Were he in Paris, David Boatwright would be thought a bon vivant, a boulevardier known for his ready smile, his menagerie of hats and a breezy manner.
Here, the Tennessee-born, Upstate-bred artist is all of that and a fixture of Charleston culture, renowned for his unconventional paintings, massive murals and a taste for the whimsical and nostalgic. He is also a musician and filmmaker of note. A master of the large scale—his 2,000-square-foot mural for Grow Food Carolina being the biggest—Boatwright is no less at home with paintings that are as striking and provocative as they are symbolic.
Boatwright was an architectural student at Clemson University (1965 – 66) before moving to New York to study at Cornell University’s Silvermine College of Art (1967 – 68). Graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute with a degree in painting in 1970, he invested several years in making experimental short films that he screened in European cinemas.
In 1977, Boatwright returned to South Carolina and earned a National Endowment for the Arts grant to make documentary films in Charleston. He later became a graduate fellow at the AFI film school in Los Angeles, co-founded a film production company, directed more than 100 commercials and composed several documentaries.
Throughout, he sustained his interest in studio painting, deeply influenced by elements of the West Coast Funk Art movement. He returned to Charleston in 1984, just as the city was accelerating its cultural and demographic expansion. Boatwright developed a specialty in creating large murals and hand-painted signs on many exterior facades around town, while also selling studio pieces to collectors and winning commissions to create murals and paintings for restaurant interiors. Boatwright has flourished ever since, acknowledging his good fortune through his company name, Lucky Boy Art. Lucky us, too.
As an artist and as a man, how does David Boatwright at 71 differ from the one at 30?
Hopefully, my skills have improved by virtue of the added hours of practicing my craft. Correspondingly, I think my standards are higher, knowing that one never attains perfection. Regardless of what kind of project it is or how much money is involved, I think I try to hit a home run every single time I step up to the plate, which is probably true for most artists. Just go as far as you can, knowing that you will never be completely satisfied.
Do you regard yourself as eccentric in any way, or just a fellow with a distinctive personality?
I don’t think of myself as an eccentric at all. As you get older you just become more of who you are, less concerned with peripheral issues.
You are doing mostly commission work these days. What forms does it take?
I’m currently doing a series of medium-sized projects for various businesses around town. One interesting project is the restoration of some large hand-painted signs from the 1950s that have faded from view on a corner store at Spring and Coming streets.
Do the signs you paint harkened back to an earlier era of commercial art and advertising?
Totally. I’m really drawn to the style and typefaces used in graphic arts from the ’30s through the ’70s, which speaks to my nostalgic sense.
What do you hope that the viewer takes away from your art, especially the paintings?
I want viewers to connect with the unconscious intent of the piece, whether it’s the humor or beauty, or whatever it is that I’ve put into it.
You called your 2012 show Look Away, Look Here “a continuation of the conversation with my town.” Does your recent work also reflect this?
I make a distinction between murals that are seen by the general public and work I do in my studio. Murals should be accessible to most and at the same time I hope they push the envelope in some way. When hired by a business, it’s on me to do something that bolsters their image. It’s not about me. Studio paintings emanate from a more personal place, which makes the process way more challenging. The conversation continues because I’m still speaking to an audience large or small. I think the mural at East Bay and Calhoun for Blue Key Web Design is the closest thing to the personal that’s out there in the public sphere.
Though you’ve said you try to avoid topical subject matter in your paintings, there are elements of the political amid the humor and sexual tension. Do you prefer your work to be open to interpretation?
I try to avoid [topicality] because it limits my perspective. My paintings are meant more to confuse and hopefully provoke a response in the viewer, allowing them to arrive at their own interpretation.
Why is whimsy important in your work?
Artists can take themselves way too seriously, and I really appreciate it when art is laced with ironic humor, which need not exclude sincerity.
Would you say your paintings still “let go of the literalness of time,” as you once said?
I like to think my fingers can move up and down the keyboard without being stuck in any one octave, yes.
You’re still intrigued by film, one assumes. Do you ever feel the itch to work in the medium again?
I still keep a hand in that medium with small projects that I’ve done over the years. Filmmaking is part of my DNA, and I would jump at the chance to do something on a larger scale.
Bill Thompson covers the arts, film and books.