Pictured: Willie Crockett stands in front of a portrait in his Onancock gallery. 

By Ted Shockley

Willie Crockett, the witty and homespun Tangier Island native whose captivating watercolor paintings and well-told stories made him one of the Eastern Shore of Virginia’s most celebrated artists, died on Monday. He was 82.

The cause of death and funeral arrangements were not immediately available. He is survived by his wife, Iris, and five children, among other relatives.

With his tall frame, gray beard, balding head and piercing eyes, Crockett cut a figure that would have looked at home in the gray skies and salt marsh featured in many of the coastal landscapes he painted since opening his Onancock gallery in 1969.

He also had a fondness for the written and spoken word, acting out Shakespearean scenes with adults on Tangier Island as a youth, and writing poignant and humorous poetry that he would read for paying audiences later in life.

Crockett’s sheer artistic talent, Tangier accent and natural storytelling ability made him a darling of the media, with the late Salisbury, Md., newsman Scorchy Tawes once calling Crockett his favorite interview.

He was extensively profiled by news organizations and magazines, and on television shows. Earlier this year he was the subject of an hour-long documentary film.

Along the way, the ruggedly handsome Crockett essentially became the quintessential Eastern Shoreman — hunting and fishing when he wanted, meeting guests at his gallery, enjoying a weekly card game, and painting.

“People ask, ‘When are you going to retire?’” Crockett said in a 2017 interview.

“I say, ‘From what?’”

Born on Tangier Island, Crockett was heavily influenced by the talented storytellers there and the community’s religious bearing.

He then went to a Bible college in South Carolina, taught for a year and lived on the West Coast for seven years, serving as a minister.

“Eventually my religious beliefs changed and my whole philosophy of life changed,” he said.

He left the ministry. Having always enjoyed sketching, he took art lessons, and moved back to the Eastern Shore to paint the solitude, nature and nuance of local life.

Crockett came to embody the Eastern Shore resident who trades the prospect of fame and fortune elsewhere for a lifestyle here.

“‘I’ve lived in cities but I don’t like them,” he said. “I could make more money if I were up in the (Washington) D.C. area, but I’d be in D.C., and who wants to do that?”

“My mother said one time, ‘Why don’t you get you a good desk job?’ I said, ‘Because there’s no such thing as a good desk job.’”