Conway mural restoration almost complete; artist has personal connection to painting

Tommy Simpson repaints the mural off Conway's Main Street
Tommy Simpson repaints the mural off Conway's Main Street jblackmon@thesunnews.com

This river city’s landmark mural means more than a paycheck to Tommy Simpson.

The painting of the F.G. Burroughs steamship inspired Simpson to design his own murals.

“I first saw this when it was done,” he said of the artwork, which was originally painted in 1983. “I thought, ‘One day, I want to just do that.’ … Who knew that 30-some years later I’d be restoring it?”

Simpson is in the final stages of repainting the mural at the corner of Main Street and Third Avenue. The artist had planned to finish the project by Monday, but he said the work will take a few more days, depending on the weather.

City officials aren’t concerned. They’re just thankful the long-debated project is nearly finished.

“He’s making some really good progress,” City Administrator Bill Graham said. “You can really see a difference now.”

The mural depicts the Burroughs steamship, which had been noticeably fading for years, floating down the Waccamaw River.

Lisa Parrish, the owner of the building that serves as the artwork’s canvas, knew the mural wall had suffered water damage, and initially contractors told her the painting couldn’t be saved because of the construction needed to fix it.

A committee was formed to develop ideas for the mural and the group held a contest, asking artists to submit renderings for a new design. Their thinking was that Coastal Carolina University’s mural class would take that image and paint it on the wall.

But the committee didn’t like any of the submissions better than the original artwork and liability concerns arose about students working on private property. So Parrish reached an agreement with Simpson, a Surfside Beach artist who is being paid $10,000 to repair the wall and repaint the mural.

The City of Conway pledged $5,000 to the project and Burroughs and Chapin Co. Inc. committed $5,000. Simpson has guaranteed the work for 10 years.

“I’m very comfortable standing behind this,” he said. “That’s why I like to fix it, too. Because I know what I’m dealing with. If someone else fixed it, I couldn’t guarantee their work.”

Simpson spent more than three weeks repairing the wall, including injecting 30-plus tubes of epoxy into heavy breaks.

“Took twice as long to fix it as to paint it,” he said. “People don’t realize that when they look at it.”

About half of that work had been finished as of Friday. Although the project follows the original pattern. Simpson stressed that a replica is impossible.

“To go over someone else’s work stroke for stroke is very difficult,” he said. “I use it as a guide.”

Simpson also added more vibrant hues.

“I just want to bring back some serious color again,” he said. “It was really pastel-y before. Good technique that [the original painter] had and I like it, but you know every artist has a different technique.”

Simpson has been in the mural business for about 25 years, though he’s been drawing since childhood. In high school, he filled his textbooks with doodles and race car sketches.

When the Conway mural was originally painted, Simpson was making his living painting Grand Strand billboards.

He liked the creative opportunities that murals provided and imagined that work would be more lucrative, too.

Over the years, he’s painted everything from local homeowners’ ceilings to casinos out West.

“You don’t really have to advertise if you do it long enough,” he said. “People know where to find you.”

With the Conway project, it was Simpson who made the first move. He noticed the mural’s colors had been growing lighter and he called Egerton Burroughs, whose family name is on the ship and who is one Simpson’s customers. Despite Simpson’s connections, actually landing the job took longer than the artist imagined.

“Two years later, here we are,” he said. “That says something for perseverance.”

It also says something about his interest in the landmark, which led him to his career.

“That’s another reason why I really, really wanted to do this,” he said. “It was special to me.”

Contact CHARLES D. PERRY at 626-0218 or on Twitter @TSN_CharlesPerr.