Bill Beebe is in the Audubon swamp at Magnolia Plantation. Twenty feet over his head in a bald cypress tree, two great blue herons are standing in a massive nest, gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes. Herons are solitary birds, so it’s incredibly rare to witness such a private moment. (On this day, and throughout the spring, Beebe will take so many reference photos for his paintings that he develops tendinitis.) Back in his Mount Pleasant home, he and his wife, Jen, sit in front of a 27-inch iMac monitor, reviewing hundreds of photos and the most exciting moments of the day. He’ll bookmark those that inspire him as promising candidates for paintings. Jen will help narrow down the choices based on her comprehensive knowledge of what he’s painted before, what might go well in an upcoming show, and what Beebe’s collectors might be most interested in. In case of a tie, inspiration always wins.
As a painter, Beebe is a realist who experiments with impressionism. Here’s an example: One of the heron photos turns into Smitten, a dramatic 40-by-40-inch impressionist-style work that anchors his recent show at the Mary Martin Gallery. In the painting, he removes the background trees and elevates the birds into a heaven-like setting. The impressionistic clouds with visible brushstrokes frame the birds to exaggerate the heart shape created by their necks. The technique allows us to see what Beebe saw—lovebirds—and feel what he felt—joy and awe.
Then the artist switches back to realism when he paints The Maestro, the second signature work for the show. Here is a brown pelican stretching his wings on a piling. Painted on hardwood board with a smooth primer base, the brushstrokes are less obvious, and there is more realistic detail. After 30 years of painting, switching back and forth between the two techniques, or blending them, is part of what keeps the artist inspired.
Philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, “A good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” As a classically trained painter, Beebe has no shortage of technical knowledge. However, inspiration has always been his guiding star, and he is aware of how valuable it is to his work because there were times when it was all he had. “When I graduated from college with a degree in fine art, my teachers were into modern abstract art. They didn’t encourage me, so I didn’t know if I wanted to pursue art as a career,” he says.
Discouraged and trying to be practical, Beebe took a job in accounting, which left him feeling adrift and unhappy. Then, he and his wife took a trip to coastal Maine. Excited and inspired by the scenery, water, boats and lighthouses, he started painting again. In Maine, Beebe developed his own style. “I knew I had to stick with the way I see the world, which is realism, but I love impressionism,” he says. “I started pushing myself to mix up the styles and extend my range.”
Ironically, though his teachers discouraged it, art collectors wanted realistic paintings, and his work quickly became in high demand and sold out. The Beebes spent 12 years on the coast of Maine, surfing a wave of inspiration, before moving back to Virginia to be near family. Moving away from the scenery and wildlife that inspired him took a toll, and the artist began to wilt. Then, the couple took a trip to Charleston. “I was totally reinspired,” Beebe says. “I had the same feeling I had when we moved to Maine. The history, the birdlife, the boats and being near the water inspired me at the time when I needed it most.” The couple moved to Mount Pleasant.
Today, Beebe is still inspired by Charleston and the Lowcountry. Whether he’s birding at local hotspots or walking downtown, he’s always looking for the subject of his next painting. Recently, the artist found unexpected inspiration while walking to dinner on a summer evening. “I’ve been so energized seeing Charleston hopping again,” he says. “I love seeing people going to restaurants, out on the sidewalks, doing the art walks. I’ve missed it, so I’m excited to paint more downtown scenes.” That moment of inspiration turned into An Evening at Hank’s, and another moment turned into the glorious St. Philip’s Divine Light, which hangs in the Belmond Charleston Place Hotel.
Turning an eye to 2022, Beebe is enjoying browsing his collection of inspiring moments. From roseate spoonbills at Huntington Beach State Park to historical Charleston during the Golden Hour, it will be a pleasure to see the world through his eyes. *
Robin Howard is a freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.