William Baldwin talks to the artist about painting close to home
The following are excerpts from a couple of conversations I had with Bill McCullough last month, sitting on the porch of an 1807 house that he recently moved to his family’s tobacco farm up near Kingstree, South Carolina. I say “up” because I live on the coast fifty miles away, in an equally rural, equally Southern community. I’ve known Bill forever. Thirty years ago I traded him fish for a week’s worth of portrait painting lessons. Fish well spent. I can’t think of a contemporary painter I admire more, or one who can make me laugh nearly as hard.
Baldwin: Tell me about your decision to go to art school.
McCullough: A lot of us had the idea that we could be anything we wanted to be. I thought all the kids around me felt that way, until we were playing penny poker one night. I must have been fifteen or so. I announced I was going to be an artist, probably in New York City. One of my friends looked at me and said, ""You’re a damn fool."" That’s when it occurred to me that the endless possibility of things didn’t exist for everybody. It made perfect sense to me though.
Baldwin: What were the others at the poker table planning for their lives?
McCullough: Well, some of them were planning just as outrageous things as I was. But not all of them. My parents and my family in general encouraged dreaming. That’s what it takes. My parents realized I was serious and started to look into it. And there was no information available. Not about art and artists. We piled into the car one day, drove to Charleston, and looked at every painting in Charleston we could find. We went to the Gibbes Museum, the city courthouse, and visited an art studio. We came home happy. They were pleased to see some people had painted for a living. From then on there was little discussion.
Baldwin: There was an art teacher in Kingstree?
McCullough: In grammar school we had a man who went on to Mexico, then we had a woman after school and I took with her. Mrs. Kennedy. I stayed after school a couple hours. We went out and painted landscapes. I worked at home. I copied paintings. I sold a painting. That was great. I was sixteen. Once that happened, I was going to art school.…I went to Baptist College in Charleston. Then, I spent two summers in Connecticut with the painter Robert Brackman. He recommended I study with a student of his at the National Academy [of Design] in New York. Great teacher, Daniel Greene…. I got a working scholarship. Went free. I got an apartment, a rent-controlled apartment on the Lower East Side. It was a hip place to be but the streets were dangerous. Heroin was the drug of choice. Robberies. When you live through an exciting time like that you can remember things. I can’t remember what happened last night. Meeting a lot of people, discussing ideas, reading books. Exciting time to be alive in the late 1960s. You could do and be anything, change things that weren’t right.
Baldwin: But they didn’t feel that way at Baptist College.
McCullough: No. They didn’t feel that way everywhere — especially in the South. I remember screaming all the way through the Holland Tunnel.
Baldwin: The excitement of being there?
McCullough: The excitement of finally being there. I felt like I’d crawled under that fence of a maximum security prison and gotten into the forest. Running free.