped to the wall. And in the room below, an old drum kit on a fluffy sheepskin rug sits ready to play. (Percussion is another of his pursuits.) “The past two years have been the most productive in my life,” the artist says, leaning back in a worn, paint-splattered recliner.
That’s truly saying something. Boatwright is a prodigiously creative person. Since moving to Charleston in the 1970s, he’s taken on a wide span of artistic disciplines and mediums, including painting, design, music, filmmaking, script writing, and architecture. Even his house, a modern, concrete-walled take on a Charleston single house, is his own design.
A truly creative spirit, Boatwright has made documentary films and TV commercials, plays in a band, and paints everything from public murals and signage to fine art. “Mostly, I’m a painter,” he says.
PAINTING, MOST OF ALL
Born in Tennessee in 1947, Boatwright grew up in Hopkins, South Carolina, where his father was a doctor and his mother ran the family farm. While his parents encouraged his creativity, they also assigned cow-milking and other farm chores. “I wasn’t in synchronicity with the cows,” he says. Boatwright was already painting when he entered the architecture program at Clemson University and left at age 19 to move to New York to be an artist, realizing an attraction to city life that would stick.
He’d later earn a bachelor of fine arts from the San Francisco Art Institute, travel throughout Europe, and work in California before returning to South Carolina in the late 1970s. He lived here for a couple of years before his graduate fellowship at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. In 1984, his plan, he recalls, was to move to Charleston briefly to write a screenplay and then return to LA. But he ended up staying, shooting documentaries on 16mm black-and-white film and opening an office on King Street, where his creative work included producing television commercials.
Boatwright painted on and off through the years and “eased into” murals in 1999, beginning with a project that he recently refurbished at Hank’s Seafood Restaurant on Hayne Street. (The building near the City Market is lettered with “Raw Bar” and “Cool Inside,” which he purposefully painted to look worn and faded with time, as if the restaurant had been there for decades.) His next mural was the “Grits Are Good for You” woman, high on the red wooden siding upstairs from the now-closed Hominy Grill—another work that quickly earned landmark status in the urban scenery of Charleston.
Those early pieces led to more mural commissions, projects that he continues under the moniker “Lucky Boy,” assisted by local artist Michael Kuffel. It’s a growing, remarkable body of work in public spaces around town. Boatwright thinks often about the concept of luck. “In this lifetime, we’ve all had hardship and sadness,” he says, “but I got a lucky draw. For the past few decades, especially, my work has been interesting and rewarding—and interactive with people.” From painting wine labels and business signs to fine art and murals, he stays busy. “Making things? I’m good at it,” Boatwright says. “It’s not always easy—it’s a struggle, too. But it’s all about the process of doing, and that provides the sustenance of it.”
(Left) Artworks, both complete and in progress, are stacked or tacked to the walls. “He’s made such a mark in Charleston; he’s part of our arts heritage,” says Brooks Reitz, co-owner of Leon’s, Little Jack’s, and Melfi’s restaurants that are home to several Boatwright murals and paintings. (Right) Painting a mural at a private residence in Goose Creek
“David Boatwright has the remarkable ability to communicate through the medium of painting at scales both large and small—kind of like a poet who is as good on the stage as on the page,” says Mark Sloan, the director and chief curator at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at College of Charleston from the mid-1990s to 2020. He describes Boatwright’s artwork as “a powerful combination of ‘history painting’ with the addition of a certain nostalgia for a world that never was,” adding that the paintings show “a complex visual vocabulary that employ elements of advertising culture, sideshow bombast, and vernacular traditions. He swirls these references together in all sorts of surprising juxtapositions.”
Perhaps Sloan is thinking about how Wile E. Coyote, of cartoon fame, features prominently in a corner of the artist’s 2021 self-portrait, She’s Crazy Bout a Mercury. Or how the nearly life-size Aphrodite and Venus-like subjects are sometimes interacting with alligators or sharks in swampy or seaside, mythological scenes. A singing James Brown appears on one of the canvases, beside “Apollo,” written in gold capital letters—Boatwright smiles at the double reference to the Greek god and the famous theater in Harlem. And he often adds a border to paintings with additional objects, lettering, or symbols to add comment to the subject. “I try to push things a little bit,” Boatwright says. “Once I get going and get some figures in a painting, a protagonist, then I can fill out the other imagery and borders. I try to put things together as a story—kind of a nonlinear story—but it’s not as random as it may appear.”
He says he typically doesn’t prescribe a painting’s meaning ahead of time or explain the subject and elements afterward. But he does title the paintings—which offers clues to the intention, i.e. American Aphrodite and Artemis with Gloria Steinem Shades. “To me, a successful painting has to work on several levels,” he writes in an artistic statement on his website. “It should have elements of humor or sexual tension or a political sense or all three, and it must be painted in a way that supports the subject.”
The collectors have followed. Michele and Mike Seekings bought Tiny Tango, which they’d long admired at the now-closed Raval Wine Bar. Longtime friend and Charleston Arts Festival co-founder Terry Fox (who also assisted in producing Boatwright’s last large show at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park in 2012) prizes Cuban Gator Gal, an early Boatwright original that’s a key feature in his home. “I hear that a woman has asked him for a painting with two alligators. She’s out-gatored me!” he laughs. Interior designer Cortney Bishop, who got to know Boatwright’s art while serving on the board of the Halsey Institute, says she and her husband own a number of his paintings, including Going to California, inspired by a favorite Led Zeppelin song. The painting was a commission to celebrate the couple’s 20th wedding anniversary. “David knocked it out of the park,” says Bishop. “There’s a woman with flowers in her hair [an image mentioned in the song], and he wrote some of the lyrics in a beautiful cursive border.”
Boatwright plays drums and other percussion instruments in the band Minimum Wage; at his kit in front of Plowed Under (acrylic on canvas, 11 x 6 feet, 2019), which he painted during a residency at the Gibbes Museum of Art.
LOOKING AHEAD, FEELING LOOSE
These days, Boatwright says he’s feeling content. Previously married, he says his children—Lola, Flora, and Isaac, now in their 20s—and significant past relationships are integral to his life. He has longtime friends and rituals, including a weekly practice with Minimum Wage, the funky, percussive band he co-founded more than 30 years ago that still plays occasional gigs. “People like to dance when we play,” he says. And Boatwright has myriad other projects in the works, including his annual birthday tradition of sketching or painting a self-portrait. Draft sketches of the 2022 version are in the form of a $75 bill with his face surrounded by dancers and diamonds to represent a 75th jubilee. He’s also developing cover art for a friend’s novel and a mammoth 171-foot Septima Clark-themed mural with messaging from Charleston poet laureate Marcus Amaker for a downtown garage that will be visible from the Crosstown.
And he’s been creating the paintings for the May show without restriction. “I feel really loose right now. Something will pop into my head or onto my page, and I start pulling together the elements. I’m not going to overthink it. I just let the right brain rule, and I paint.”
“LOOK AWAY, LOOK UP” - New paintings by David Boatwright
Opening reception: Friday, May 13, 5:30-8 p.m.
Amelia T. Handegan Interiors, 517 King St., Suite 4 (entrance is on Morris Street)
For more info, visit luckyboyart.com and charlestonartsfestival.com.
Watch a video of the artist describing his process to Charleston Arts Festival: