McCLELLANVILLE — Each maneuver of the tiny knife leaves an elegant groove in the hard boxwood block. As he adds line after line, the image, reversed, emerges. A figure on a moonlit sea or a crowd under an infernal sky, or the disembodied hands of an old man.
He spreads the ink and places a piece of paper atop the block of wood in the century-old iron-hand press, then pulls the large lever.
This is slow, lonely work, and John McWilliams becomes lost in his thoughts and in the art-making process. This is his comfort zone, this McClellanville studio, a place of daily ritual and contemplation, of music and coffee and memory.
On the other side of the studio, Nancy Marshall makes her photographs, lost in her own thoughts, navigating a magical world she shares in part with her husband. The two of them are at home here, content to be among the splayed oaks and tidal creeks, the mosquitoes and oyster catchers, a few good friends.
Just across from the studio of John McWilliams and Nancy Marshall is the old fire station that now houses the McClellanville Arts Center, oper…
This bucolic village and the surrounding area in the northern reaches of Charleston County is home to a disproportionate number of artists, writers and professionals, several of whom settled here in the 1970s, happy to find a quiet, picturesque place to raise their children. They are the “come-heres” who have joined the “been-heres” or “stay-puts” — the fishermen and their families. A few live in town; others a few miles away along the water or in the woods.
McWilliams and Marshall first came here because of a famous photograph. He saw Robert Frank’s image of the village barbershop, its empty chair and hair products visible through the screen door. The photograph, dated 1955, was part of Frank’s collection, “The Americans,” and it captured the imagination of McWilliams who, at the time, was teaching art at Georgia State University, taking his own remarkable photographs and seeking a quiet country retreat from the bustle of Atlanta.
He knew nothing of McClellanville but sought it out in the early 1970s because of that barbershop.
“It was like I had driven into a time warp,” he said.
A student, Willy Filmore, who grew up in St. Stephens, was friends with a couple who had moved to the McClellanville. He arranged for McWilliams to meet Jim and Patty Fulcher. Jim was the only family physician working in the remote town. The two men hit it off.
“Jim and I had this love for creeks and marshes,” McWilliams said.
Soon, the teacher-photographer met his future mate, Marshall, at Georgia State, and the couple made regular treks to the Lowcountry creeks, forging and strengthening their friendship with the Fulchers.
McWilliams, who is the nephew of Julia Child and a Massachusetts native, had two children from a previous marriage. Together they had two more. The pair quickly met other like-minded people — Ted and Dale Rosengarten, Billy Baldwin, Susan Williams, Stephanie Waldron, Tommy and Sarah Graham, Bill and Lanie Youngman — all satisfied in their own way with McClellanville’s isolation and its vulnerability to nature.
McWilliams and Marshall bought some property in the early 1980s and first built a cabin, later a house. When he retired from Georgia State in 2004, the couple moved east to the coast to stay. For him, photography gave way to print-making (though he continued to draw). For both, the Lowcountry was a melancholy land of never-ending discovery.
Producing the image
McWilliams carves his lines and presses his blocks of wood against the paper. The mechanics satisfy him; the resulting image pleases us. Marshall, instead, makes the process part of the final product. We look at her singular images, whether portraits or landscapes, and we see not only the image but all that went into producing it: the choice of camera, the framing of the composition, the exposure, the application of chemicals, the texture and temper of the paper.
He makes stark pictures that startle the eye and, at the same time, offer a glimpse into his subconscious where McWilliams confronts his demons and unleashes his fantasies. She makes pictures that caress the eye and encourage scrutiny. Both make emotionally charged work, but the power source is as different as could be.
'What was there'
“They are both great artists, each in his and her own way,” said Dale Rosengarten, director of the Jewish Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston Library. “They are what I would call world-class artists. They would stand out anywhere.”
Close friends, the Rosengartens and the two artists often socialize, swim in the creek, bicycle around town and practice a little yoga together.
“I admire the way they operate,” Dale Rosengarten said. “Every morning, even weekends, they go to their studios, work all day long on their art.”
In 1975, McWilliams received a National Endowment for the Arts photography fellowship, and in 1977, he landed a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship. This enabled him to pursue an ambitious project that culminated with the publication of a book, “Land of Deepest Shade: Photographs of the South by John McWilliams." His friend Ted Rosengarten, author of the National Book Award-winning “All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw,” wrote the introduction.
