1942 - 1999

Charles Williams

Lexington, Kentucky

    I was born in 1942 in a little old country hick town in coal-mining territory eight miles from Hazard, Kentucky, back up in the hollow where the blacks lived. Blue Diamond, Kentucky. It is no longer in existence. Hazard was the big town for us back then, where we would do all our major shopping, especially for Christmas.

    Blue Diamond had one of everything, and the commissary store wars the big center store there. All the coal miners did their shopping for food, clothes, and other things at this store. There was one small post office, one doctor’s office—and he did make house calls. For serious sickness you were taken to Hazard Mountain Merry Hospital. We had a two-story show-house or theater “movie place.” Fifteen cents would get you into the movie, and there was always a cartoon. And upstairs, a fourth of it to your right was for the blacks only. I did go to the movies a lot there in Blue Diamond to see Superman, Tarzan, Batman and Robin, Jungle Jim,  and Westerns with Lash La Rue, Cisco Kid, Lone Ranger, Red Ryder; and my number-one Western star was Bill Elliot, Elliot. He would walk into a bar with his guns turned backward and order a glass of milk, tell all that he is a peaceful man and is looking for no trouble. Captain Marvel and Superman was the top dogs to me. They could fly.

    The grocery store, post office, movie show, and all were the front of the little town and there was just one red light there, and the blacks lived back in the hills of the town, which was about a two-or three-minute drive back up in the hollow. And back up in the hollow was a one-room school located on top of one of the mountains there, the school for the blacks, named Jackson School, of which is where I went to grammar school at. It was heated by a coal stove, and one teacher that teaches it all, and on Sundays, this building was a church. There was a Mr. Ballard, a guy there who would cut your hair, and back then they were using hand clippers. There was a Mr. Henry Smith who had a little place to his house where he sold candy bars and pops, cake and other such things. He was the first there to have a TV. Back then, up in the hills, you had to put you a TV antenna up in a trimmed-down tree, and run the wires to your TV set in your house. You could get only one station or channel with that antenna. If you want another channel, you would have to put up another antenna in a different tree, or just watch the same station all the times. And it were black and white.

    This was Blue Diamond, Kentucky, and I was born here. My people was coal miners, my granddaddy and uncles. I did my growing up under my grand people, of which years later I learned they were my grandparents, Bo and Liddie Rose. Raised me there, my mother having moved to Chicago. I was called Charles Rose and know to everyone as Charles Rose.

    I was mostly caught up in sort of a little world of my own in Blue Diamond. I'll put it this way: I had mostly everything I wanted because my grandpeople got me everything I wanted. I did have the “Red Ryder,” the first one put out by Daisy BB Gun Company. I had one of the first Mickey Mouse watches, of which at the time, I couldn’t tell time but wanted it, ’cause it was Mickey Mouse. I had a Lionel electric train, a Radio Flyer Wagon, a Lightning Glider Sled, tricycle, small bike, and a big Western Flyer bicycle later on. I don’t know how they did this for me; my grandfather did work in the coal mines, and him and Mom did grow crops there on the side of the hill and did have some chickens and hogs, corn, tomatoes, all kinds of beans and other things to grow plus one or two cows, and one horse to pull things with the sled and to plow the land to grow things in. I did have a few pets, dogs and cats.

    The mining company owned everything and all the houses you lived in and had their own money system, and we had a coal-mining scripcard which was all the money you had. For example, we had a outside toilet and every time it filled up, this old man came and dug a toilet hole and other weird stuff and no money changed hands. If you wanted to go out to the town where they use real money, you could exchange your scrip money for real money at the commissary store, but you’d get less real money, like two dollars scrip get to you a dollar real, half of the scrip for one whole of the real. I don’t know how the system went exactly on that level, but we was pretty well-off because I remember my grandfather had a big yellow Dynaflow Buick, a pretty popular car in them days, and whatever I wanted for Christmas I got.

    I discovered artmaking in Blue Diamond coming up, playing house with some of the girls coming up, playing house with some of the girls there, which was making mud pies, and I accidentally figured out ceramics, of which I did learn that the mud would get hard like a rock when it dries. I started experimenting with mud, made stuff like head figures out of balls of clay, then let it dry in the sunlight, if the sun did come out. It would rain, take too long to dry, and I got to wondering how to dry it faster. Then sometime later on, I thought if I put it in the oven of the coal stove when no one is home, perhaps the stuff would dry quicker. When my grandpeople were gone, I put the stuff in the coal stove.

