THAT'S LAUDERDALE

Column: Find your face in the Water Festival crowd

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJuly 17, 2014 

  • Interactive Beaufort Water Festival schedule

The official painting for the 59th annual Beaufort Water Festival has a "Where's Waldo?" feel.

Beaufort artist William Rhett III went to great pains to make it that way for a purpose. To him, the festival is all about the people.

"I tell people, 'Just look for yourself,'" the fifth-generation artist said.

The 10-day festival opens Friday with the theme: "A Lowcountry Tradition Since 1956."

This is Rhett's second work for the Water Festival, which annually has a new design to go on its T-shirts. Two years ago, he featured the Beaufort River sandbar for the festival theme: "Sandbar Summers -- Southern Nights."

This year's piece shows why Rhett was listed as a "local to know" in the big spread about Beaufort in Southern Living magazine's "Small Towns We Love" feature this month.

A lot of locals he knows are in the painting.

The brightly festooned red and white shrimp boat that is the focal point of the painting is named "Capt. Jamie" for his fiancee, photographer Jamie Thompson.

On one side of the bow is "Pickle," the nickname of his mother, artist Nancy Ricker Rhett. On the other side is "Peggy," a tribute to the mother of festival Commodore Brandy Gray, the late Peggy Buquet of Port Royal.

Flags flying atop the shrimp boat honor three former commodores who died in a five-month span over the past year: John Gentry, Ray Kearns and Sammy Gray.

Standing at the wheelhouse door is a childhood friend, Davis Yoakum. Girls aboard include Deb Williams and Cece Stanley, Rhett said. Also there is diver Lew "SeaJay" Bayne.

The scene along the old downtown seawall reflects the festival's earliest days, when locals raced their wooden speed boats and dazzled the crowd on water skis. A yellow plane overhead pulls a banner from the first festival in 1956. The initials "CJ" on the plane stand for local pilot Cory Johnson.

Names on the boats and gas and oil cans nearby include locals James Cooler, Nick Grego, Mike Smoak, Bruce Wyles, Burleigh Bozant, Clay Stanley, Nate Sanborn, Rob Bridgers, and Ben, Sara and baby Hayes Tanner.

Playing a guitar along the seawall is another childhood friend, Carroll Manning Smith, a songwriter who could play more than a dozen musical instruments before his death in February at only 29.

Rhett, 30, viewed dozens of slides from his uncle Claude McLeod to get a feel for the early festivals. His painting also has scenes that will be part of this year's festival, including the DragonBoat races on July 26.

To Rhett, the painting represents what the festival has meant to him for as long as he can remember.

"It signifies summertime in the Lowcountry," he said. "It's a gathering of local people. It's all about people, and our friendships, traditions and memories."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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