For oil painter William R. Beebe, the Lowcountry is a playground of inspiration.
With his high school sweetheart, Jennifer, by his side, he makes his way through his favorite parks to take hundreds of pictures of pelicans, Great Blue Herons, egrets, Anhinga and other large shorebirds that call the area home. Shem Creek, Magnolia Plantation and the Audubon Swamp Garden at Magnolia Plantation, Huntington Beach State Park, the Pitt Street Bridge—nature is on display, giving Beebe plenty of characters to work with.
He sorts through the photographs at his Mount Pleasant home studio, searching for a bird or a pose that stands out. Through his love of studying nature, Beebe creates portraits as unique as each bird.
“I liken it to painting human portraits, where everybody has different characteristics; I wouldn’t want to be painting the same person over and over again,” he says.
Once a maritime painter who lived in Maine and Virginia, Beebe made his way down to Charleston with his wife five years ago to become part of the vibrant art community, focusing on painting Charleston’s beautiful architecture and the Lowcountry birdlife. And his paintings have made an impact, hanging on the walls of art collectors and the Mary Martin Galleries, which represents the artist.
Beebe didn’t start out in art. Originally from Bethesda, Maryland, he attended Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina, to play baseball and football and major in business. He quickly realized business wasn’t for him and changed majors to geology—but his geology professor was such a difficult grader that Beebe, along with many of his classmates, soon realized he was in the wrong field. He did, however, excel at drawing the rocks he was studying, capturing the properties that set them apart. Beebe found himself wanting to enjoy what he was studying and signed up for his first painting class, a portrait class in oils.
“He lets himself experiment and have fun with the painting and kind of lets the paint guide him,” Beebe’s wife, Jennifer, says. “It’s become such a joy for him, so it’s fun for me to watch that joy being expressed on canvas.”
Beebe transferred to the University of Maryland and graduated with a degree in studio/fine art and married Jennifer in their last semester. Needing to pay the bills, he took a job in accounting; in order to become successful in the field, he went back to the University of Maryland and earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting. During a trip to Maine in the ’80s, he rediscovered his love of art, becoming enamored by the ships and boats, seascapes, harbor scenes and lighthouses.
“I just fell in love with the coast of Maine, and it reinspired me to paint again,” Beebe says. “So, I came home—we lived in Bethesda at the time—and started painting Maine scenes.”
In 1990, the couple sold their house in Maryland and relocated to Camden, Maine, where Beebe began his painting career painting historic schooners sailing on the Penobscot Bay, along with quintessential coastal Maine scenes. Twelve years later, the couple moved again to Williamsburg, Virginia, to be closer to family. Then the market crashed in 2008; galleries were going out of business and the maritime genre was saturated. That’s when the artist shifted his focus to the creatures who share the ocean with the vessels he focused on for so long: birds.
While playing golf at The Governor’s Land at Two Rivers, he marveled at Great Blue Herons soaring over the course. Beebe brought his camera along on his daily walks, capturing the majestic birds for his paintings. During a vacation to Duck, North Carolina, he was entranced by a curious pelican waddling toward him on the beach, beginning a long fascination with Brown Pelicans.
He didn’t want to just paint the birds—Beebe wanted to understand them. He noticed that pelicans’ coloring and feathers changed throughout the year, that their necks turn a dark reddish-brown during breeding season and that juveniles are overall brown in color. It’s these details that bring his paintings to life because he can find the markings that make each one unique.
“As a painter, I prefer not to paint the same thing over and over again. Even though I paint quite a few pelicans, there are so many different looks to them that hold my interest, and it gives me inspiration,” he explains.
In search of a larger artist community, the Beebes found solace in Charleston five years ago, as well as a treasure trove of Great Blue Herons and Brown Pelicans. During their walks along Shem Creek, Beebe photographs the ever-hungry pelicans following the shrimp boats back to shore, eager to get a free snack. He’s found that at Shem Creek, the birds aren’t shy and will often follow them around looking for a handout.
Charleston, he says, revitalized him. And art collectors are enthusiastically embracing his bird portraiture. They’re drawn to the personality of each pelican, sensing in their eyes how one is sweet and curious while another urges the viewer to keep their distance. Beebe says he has dedicated this year as the year of the pelican, desiring to capture the magnificent web-footed creatures in as many different poses and looks as possible.
“We delivered a pelican painting to a new client a while ago, a large pelican flying over the sea. The client said that the reason they purchased the painting they found on our website was because they have a beautiful view out to the ocean, and they see pelicans flying every day,” Jennifer Beebe says. “What they see out their window is now what they have on their wall.” *
Christiana Lilly is a freelance journalist in Pompano Beach, Florida. See more of her work spanning the arts, community news and social justice at christianalilly.com.