Artist David Boatwright doesn't think small. His works can be found on some of the largest, most public canvases in Charleston, like the exterior of Hominy Grill on Rutledge Avenue, where a pretty blonde proclaims, "Grits are good for you." Or the eaves of City Market, where bright shrimp, berries, and vegetables dance around portraits of historic figures. And most recently, there's the old red truck weighed down with super-sized produce on the side of the GrowFood Carolina building on Morrison Drive. Boatwright's murals have made him one of the city's most prominent artists, whether people know his name or not.
"It gives me a unique position in my town. It makes me feel like I have a role to play and a relationship to the public that's quite special. I feel really lucky to have that," Boatwright says. "It's a very positive thing to be the town painter."
After years of working on the sides of buildings, Boatwright is gearing up for the biggest show of his career, a retrospective of sorts at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park. It will include older works as well as a new series inspired by the South. The formal show is a challenge for the artist, who started doing murals as a way to escape the gallery scene.
"There's something about the gallery and selling art and these rich people coming in ... It seemed so elitist," Boatwright says. "So I stopped painting for a long time and started making films and other things. But getting back into painting murals ... it's not elitist. It's the opposite of an elitist art form. It's a public art form, and you kind of have to gear your work so they're accessible. But they're not too accessible. There still should be these elements that push the envelope a little bit in whatever form that takes."
Although many of his projects have been commercial, most clients have given him a certain amount of freedom, and he says that's helped him develop as an artist. "I like it as far as applying my craft, working on my technique," he says. "It engages me on the same level as [my new paintings] do, but because you're working for someone else, it takes the ego out of it, and I like that."
Prepping for his City Gallery show, on the other hand, has been an entirely different beast. For one, he's rented a studio for the first time, a one-room space behind PURE Theatre that's speckled with paint, canvases leaning against every wall. He's also been given the freedom to create whatever he wants — which has been both a blessing and a curse. Whereas the commercial murals are finite — once the design is submitted, the creative process is over in a way — his personal efforts are always in flux. "It's like, when is it done? You don't know. Is it good? Is it not good? It's a much fuzzier kind of process, and it's a lot more painful. I wake up in the night and think, that's a dumb idea. Why didn't I do this?"
Working on drop-cloths and life-size canvases, Boatwright created a series of playing cards featuring characters like a Southern belle wearing a sheer hoop skirt and shirt, her nipples exposed. For another, a parasol-wielding lady is modeled after Africa, a well-known Charleston transvestite from the 1980s. There's also a joker leaping gleefully across a bright orange background, a playful self-portrait of the artist.
In addition to the playing cards, he's also created several large pieces based on currency. A six-dollar bill features a donkey with the state of South Carolina branded on its hind quarters, the phrase "In Dumb Luck We Trust Us" scrolled across the top. Another piece has an alligator with rapper Snoop Dog's face on the bottom and the words, "Got my mind on my money, money on my mind," along the bottom. A $2 bill flanked by portraits of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara proclaims, "In Romance We Trust."
And then there's the mural (on removable panels) that Boatwright will be painting at the gallery throughout the run of his show. He has a stack of sketches in his studio depicting different eras of life in downtown Charleston, including a disturbing, dystopic future featuring flooding and Dubai-esque high-rises. Deceased local figures like Jack McCray make appearances — it's Boatwright's way to memorialize old friends.
There's a lot being said by this artist best known for his innocuous commercial work, sentiments he's no doubt been saving up for years. Yet he's reluctant to put his thoughts into words. "They're saying a lot of things, although I really don't think it's the job of the painting or of me to exactly put into words because they're not literal things, but underlying them are certain things that are important to me," Boatwright says. "It's about sex and beauty and humor and politics. That's about as specific as I want to get."
Although Boatwright isn't about to give up being the town painter, he's found a lot of satisfaction in this experiment in "pure art," and he hopes to do a lot more of it. "In some ways it's a very internal process, so to really dive into that is gratifying," he says. "I'm kind of thinking this might be a little bit of a shift in what I do."