It started as one of the more bizarre real estate listings in Columbia in recent memory – a 2,656-square-foot house in Cayce advertised for sale, but with a mystery tenant and an upstairs out of bounds to the buyer.
“Upstairs apartment cannot be shown under any circumstances,” the listing read. “Buyer assumes responsibility for the month-to-month tenancy in the upstairs apartment. Occupant has never paid, and no security deposit is being held, but there is a lease in place. (Yes, it does not make sense, please don’t bother asking.)”
The ad on home listing service Zillow went viral. It became the service’s most shared listing of 2017, according to a company blog post. Social media users labeled it a “nightmare house” and the “creepy” house in Cayce. Local and national media posted stories about the ad, with most simply reporting on its mystery.
In reality, the man in the upstairs apartment is anything but creepy. He is Randall McKissick, a once world-renowned artist and illustrator who has fallen on hard times, a father of two loving daughters and grandfather to a precious red-haired grandson.
The house contains no nightmares, just the artist and his three cats. It is untidy.
“I’m not a housekeeper or a yard keeper,” McKissick said.
McKissick is 5-foot-5-inches tall and weighs 135 pounds, with flowing white hair and beard, and a warm and friendly demeanor.
He loves Elvis Presley and James Brown, saying “I would kiss them on the mouth.”
He rode a Harley-Davidson chopper customized by television personality and designer Jesse James until he broke the key off in the ignition six months ago. He loves his three cats almost as much as his art and his family.
“Animals are truer than people,” he said.
He’s a sensitive genius who once was at the pinnacle of his profession, with illustrations and paintings in museums, galleries, private collections and corporate headquarters around the world.
But now, after a series of setbacks beginning with the emergence of computer graphics and continuing to a divorce, an eviction, a series of thefts and age-related challenges, McKissick has lost his spark for painting.
He suffers from anxiety, a malady he has battled since childhood. And increasingly, he has trouble focusing. His mind wanders.
“I’m not 70,” he says, sitting in a rickety dining room chair in an otherwise empty downstairs room. “I’m 18 in my mind. And I cry like a baby.”
McKissick is a Columbia native. He attended Columbia High School, and has been friends with Michael Schumpert Sr., the owner of the Michaelmas Avenue house, since junior high school.
McKissick attended the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Fla., on a prestigious Hallmark Scholarship. He spent six months on active duty with the National Guard during the Vietnam War, then took an illustrators job in Charlotte.
He and his then wife, Jean, moved to Irmo, and he began his freelance career, diving wholesale into painting. He painted portraits and wildlife, street scenes and landscapes, always with an eye to light and color.
In a bulletin for a 2006 show at City Art in Columbia, the curators wrote: “McKissick’s impressionistic oil portraits and figures show his love for the subtlety of real light, atmosphere, and color. He has no inhibitions with using simple color planes that flow from one to the other in feathery brushstrokes. McKissick’s lush use of oil is particularly pleasant and it is a fortune to have an artist of his caliber in this show.”
Author and historian Herbert “Bing” Chambers III has been friends with McKissick since they were 5 years old. He called McKissick “a genius.”
“He could have gone anywhere in the world,” Chambers said. “Instead, we have one of the finest artists in the world living right here in Columbia. And very few people know him.”
McKissick’s illustrations have appeared mostly in northern markets, showing up on billboards in Manhattan, magazine covers across the nation and on scores of products and packaging.
“One of his originals still hangs in the Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta,” Chambers said.
His daughter, Amber Albert of Pontiac, said she didn’t know how much money McKissick made at his peak, “but we always lived very well.”
But with the rise of computer graphics as early as the 1980s, the need for illustrators for products, advertising and magazine covers waned. So McKissick threw himself into painting.
His work has been shown internationally in Paris, Johannesburg and St. Thomas, and in the United States in Hawaii, Chicago, New York City, Atlanta and Charleston.
“Anything he put in the galleries in Charleston was not there for long,” Chambers said.
A good, kind, fine man
McKissick would paint barefoot from his studio overlooking the Congaree River. But his fastidious devotion to inspiration rather than mechanics limited his production.
“People don’t realize that I tore up about half of what I started,” he said. “They just weren’t good enough.”
The rent kept going up on his studio. His marriage with Jean fell apart. McKissick was being evicted.
“I had a restored Austin Healey 3000” automobile, he said. “I think I sold it for less than $1,000. I needed the money.”
His painting ceased.
“These things threw him for a loop and he couldn’t paint,” Chambers said. “He has to be inspired. He makes this clear to me every time we speak. When events in his life went against him, he couldn’t deal with the setbacks.”
Said McKissick: “I lost the spark. I don’t know how to get it back.”
Enter his old friend Schumpert.
Schumpert and McKissick had known each other since they were children. Schumpert eventually moved to Charleston and entered the advertising business, and later became a Baptist minister.
The Michaelmas Avenue house had been built by his father, David. It reverted to David’s sister; then in 1997, Michael bought it from the aunt’s estate for $52,000.
The house has three apartments: An upstairs, a downstairs and a garage apartment. Schumpert offered to let his old friend stay in the upstairs apartment.
“My father and Randy are very close,” said Schumpert’s son, Michael Jr. “And dad is very charitable.”
Michael Schumpert Sr. was in a car wreck in December and broke his back. He was hospitalized for five months and is still bedridden. He was unavailable for comment.
His wife, Anne, is disabled. They are being cared for by their sons Michael and Mannie. But it is expensive and the family’s finances have suffered.
“Mike Schumpert is just a good, kind, fine man,” said West Columbia artist Roy Paschal. “In this age when people would sell out their mothers for a buck, here’s two friends in dire straights who are trying to help each other out.”
‘I just want to find that spark’
McKissick has lived in the Michaelmas Avenue home for about a decade. He can’t remember exactly how long.
“He never asked for any money,” McKissick said. “He never mentioned money. I would like to pay him, but I don’t have any.”
Michael Jr. tried to rent out the bottom floor of the Michaelmas Avenue house, but it needs extensive repair the family can’t afford.
“It just wasn’t happening,” he said.
It was Michael Jr. who wrote the ad to sell the house. The one that went viral.
“We don’t really have much choice but to sell the house; my parents need to sell it,” he said. “But it’s been in the family for so long, we don’t really want to. And we want Randy to be able to stay there.”
He has since taken down the ad, and the house is off the market. What’s the next step? “I don’t know.”
Amber Albert, McKissick’s daughter, said the family is trying to figure out a way to find other housing for McKissick, a place with room for a studio … and the cats … so he might be inspired to paint again. But money is also tight for them.
As for McKissick, he said his anxiety issues make it difficult for him to travel, or endure changes. Sometimes he doesn’t want to leave the house at all.
“If you sent me to Paris and paid for everything I wouldn’t go,” he said. “I have panic attacks. And I’m terrified of them.”
But if he has to move, he will.
“I just want to paint again,” he said. “I just want to find that spark.”