Iconic Painter, Poet Willie Crockett Featured in Documentary Film

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Artist Willie Crockett painting in his Onancock studio. Photo courtesy of Miller Productions.

By Carol Vaughn —

Eastern Shore artist Willie Crockett is the subject of a new documentary film.
David Miller, owner of Miller Productions in King William County, created the 58-minute film, “The Art of Willie Crockett and Virginia’s Eastern Shore.”
Crockett, a Tangier native who celebrated his 82nd birthday Feb. 3, can be found most days at Crockett’s Gallery, his studio and gallery at 39 Market Street in Onancock.
“You meet Willie and you like him immediately,” Miller said.
Best known for watercolor landscapes, including of the Chesapeake Bay and the marshes where he grew up hunting and fishing, Crockett more recently has been working in oils and acrylics as well.
He also has taken to the stage at Onancock’s North Street Playhouse and other local venues to perform his original poetry as well as classic poems by others and to tell tales.
Miller’s documentary highlights Crockett’s love of the Chesapeake Bay, his art, and his colorful life.
Typically, the debut would be celebrated by a crowd at a theater premiere, but that celebration has to wait because of COVID-19 restrictions.
In the meantime, the film can be accessed online at www.gumroad.com/seachaser210
Plans also are in the works to sell DVDs at Crockett’s Gallery and other outlets, and to offer the film to regional PBS television stations, which have aired four other Miller documentaries.
“To me a film is only good if people get to see it, so I hope a lot of people get to see this one,” Miller said, adding, “I think it’s kind of a timeless piece.”
Miller is producer, director, editor, and cinematographer for the film, which features music by Eastern Shore musicians “Johnny Mo” Morrison and Patrick and Sherry Belote’s duo, The Waterfront Band, as well as solo instrumental music by Patrick Belote.
Johnny Mo’s reggae tune, “Living on the Eastern Shore,” opens the film.
“I just used a bunch of Patrick’s stuff — it had the right feel,” Miller said of Belote’s contribution.
In addition to Crockett, Miller interviewed several local Chesapeake Bay experts for the film, including Paul Ewell, founder of the Eastern Shore Watermen’s Museum, and Dot Field, Eastern Shore Region Steward for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Division of Natural Heritage.
Field took Miller to some of the Shore’s iconic landscapes, at Muttonhunk Fen and Savage Neck Dunes. Both locations make an appearance in the film.
It also includes footage filmed inside Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Onancock — the stained glass windows attracted Miller as a way to depict Crockett’s changing relationship with organized religion.
In a trailer, Miller calls Crockett “a legend on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.”
It was Sheila Kerpelman, of the non-profit IPAC/Marine Environmental Research Corp., who suggested Miller do a documentary about Crockett.
IPAC/MERC has provided funding for some of Miller’s productions, including this one.
The Virginia Tourism Commission and the Virginia Film Commission also are sponsors, Miller said.
Miller first met with Crockett in December 2019, spending most of the day with Crockett in his studio and around town.
“That got things going,” Miller said, adding, “We wanted to involve some other elements in the story — the natural areas of the Eastern Shore, a little bit about the watermen and their history and culture, and then, of course, Willie. … He has kind of a following.”
Part of what fascinates Miller about Crockett is his birthplace, Tangier, as well as his varied career — he formerly was a preacher, a waterman, and a trapper, among other experiences.
“He…has all those backgrounds that really give his paintings that authenticity of being there, doing that,” Miller said.
Miller and Crockett met again last month on Tangier, where Miller filmed more footage for the documentary.
Miller piloted his boat from his vacation home near Reedville, on the western shore of the Bay, and Crockett boated over from Onancock to meet him.
Crockett drove Miller around the island on a lightweight utility vehicle, which largely have replaced the golf carts islanders formerly used to get around, according to Miller.
They chatted with Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge, visited the boatyard and its crew, and ate lunch at Lorraine’s restaurant, among other highlights of the day.
“Willie is so full of energy,” Miller said.

Artist, Willie Crockett stands next to a boat on Tangier Island in January 2021. Photo courtesy of Miller Productions.

Still, he said the film about Crockett “is kind of a relaxing film to watch. It’s not a lot of violence, for sure. It features a lot of Willie’s artwork. … It features nature photography. …We went out to Onancock Creek, to the mouth of the creek, and followed Willie as he walked the beach and sat down in the grass and did a poem.”
Additionally, there is footage of Ewell at the Waterman’s Museum and of Field in the nature preserve areas.
“I think it does kind of represent the Shore as far as the natural areas, the watermen’s history, and of course a lot of Willie’s artwork,” Miller said.
The film includes footage of Crockett creating a painting — a brief art lesson within the larger documentary.
“It’s how to paint a wildlife painting in five minutes with Willie Crockett,” Miller said.
Through the process of making the documentary, Miller came to regard Crockett as his friend, as well as an icon of Bay life.
“Willie IS Tangier Island; Willie IS the Chesapeake Bay, the marshes. He grew up hunting ducks and chasing crabs because that’s what there was to do as a young person on Tangier back in the day. …They were out there in nature. …He has all that in his mind. He has it all embedded in his memory,” Miller said.

Dave Miller of Miller Productions. Photo courtesy of Miller Productions.

Miller Productions produced four major documentaries in 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2018, all of which won awards.
Miller has done work with many different media outlets and other entities, including NBC-12, WCVE-PBS, Maryland Public Television, The Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, The Mathews Maritime Foundation, Capital One, Virginia Seafood, Green Top, Virginia Tech, Warner Hall, Rappahannock Westminster-Canterbury, and Henrico County Schools and local government, among others.
He also produced more than 100 bi-monthly features for the broadcast television program “Real Virginia.”
Due to Covid-19, Miller Productions is offering online screenings and downloads of all its Chesapeake Bay films for $5.  Go to www.gumroad.com/seachaser210 for a digital copy.
Miller Productions’ website is millerproductionsofvirginia.com and includes a link to the Willie Crockett film.
Crockett’s website is www.williecrockett.com
The Waterfront Band’s music is available for download at http://waterfrontsessions.com
Johnny Mo is on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/johnny.mo.94/about and some of his music can be heard online at https://www.reverbnation.com/johnnymothemusicalchef
His restaurant website also has information about the musical chef, at https://eatatmallards.com/about-johnny-mo/