The Mayor Of Mayberry By The Sea
Raised on the Isle of Palms, Mickey Williams has become Sullivan’s Island’s unofficial artist-in-residence. Jennifer Tuohy meets the celebrated landscape artist in his Middle Street chambers, and gets a glimpse at the story behind the daily reports. Photos by Steve Rosamilia.
“This is the Sunday report at noon.......Studio Rule 309......NEVER open the front door without looking first...Never open the front door wearing only boxers and a smile.......never open the front door... looking like a humble caveman with wild hair...a beard...wearing boxers and a smile....jamming to Nirvana..........Never......before looking first....why?....because on the other side of the door getting ready to knock might be a family who looks like the Griswalds from Ohio.....”
So begins one of the almost daily missives Mickey Williams sends his 3,400 fans on Facebook. As Sullivan’s Island’s unofficial artist-in-residence, some days he mulls on the magnificence of soft shell crab at High Thyme, other days he walks down memory lane to the time when he was a young boy running amok on Isle of Palms.
“I had a routine when I was in the 7th grade......I would stop halfway to the bus stop and take off my shoes and then pull a pair of leather moccasins I made at Boy Scout Camp that summer.....Camp Ho Nan Wah.......I was in Troop 34....we were like the Bad News Bears.....and that summer at camp had us getting into trouble and a lot of hell raising but I came out of it with my most treasured possession...a pair of leather indian moccasins......I wore them so much I wore holes in the soles and my mother forbid me to wear them to school.....but I would stop halfway to the bus stop and pull them out of my book bag...and put them on totally oblivious to the frigid ground and the fact that I could stick all of my toes out of the hole in the right shoe.......we were surrounded by woods on the Isle Of Palms...where there are beautiful homes now, once stood woods and marshy areas that were wild and the perfect playground before the bus came.....we had spear fights and we played a game called Manhunt......”
Each of these stream-of-consciousness reports begin or end with the words “This is the report from Mayberry by the Sea.” Once, someone, somewhere likened the idyllic lifestyle on this barrier island to that quintessential American town where Andy Griffith grew up, and it stuck. As the unofficial Mayor of Mayberry by the Sea, Williams sees it as his duty to update his citizens by painting a verbal picture of life on Sullivan’s Island.
“The Mayor thing actually started when I was on East Bay Street,” Williams says, while showing me around his charmingly eccentric studio located on Middle Street (you’ll recognize it by the colorfully lit palm tree outside).
“I had an epiphany one day, after the economy crashed and I lost my studio outside of I’on (in Mount Pleasant). An inner voice started talking to me. It said, ‘You’d better change the way you’re living or you are not going to make it.’ That changed everything for me,” he says. “I opened the studio on East Bay Street and reconnected with people. I got to know everyone on that street—every clerk, every bartender, every person that poured coffee. I’d go on my rounds every day, talking to everyone and these people gave me joy and happiness. They started calling me the Mayor of East Bay Street.”
As much as he enjoyed his time on the peninsula, he couldn’t resist the lure of the islands where he grew up, and worked for many years to return to the studio he had first opened here in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo.
“This was my first studio,” he says of the historic building on Middle Street. “I moved here in 1991 and was here for about twelve years. It was right after Hugo hit; there was still a mud line on the wall and the building was in very bad shape.”
“I left here in a huff in about 2003. There was so much drama around here,” he says with obvious relish. “I had no peace of mind here.”
The moment he stepped off the island however, he knew he’d made a mistake, and says he spent the whole time he was gone trying to get the place back. Now he is back, and this time he’s determined to stay.
“I feel I am starting the second half of my career right now and I wanted to do it where I started the first, right here on Sullivan’s Island.”
THE ARTIST’S JOURNEY
Williams was born in 1961 in Anchorage, Alaska. (“My dad had an interesting job with military—all top secret,” he says, explain the surprising location of his birth.) The family lived in several places, including Germany and San Francisco, before his father decided to retire to South Carolina when Williams was 10.
“He had spent time here when he was a kid. My grandfather had operated the bridge, and my Aunt Marcie moved here with her husband, who was a naval captain.”
The family settled on Cameron Boulevard on Isle of Palms, “back when it was the edge of the wilderness.”