The black-and-white images portray a ravaged landscape. They are distillations of Southern decay. His favorite photo, the once gracing the cover, shows an old tree smothered by cotton waste.
“It’s a photography of absence, a photography of ruins, a photography that begs you to think about what was there,” Rosengarten said.
Marshall has been taking pictures of the Southern landscape, too. In 1980, she shot a series of smoky pictures on Ossabaw Island near Savannah that reveal her fascination with time and place and her habit of juxtaposing that which is human (or human-made) with nature.
In 2007 and 2008, she traveled to Andalusia farm near Milledgeville, Ga., in her home state, to photograph the homestead where Flannery O’Connor spent her last 13 years. The images are simple, but in them one senses the ghost of O’Connor.
Soon after, she teamed with her husband on a series of color photographs of African-American car club members in Charleston County, published in the magazine Southern Spaces in 2010. The pictures, taken in McClellanville, show proud car owners standing by their vehicles and offer a glimpse into a Lowcountry cultural phenomenon few know about. These bold photographs of posed figures and shiny automobiles do much to humanize their subjects.
In 2015, Marshall shot a series of myth-like portraits of a young woman, Pier Louise, among the trees and foliage, blurring the line between subject and setting. And there have been many other projects — of battlefields, of rivers and ruins, of Hampton Plantation — each relying on a particular technique (wet plate, platinum and palladium printing) and set of equipment (panoramic, large-format, pin-hole).
In 2012, after years battling opioid addiction, McWilliams’ son J.J. died.
“Some people are just wired to not be able to handle life,” he said. “He was a complex person, he had a beautiful reality about him.”
J.J. had moved to McClellanville from Portland, Ore., to recover, to fish on the marsh, to find happiness. And he did, for a while. McWilliams struggled to process his death, relying on art to explore his feelings about fatherhood, its joys and burdens. The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art collaborated with Horse & Buggy Press to produce a special limited edition of “Sons & Father,” a small-format volume featuring McWilliams’ woodcut prints.
The book was an ancillary product of a 2016 exhibit at the Halsey called “Prophesies,” an important showcase of the work of the famously modest artist.
“I first learned of John McWilliams back in 1989 when his book 'Land of Deepest Shade' came out,” Sloan said. “I heard him give an artist talk at a national conference in the early 1990s, at which he showed images and told the story of building his own boat and sailing it to Bermuda. The story was riveting, and the images incredibly moving.”
Sloan marveled as McWilliams developed his printing style.
“I see him very much in the tradition of William Blake,” he said. “His works are singularly dark and foreboding. They are allegorical in their meaning. Another strong component in his work is the narrative arc. In this way, he is something of an acolyte of Lynd Ward, the graphic novelist of the 1930s. I see that both his photography and printmaking share a certain affinity for the transformative power of nature. Nature is often pitted against human nature in John’s compositions. Are we are part of, or apart from nature, he seems to be asking.”
Jim Fulcher remembers that sail to Bermuda on the sloop built by McWilliams after a Chuck Payne design. It was just the two of them, eight days there, 12 days back. They were becalmed for a two or three days on the return, so they took an inventory of the food and drink on board and were reassured.
“When he gets on a passion, he’s got focus,” Fulcher said, referring as much to his friend’s love for the sea as his commitment to his art.
Living and working, drawing and fishing, printing and swimming. It’s all part of a singular experience, each activity informing the others.
“It’s extremely important to have a process,” McWilliams said. It’s his way of making sense of the world. And he’s glad for the occasional exhibition, which provides feedback and offers him a chance to have a fresh look at his work, to take inventory of it, to recognize patterns and themes.
Sometimes he will get a commission, though the money it brings is never the priority. In the past, McWilliams would do some photographic survey and documentary work to record obsolete technology before it disappeared forever.
Once he was asked to photograph an abandoned steel mill. “It was like an archaeological thing,” he said, so dark inside he opened his camera shutter then set off a series of huge flash bulbs along each wall of the cavernous space. The result was a fully lit image of decay.
Decay is a specialty of both artists, whose photographs often set in contrast the impermanence of human endeavor and the inexorable force of nature.
In their studio, the artists seem all too aware of that confrontation. One sees the exertions and endurance, but also the fugitive moment. That is why they work, slowly producing image after image, pictures that frame an idea and fix time. It is what they know to do.
“I work all the time because really it’s the thing that anchors me,” McWilliams said. “Doing my art has saved my life many times.”