A Visual Legacy: the Halsey-McCallum Collection at the College of Charleston
William Halsey and Corrie McCallum donated a number of their works and their papers to the College of Charleston. In addition, several generous donors have added to this collection. Many of these paintings are now on permanent display at the Marlene and Nathan Addlestone Library and serve as the focal point of the exhibit. The exhibit also includes prints, photographs and a letter from Lady Bird Johnson thanking Corrie McCallum for a print she was given on a visit to Charleston. In addition to the paintings on view at the Addlestone Library, there are works at Stern Center (third floor foyer) and the new Marion and Wayland H. Cato Jr Center for the Arts (entrance).
NOTES ABOUT THE ARTISTS:
William Melton Halsey (1915 – 1999) devoted his life to art and education in South Carolina. After completing his education at the Boston Museum School in 1939 and garnering early professional success in Mexico, Charleston, Savannah, and New York, Halsey taught at the Gibbes Museum of Art and established the College of Charleston’s studio art program in 1964. There he served as assistant professor and artist-in-residence at the College for nearly twenty years. His impact was substantial and lasting, inspiring his fellow faculty members to vote unanimously that the College’s art gallery be named in his honor upon his retirement. Today, the Halsey Institute of Contemporary art continues the artist’s vision by introducing the work of emerging and mid-career artists of national stature to the local community and beyond.
William Halsey staked his career in his hometown of Charleston in the 1940s and, consequently, secured a place for abstraction in an unlikely setting for the next fifty years. Despite his southern address, his early professional biography mirrored those of several recognized leaders of Abstract Expressionism—he trained at the Boston Museum School, painted murals for the WPA, traveled extensively, and exhibited in prominent New York galleries throughout the 1950s. But his fierce attachment to southern soil kept him from joining the bustling art scene in the north and ultimately defined the visual vocabulary of his art. Employing Post-Impressionist colors and Abstract Expressionist gestures, Halsey’s paintings often reflect his beloved hometown. There is a surface quality to every painting—incised scratches, heavy fabric swatches, oiled marble dust, and layers upon layers of paint recall the textured plaster walls and colors found along the streets of Charleston. Although his 60-year oeuvre includes a tremendous range of subject-laden and abstract paintings, the blend of Halsey’s sensibility to color and texture coupled with his unique application of materials pervades his life’s work.
Physically removed from the New York media and art market and from other artists who might have inflicted stylistic influence, Halsey mastered his own means of expression by filtering and translating his visual heritage and experience into abstraction. As a lifelong resident of historic downtown Charleston, he absorbed the tactile and visual impressions of peeling plaster and geometric shapes abound in the city’s streetscapes, iron gates, market pavilions, shipyards, and beaches. As a world traveler with a profound interest in the arts of other cultures, he repeatedly discovered inspiration in the architectural ruins of Latin America.
Halsey’s unique interpretation of his surroundings and interest in past civilizations developed early in his career and defined his work into the 1990s. Upon graduating from the Boston Museum School, Halsey was awarded the prestigious Paige Fellowship for study abroad and spent two years living and working in Mexico City. That experience combined with his subsequent repeated travels to see Mayan ruins and stone carvings in the Central America further inspired the intense color palette and the visual language of shapes and symbols that reappear in his paintings. A sense of place, history, viewpoint, and time—undoubtedly instilled by the aesthetic environs of both Charleston and the small towns in Mexico—is evident in his culminating and monumental series of the early 1980s: Stones of Time.
Likewise, Halsey’s large-scale fabric collages of the 1980s, patterned patchworks saturated paint rags and torn, antique African textiles (gifted by his former student and Charleston native Merton Simpson), reference the artist’s dual interest and application of pure abstraction and nostalgia for the past.
William Halsey’s paintings reflect a unique viewpoint of American Modernism that stands apart from those of his counterparts in New York. He adopted a style of painting borne out of our country’s most significant moment in the history of art and bravely modified it to reflect his regional familiarity and experience. By fusing the stylistic inventions of action painting with an intuitive response to his physical surroundings and travels, Halsey left behind an authentic regional voice to Abstract Expressionism. His art tells an important tangential story to the great narrative of 20th century American Art and records a clear statement of vision by one of the most valiant pioneers of abstract art in the American South.