A self-professed wild-child, Williams enthuses about all the trouble he got into as a student at Sullivan’s Island Elementary. (Although none of his tall tales from behind the dunes are quite as exciting as the time he ran away from school in San Francisco, in pursuit of naked hippies; leaving his parents and the police to think he’d been been kidnapped by the Zodiac Killer).
Something about the wilderness open to him on the islands helped redirect his disruptive youthful energies. However, he often redirected himself into that wilderness when he should have been in class.
“Ms. Mallard had a sixth sense about me,” he says of his former SIES teacher. “I would disappear into the dunes during recess and she would always be waiting for me when I came out, with a ruler.”
School teachers have had a very strong impact on Williams. They emerge as the main influences in his life as we discuss his childhood and his growth into an artist. He remembers each one vividly, and paints a verbal portrait of them so tangible it’s almost as if they are sitting on the couch with him, encouraging him or scolding him as we talk.
From the beautiful Ms. Fletcher, his first crush, to Mr. Hicks, the 3rd grade teacher who recognized his artistic abilities early on and christened him the official class artist, teachers are largely responsible for making him the man he is today.
“That really instilled some sort of self-confidence in me,” he says of Mr. Hicks’ prescient designation. “From there I stopped getting into trouble so much in class.”
Art remained a part of his school career through high school at Wando, where he ran into one particular teacher whose opinion effectively altered the course of his life.
“Virginia. Fouche. Bolton,” he says the name precisely, savoring each syllable.
Bolton was Williams’ art teacher at Wando. When he told her he was going to pursue art as career, she dissuaded him, telling him that although he had artistic ability she didn’t think he should do it.
That it would take 20 to 30 years for him to develop into a real artist.
“It really hurt my feelings,” he said. The effect on his confidence was immediate. His first art class at USC was a disaster and he dropped art altogether, pursuing a degree in Government and International Studies for the next seven years. He tentatively approached Bolton a few years later, asking for a reference for his application to Clemson to study architecture. She refused.
He was accepted anyway, but just as he was preparing to relocate, Hurricane Hugo came to town.
“I came down (to the island) to go surfing,” he says. “To catch the big waves before it hit.” He never went back to school. He bought a chainsaw and got to work helping with the relief effort following the devastation wreaked by the Category 5 hurricane.
“That’s when I started painting again,” he says. After almost eight years without touching a brush, something in the devastation surrounding him prompted him to seek beauty again. “It was like a light bulb went off in my head. I picked up my brushes and I felt a lightness all of a sudden. I had an epiphany. I realized I was going to be an artist, no matter what Ms. Bolton said.
Williams sold his first piece to an art collector from Detroit at a show on the lawn outside Channel 2 on Coleman Boulevard. The man told him, “Kid, you’re going to go places.” With his confidence restored, he dived into his new career, getting selected for Piccolo Spoleto, winning best in show and being picked up by the Wells Gallery.
“Within one year I had my first solo show, and you’ll never guess who showed up.” Ms. Bolton and Williams reconnected after the art show and became close friends up until her death in 2004. In retrospect it seems clear to Williams that her discouraging words were more of a motivational tool than an attempt to steer him wrong.
“She knew I was the kind of person who if you told me I couldn’t do it, I would do everything I could to prove you wrong.”
Williams finally made it back to Sullivan’s Island three years ago, after lobbying the artist who had supplanted him in the studio to move out. He is determined to stay here this time.
“They used to call this place Mayberry by the Sea because it was like a real Mayberry. If the sheriff caught you doing something wrong he wouldn’t take you jail, he’d take you home.
“It was a real small community. People had farm animals when I first moved here, horses on the beach, there were some real characters.
“I’m glad to be back out here, and hopefully I’ll be here a long time.”
Not that he hasn’t noticed some changes since his first stint on Sullivan’s Island.
“You run the risk of it becoming gentrified, but by the same token there’s a lot of real iconic figures out here, a lot of really interesting characters, both newcomers and people that have lived here for generations. If you go to Kiawah, it’s all a homogenous community, but this is a place where people come to live.”
It’s also a place where tourists from Ohio get to meet the Mayor of Mayberry by the Sea in his boxer shorts, and take home a memory that will forever remind them of what a unique seaside town Sullivan’s Island is, and always will be, thanks to people like Mickey Williams.