Take a South Carolina boy, let him wander the marshes and rivers of South Carolina, and then send him off to hunt for treasure in the crystalline waters of the Caribbean. Add a fight for survival, a longing to return home, and an urge to create. Mix in an eye for color and an ability to convey a bold “joie de vivre” and you have John Witzel Walters, a professional Charlestonian painter who goes by his middle name, Witzel. His work is striking, full of the hues of the waters and reefs of the Caribbean while exploring a contemporary take on themes in Lowcountry painting. And as you might have guessed from the introduction, his art is only his latest adventure. As Witzel explains, “This has become the obvious passion and what I should have done for the entire time. But, you need to have life experiences.”
Witzel was drawn to the water from an early age. “I grew up in Hartsville, South Carolina. I was born and raised there but spent more of my time on the coast…it started with a john boat that had been washed up that broke loose from some dock. I found it in the creek. I was out exploring and turned it over and dusted off the top. From there I could float off in this $50 john boat that somebody abandoned and drift down the river. There is just so much beauty to see when you slow down the pace, turn off the motors, and drift along with the current.”
And then, “I got a phone call one day, ‘Your name came up- would you be interested in coming to the Caribbean for a salvage operation?’”, said Witzel. It was described as a research vessel called the Atlantis. In actuality, the gentleman that was funding the operation was just a treasure hunter. He was looking for gold. He had done all the research in Seville, Spain and now he was trying to bring it to fruition. And of course Witzel was interested, so he went.
“Turns out being a diver and a treasure hunter is pretty cool,” Witzel said, recalling his Caribbean stint. “Waking up every day out at sea on a boat, taking out a skiff with a crane, sailing to the dive site. My dive buddy and I would go down and work on this wreck for eight hours in incredibly clear water, surrounded by marine life and brilliant colors. There is absolutely no way that someone could look at [my] paintings and be a diver and not see the similarity. The color scheme, the deep blue – it brings in the images of the coral reef that I remember. It is amazing that it actually works, because any learned artist would tell you that those colors should not go together. But they do tend to work in the beauty in the coral reefs.”
With each deep blue and coral red, Witzel paints the sea into every painting he makes. “I take that color scheme and life experiences and meld it all together. I will take the beauty of the coral reef and I will introduce it to the clouds and the characters and the reflections in each of the paintings.
When you do see the beauty in nature, it is like a painting that is constantly changing. The motion, the fluidity of movement – this outdoor beauty can never be replicated. I think artists can provide but a glimpse. I have made it my goal to provide that glimpse and inspire my audience to go out doors and see that beauty for themselves. Breathe it in. It is right there and it is free for the taking.
“You learn a lot about people during a crisis. When you find yourself in a delicate situation, you see people act differently. Here, I saw a lot of men really, really scared. I saw people so scared they quit fighting to try to save their own lives. We were about 13 miles from land so we kept trying to save the boat as it constantly laid port.
“We had inflated the life raft and the crew left on it. One guy was just frozen – they had to pry his hands off the guard rail because he was so scared to get into the raft. Meanwhile, the captain and I stayed on board to try and save the vessel. The engines were still running, but the boat she was laying heavy, port up to 11 degrees or so now. The captain was steering the ship and I was going back and forth between the engine and the radio.
“At this point people were responding on the radio. A couple of French vessels. It was very early in the morning, the sun was just coming up. And as we and the captain stayed on doing what we could, the vessel started to dip portside and then it started sinking in the back. At that point the captain decided to step off [and said], ‘Abandon ship!’ We exited from the high starboard side, slid down the side and stepped onto a French fishing vessel that had come in close to the ship. Wouldn’t you know it, the ship sank 45 minutes later.
“With this, I had this epiphany. Even with the longest life, our lives are such a short amount of time to do great things. It’s a blink, and it’s gone. So I remember realizing how valuable life was and that I needed to do the best with what I was given.
“When I came back from the Caribbean it was difficult to go back to life as normal… You know there is a different way to live your life and you opt for that. I am always looking for an adventure,” Witzel said.
Witzel returned to South Carolina where he helped out his girlfriend at her coffee shop in Litchfield, “…fixing this and fixing that, sweeping and watering the plants. Just doing the right thing for the person I was dating. And then I painted a little something on recycled materials. It was sort of my claim to fame at first. But it was out of necessity – canvases were expensive, but wood washed up in the creeks wasn’t, they were giving that away! So it was just a matter of cleaning those up, sanding them a bit and painting a pretty picture on it. Put the price tag on the wall. That caught on and those were selling quickly enough, and then it just evolved into what it is now: an established business. Now I have to paint on canvases for shipping reasons,” Witzel joked.
Many of Witzel’s paintings are a nod back to his times diving for treasure. Most of his subjects are aquatic. He loves to paint turtles, fish, crustaceans, and octopi, but one of his favorite things to paint is the bream, a fish he encountered long before he ever donned his scuba gear.
“Bream are important to me. They are the most common introduction to the outdoors for every Southern child. Almost anyone can get a stick, a string, a hook, and a bug. You can do it. Turn over a log and find a worm. Put it on the hook and drop it on the edge of any water and if you wait there long enough I can guarantee you that you will catch a bream. So this beautiful fish here is yours to have just by doing these few simple things. Southern children’s usual introduction to enjoying the outdoors is usually somebody, be it a brother, daddy, uncle, or cousin taking that child for a walk, handing them a cane pole, it’s just a stick and string, and having them catch a bream. That is why you see it in a lot of my paintings.”
Each piece of art used to take him days and days to complete, but Witzel has been improving his technique to the point that he can usually finish a painting in a day. “Mind you, my day starts at 7:00AM and can go till about 10:00PM or 11:00PM,” he laughed.
Though clearly gifted, Witzel is self-effacing and generous in his advice to other aspiring artists, “My advice is work ethic. You gotta work. The same is true for whatever you are passionate about. You have to roll up your sleeves and work, you can wear the name badge, and anyone can pick it up and put it on their chest. Doesn’t take much to be a painter. Dip the brush in paint and rub it on the canvas. You are a painter. Now if you want to turn it into a viable means of income, you have to create constantly and you have to build connections. You have to do the right things and give back to the community. Work ethic. You gotta work.”
But Witzel also has some advice for collectors or anyone considering a purchase of art. “Don’t buy art as an investment. Buy art that speaks to you. Surround yourself with art that you love. That is what art is – a reflection of you.” And if you relish life in the coastal South, you might also relish in Witzel’s work.
Written by Dylan Sell