Just beyond a sharp bend in the steep and narrow road known as Mulligan’s Hill, a set of steps that lead nowhere bisects a low wall of mossy, granite blocks.
Across from this curious landscape, which lies within earshot of the bustling Main Street business district, a wooded cliff descends sharply toward the railroad tracks and the humming Wilkins Rogers Mill by the Patapsco River.
A nearby trio of ramshackle, vine-choked homes once inhabited by mill workers sends visitors’ imaginations tumbling back to the days of the Ellicott brothers.
It’s in this intriguing setting that Wiley Purkey — who used to race homemade wooden go-karts down the 45-degree grade in the early 1960s — plunked down an easel on a recent spring day to paint yet another in a long line of valentines to his beloved hometown.
When it comes to paying homage to historic Ellicott City through art, nobody can top him in sheer volume or dedication, he says.
“I’ve painted more images of Ellicott City than anyone alive or dead, and more than all other artists put together,” Purkey says.
Though he can’t pinpoint a precise number, he estimates he has completed thousands of scenes of the historic mill town since 1969, when he did his first painting of the now-defunct Patapsco Hotel, which used to operate on Main Street.
Describing his current style as a mix of realism and impressionism, he says he’s been influenced by Rembrandt, Andrew Wyeth and Claude Monet, in that order.
Looking ahead, the self-taught artist has set a goal of completing a dozen new watercolor paintings of iconic Ellicott City landmarks by 2019 to mark his 50 years of painting the town.
“As we age, we begin to measure our time,” says Purkey, who is 62 and likes to go by “Wildman” on his website, wileypurkey.com. “That probably sounds morbid, but it’s not; it’s just self-awareness. There is so much I want to accomplish. Things flood at me all the time and I get buzzy; I get excited.”
He plans to sell prints he will make himself from the originals, which will be very detailed and realistic. The Patapsco Female Institute, B&O Railroad Museum, Tongue Row, the George Ellicott house and the Jonathan Ellicott house join the Patapsco Hotel on his short list of favorite subjects he wants to paint again.
“Understanding Ellicott City comes with living here and knowing the people,” says the artist, who now resides in Sykesville. “I am becoming a part of the history of the town.”
Purkey’s works of art — created in oil, watercolor, pastel, tempera and acrylic — have been exhibited in numerous places around Howard County and hang in many homes, including Michel Tersiguel’s.
Tersiguel, chef-owner at the eponymous French country restaurant on Main Street, was working as a busboy for his father, Fernand Tersiguel, at the family’s first restaurant when Purkey used to come around to trade paintings for food.
“He was all cool-looking with long hair and wearing a medallion, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s what a real artist looks like,’” Michel Tersiguel says.
That was pre-1984, the year Chez Fernand burned down, with the fire also claiming those 20 or so bartered works of art.
A commissioned painting of the famous Mont Saint-Michel abbey in France that Purkey did long ago for the retired, French-born dining patriarch still hangs in Tersiguel’s Brittany Room. Other paintings by the artist are displayed in Michel Tersiguel’s Ellicott City home and in his parents’ home in Randallstown.
“Wiley has been a great friend of our family’s forever,” Michel Tersiguel says.
Some of Purkey’s body of work depicts a Main Street of another era, with paintings of such onetime mainstays as Taylor’s, Sach’s and Rosenstock’s department stores; Patapsco Pharmacy; the Ellicott Theatre; Bob’s Five and Dime; Olin’s Art Shop and Eddie’s Luncheonette.
But the artist also embraces the current incarnation of his beloved birthplace.
“When I look at a building, I see all the layers of what it used to be, and they peel away in my mind like an onion.
“It’s just like ‘The Time Machine,’” Purkey says, referring to the 1960 film based on H.G. Wells’ novel of the same name. “Remember how they could speed up or slow down by pushing a lever and the scenery would change from year to year? It’s exactly like that.”
Karen Griffith, former manager of the Howard County Historical Society Museum, displays about a dozen of Purkey’s paintings in her Dorsey Hall home on what she and husband Hank have dubbed “The Wiley Wall.”
“I love old Ellicott City, and Wiley really captures it well,” said Griffith, who has become friends with the artist. “These are places I care about, and there’s a nostalgia about his paintings that I love.”
After 1980, Purkey turned his attention away from Ellicott City for a while, painting landscapes elsewhere and then his own flower gardens, much as Monet did, he says.
He took a break from painting between 1995 and 2005 to pursue public service work, owned his own shop for a dozen years, and then closed it in 2000 to run a toy train store for another decade.
But in 2012 he began to track down 20 of his favorite paintings from various collections to make prints of them. He sells them on the Internet and through Perspectives Art Gallery on Main Street.
“This is an inexpensive way for people to own a lot of an artist’s work,” he says, noting that more than 100 of his images are available as prints, 60 to 70 of which are of Ellicott City.
On top of preparing for the 2019 exhibit, he will have an exhibit at Perspectives from November through February. One of these upcoming shows will likely be titled “Then and Now, and in Between,” he says, to celebrate the way his art has evolved over the years.
Lauren Erickson-Caquelin, who opened Perspectives in 2009, enjoys Purkey’s backstory.
“He’s a local artist who’s still working today, and he’s worked here his entire life,” she says. “What’s better to have at a Main Street art gallery than prints of historic Ellicott City?”
Her gallery also sells mugs, note cards, postcards, magnets and pillows that depict his art. The objects make it affordable for people who want to own an image of the historic town, she says.
These days, Purkey is busily refocusing his attention on his all-time favorite subject.
“I like to say I’m the best-known Ellicott City artist you’ve never heard of,” says Purkey, who also gives lessons at his Sykesville studio and teaches wine-and-paint classes at Perspectives and elsewhere.
While that superlative may fit, he continues working actively to increase awareness of his work.
“I wouldn’t mind being a bit more famous,” he says, “even if it’s only in Ellicott City, my little polka dot in the world.”