Corrie Parker McCallum’s (1914-2009) staunch commitment to the arts spanned a prolific career as painter and printmaker, dedicated wife and mother of three children, world traveler, and lifelong educator. At a time when few women received formal training in the arts, she earned a Certificate in Fine Arts at the University of South Carolina and a full scholarship to the Boston Museum School in 1937. Before leaving for Boston, McCallum served as a gallery director in Columbia for the WPA Federal Arts Program, a position that prompted her later interest and commitment to elementary arts education. She worked briefly in the education department at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and served as the first professional Curator of Education at what is now the Gibbes Museum of Art throughout the 1960s. During her nine-year tenure at the Gibbes, McCallum worked tirelessly to add arts programs to local schools. She traveled to cafeterias and classrooms delivering programs and encouraging student visits the gallery, reaching approximately 20,000 students a year. In 1971, McCallum joined the faculty at the College of Charleston. She retired eight years later after founding the College’s Printmaking Department.
McCallum’s life work presents a versatile mastery of subject and medium. A prolific printmaker and painter, she tackled both subject and abstraction, often alternating between large and small scale. Throughout her career, she found repeated interest in the city and streetscapes of Charleston and the sites of her extensive travels. McCallum moved to Mexico City in 1939 when her husband, William Halsey, earned a fellowship for two years of study abroad. That experience spawned an insatiable interest in world culture and a lifelong adventure of travel. McCallum and Halsey made repeated visits to Central America and Europe a priority of their respective careers, despite their constant financial difficulties. In 1968, McCallum won the Hughes Scientific and Cultural Foundation’s travel grant for a two-month trip abroad. She ventured alone to Iran, India, Turkey, Nepal, Japan, Korea, Bali, and Thailand and returned home to make over seventy editions of prints based on her travel sketches.
For McCallum, who balanced the overwhelming time commitments of motherhood and career, travel provided both refuge and the primary inspiration for her art for decades. Likewise, her worldly exposure informed her artistic perspective at home and abroad. Even as a young artist working in Charleston, McCallum did not portray romantic and idyllic views of the historic city. Instead, she found interest and the backyard views of cluttered porches and crowded clotheslines or the streetscapes of poorer neighborhoods on the peninsula. In foreign cities and villages, she focused upon everyday market scenes, craftswomen, and unique viewpoints of architectural landmarks and the landscape. Yet regardless of her subject, an inherent playful and experimental spirit emerges in all of McCallum’s work. Even her still life and landscape paintings convey constant movement and the joy of discovery.
McCallum’s energetic use of brushstroke and vibrant color permeates her oeuvre, but she was equally comfortable working in black and white. From the 1960s through the 1990s, she mastered a variety of printmaking techniques—most notably relief, lithography, and monotypes. Although she participated in several printmaking workshops at the reputable Impressions Gallery in Boston, MA, McCallum’s proficiency in printmaking was largely self-taught. She appreciated the discipline of the multiple processes of printmaking and the clear separation the medium allowed her from Halsey’s work. Ever curious and experimental, McCallum championed printmaking, in the studio and in the collegiate classroom, as the perfect format for exploring creative possibilities.
McCallum’s joyful approach to making art defines her momentous 70-year career. In the bold, abstract monotypes and oil paintings of her last decades, McCallum’s vibrant, organic forms reflect a confident hand with lyrical sensibility and symbolic power.
These paintings, and specifically ones from McCallum’s WOW! series, mark the great crescendo of an influential career that began amidst the Charleston Renaissance and continued through to the 21st century.
INTERVIEW WITH MARK SLOAN AND CAROLINE COBB:
In this video, Mark Sloan, director and senior curator of the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art and Caroline Cobb Wright, art historian and former intern of William Halsey, share their perspectives on the artists.
Video edited by Brooks Quinn, Media Specialist/Institutional Events at the College of Charleston
Special thanks to Caroline Cobb Wright for her insightful and descriptive Notes about the Artists; to Louise, Paige and David Halsey for their enthusiastic support of this exhibit; to Marie Ferrara and the staff in Special Collections and Jolanda Van Arnhem at the College of Charleston Library; to Mark Sloan, Director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art; and Angela Mack, Executive Director of the Gibbes Museum of Art. The Museum commissioned William Halsey for The Plan of a Painting exhibition in 1942, subsequently organized numerous exhibitions of both artists and produced five catalogs featuring their work. The Museum’s permanent collection includes 34 works by William Halsey and 12 works by Corrie McCallum