Artist. Born in Charleston on March 13, 1915, Halsey was the son of Ashley Halsey and Eleanor Loeb. His father was a partner in the Halsey Lumber Company. Educated in Charleston schools, in 1928 Halsey became a youthful protégé of the Charleston Renaissance artist Elizabeth O’Neill Verner. He attended the University of South Carolina for two years before going to the Boston Museum School (1935–1939), where he studied anatomy and fresco painting. On June 5, 1939, he married Sumter native and fellow artist Corrie McCallum. The couple had three children. In 1939 and 1940 he spent eighteen months in Mexico on a Paige Fellowship from the Museum School. Returning to the Southeast he taught for a short period in Charleston before moving to Savannah to direct the art school at the Telfair Academy. He settled in Charleston permanently in 1945 and supported himself by teaching, first at the Gibbes Art Gallery and then independently. From 1972 until his retirement in 1984 he was artist in residence at the College of Charleston, where the William Halsey Gallery at the Simons Center for the Arts is named in his honor.
Halsey traveled extensively, funded by friends and supporters who were rewarded with a work of art in return for their modest subventions. The Yucatán peninsula in Mexico was one of his favorite destinations, but he also went to Greece, Spain, and Morocco. In 1971, with McCallum, he published A Travel Sketchbook, an annotated selection of their drawings, and in 1976 he issued Maya Journal. Halsey’s early work gained critical attention in several New York exhibitions. Unlike his predecessors who emphasized charm and sunlight in their portrayals of Charleston, Halsey reveled in the decay, colors, and textures offered by the old city. It was precisely these qualities that inspired the nonrepresentational work that dominated his mature output. Instead of painting conventionally in oil on canvas, he elected to use Masonite, which provided a firm backing for his frequent reworkings of the surface. The firmness of the support was advantageous when he added collage elements, such as old paint rags, torn and stained bits of his own clothing, and African textiles given to him by his friend Merton Simpson, a dealer in African art. About 1964 Halsey began to translate his collages into three-dimensional sculptures, largely totemlike assemblages, made from scraps of wood and later metal. Late in his career he worked with oil pastels on paper in a bright range of colors enlivened by expressionist gestures.
A prolific artist, Halsey was active in arts organizations in the state, such as the Guild of South Carolina Artists, and his work was regularly included in a broad range of exhibitions across the Southeast. The Greenville County Museum of Art organized two major exhibitions: in 1972 a retrospective of his work and in 1999 a posthumous exhibition. Halsey is represented in the collections of the Gibbes Museum of Art, the South Carolina State Museum, the Columbia Museum of Art, the Greenville County Museum of Art, and the College of Charleston. Halsey died on February 14, 1999, in Charleston. See plate 30.
Morris, Jack A., Jr. William M. Halsey: Retrospective. Greenville, S.C.: Greenville County Museum of Art, 1972.
Severens, Martha R. William Halsey. Greenville, S.C.: Greenville County Museum of Art, 1999.