MOUNT VERNON — Bob Williams likes to joke that he has mugged nearly everyone in Skagit County.

But he retired last year after more than 50 years running a specialty coffee mug-painting business out of his home with his wife, Virginia Williams.

The couple has established a small art gallery to showcase his painting and other works, and several of his pieces are for sale.

“We didn’t know what to do with what we had,” Bob said. “We had all this stuff hanging all over.”

His retirement, he said, is brought on in part due to his deteriorating eyesight.

“I just don’t have the feeling for it anymore,” said Bob, 88.

Virginia, 86, who handled the nonproduction aspects of the business, said the time was right for her husband to step back.

“He slowed down,” she said. “He needed to.”

Bob began painting mugs in 1950 while the couple was living in Santa Ana, California. A friend needed help with his mug-painting business, and Bob was willing to lend a hand.

The business had a breakthrough one year later, when Bob met a set director for the John Wayne film “Flying Leathernecks.”

Wayne had apparently noticed some hand-painted mugs used by a group of pilots who were part of the movie. He wanted to commission a set of his own to give out to cast members when filming wrapped.

Over the next decade, Bob wound up painting mugs for several Hollywood movie stars. He and his wife even had a chance to meet “The Duke.”

“He was very calm in person. There was nothing elite about him,” Virginia said. “The way he was in movies was just the way he was.”

The couple moved to Skagit County in 1963, buying a house on some property just outside Mount Vernon on Memorial Highway.

Bob picked his business back up after the move. His studio was located in the couple’s home.

He said one of his first big jobs was to paint mugs for six disc jockeys at a Seattle-area radio station. Eventually, his notoriety grew to the point where he was asked to appear on television and tell his story, he said.

“From that point on, word-of-mouth just began to build,” he said.

Bob said he enjoyed the spontaneity of his customers’ requests and that he never knew what kind of order he would get.

People would bring him photos, phrases, business logos and cartoons to work into their designs. Some would have very specific ideas, while others would give him more creative freedom, he said.

His trademark image was a tree branch that he would try to work into most of his mugs.

Bob said one of the favorite aspects of the work was that it allowed him to stay out of the commercial art business.

In his younger days, he spent a year at the Otis College of Arts and Design in Los Angeles, but left before attaining a degree. He said he regrets leaving, not because he wanted to enter the commercial world of art, but because he prefers to finish what he starts.

Thinking back, Bob said his brief college stint gives credence to a personal belief that he said is based on his lifetime of experience and his Christian faith.

“After a while,” he said, “it sinks in that there’s someone else guiding you.”

Over all his years painting mugs, Bob never kept track of just how many he’s put finishing touches on. Virginia estimated his total output would top at least 10,000.

Today, just a few of them remain in Bob’s studio. He keeps them as mementos, and each one usually comes with a story.

Some of the pieces from his earlier days may even be fetching top dollar on the Internet, he said. A friend once told him that one of his mugs painted for John Wayne’s movie cast sold on an online auction website for $2,500.

While most of the mugs he painted are unique in design and color, there’s one element that has been a constant among almost all of them: a small, black stamp placed on the bottom of each piece that displays his name and business address.

Bob said it’s not hard to believe that many of the mugs he has painted may still be out there in Skagit County.

So if you ever find yourself sitting at a coffee shop counter or peeking into a neighbor’s kitchen cupboard and a hand-painted mug catches your eye, turn it over and check for that stamp. You may just be holding a Bob Williams original.

— Reporter Evan Marczynski: 360-416-2149, emarczynski@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Evan_SVH, Facebook.com/EvanReports

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