    The clay was a problem which was caused by too many rocks in it. I used to handpick the little rocks out until I figured out the solution to get the rocks out. Took a door screen off somebody’s old house. (The dead moved out and they was just old shotgun houses with dry rot so nobody didn’t know too much about it, nobody say nothing or care, cause it was just a old, empty house sitting by itself on the hill.) I got where nobody would notice me or be seen and I’d get the door, take the screen off the door, put it over a bucket, run my clay through it into the bucket without the rocks, take the refined clay, put water in it and go from there. I took the door with the screen off it and made a table to put my train to run around on it, and I took my clay and made little bridges for the trains and little figurines to go around. And maybe if I had the right paint I would paint the whole thing. That was the extent of it at the time.

    I reached my limit with the clay. I did have an Erector Set, of which I do think must have had to do with me getting into art. And a few old clocks of which I did try to find the tick-tock in the clocks, and did have a few extra parts left over after I put them back together. I did like building toys that I did have. I messed with model airplanes, too, out of boxes, and I used that model paint out of bottles, and at the time I didn’t know it but it will make you high, and I guess it did. I’d take the stands for the airplane and cement-glue it to the wall and then sit the plane in it. And after I done had them so long, I got tired of them particular toys after a month or two, then I take my Red Ryder BB gun and play like I’m in a war and shoot them down.

    Then I started figuring out how to draw by copying comic books. That would be about 1950. I did try to draw Captain Marvel and Superman. I did learn to draw the faces of Dick Tracy and Batman because they were square faces and easier to learn or draw. I picked them two because they were the easiest to draw because of the square chins. I had a bunch of things I used to get off into. I had no books on art or drawing, or knew of such even existed. I could draw better than I could write. Then I could not read that good if any at all. Each week I would have about ten or more drawings in my notebook that some of the students in my homeroom class did like to see. I did more or spent more time on drawing than doing my homework.

    My family did start to die off. It was my grandmother at first. And later on my grandfather did marry again. A few years later he came down with a stroke, and I was lucky in a way. My mother in Chicago had written home. A good lady friend of mine did read the letter for me and wrote back to my mother for me telling her what all was going on there at the time in Blue Diamond, Kentucky. Her name was Georgia Frazier, and it was two of her sisters that we used to make them mud pies with, Jerry and Jessie Frazier. My mother did come and stay about two months or so until my granddad did get back into the best he could be with the stroke that he had. He never talked or walked again in his life. Me, my mother, and a great uncle did move to Chicago with her. I went from the littlest school you ever seen to one of the biggest schools in southside Chicago, Wadsworth Elementary School. I went to high school in Chicago but didn’t finish.

    After some time there in Chicago, about ten years, I did come back to Hazard, Kentucky, because the city was too complicated for my uncle, which I lived with along with my mother. Old retired guy who couldn’t read or write, signed his checks with X and we put his name under it to cash them. I had to take him back to Kentucky, which he died in back in the early seventies. I was planning to go back to Chicago but got kept in Kentucky with a broken leg, pinned between two cars during one December delivering a Christmas tree to my girlfriend, standing between two cars. Another car drove by a drunk man knocked one of the cars into me. It seemed I was meant to be penned into Kentucky, ’cause every time I got ready to go, something would happen, a little stuff here and there and whatever.

    So about this time, the government Job Corps Center Program opened up, and I did join the Breckinridge Job Corps Center at Morganfield, Kentucky. There later on I did artwork, photography, interviews, and sometimes was a paste-up artist for the camp paper, which came out once a week. It was called the Breckinridge Bugle. We all who worked with the paper did have press cards of which we could get into certain shows or games with that card to do a story on such for the camp paper. I also did write short science fantasy stories for the paper there. And I did have a regular comic strip that appeared on the back page of the paper every week it came out, called “J.C. of the Job Corps,” about adventures of certain teenagers in the Job Corps.

    I was trying to get a job in something mechanical. I did graduate from the Job Corps Program with flying colors in 1967, but couldn’t get hired into any of the factory facilities in Kentucky, so I wound up doing janitorial jobs or whatever I could, and ended up in the cleaning service of IBM in Lexington.

    I got me this place here and decided to do something with it. I have always had art on my mind and wanted to do something out front there that I hadn’t heard of no other person doing. I fixed up the trees to give them some new life, some color, one idea got another idea and so on down the line, each idea kept building into another idea. I put the comic people up in the trees after that, which were the ones I remembered from my comic book drawing days, and would use a circular saw and a reciprocating saw, would draw on the plywood, paint them on, have to drill a hole in the wood with a screwdriver bit to get the saw in, then I can cut certain curves with one saw and use another saw for certain curves and vice versa. I did Superman and Batman and Captain Marvel and Mighty Mouse. Superman and Batman were all cut out of wood doors that I found. Drew them on it, painted them. After all had dried I cut them out, then put on two or one thick coats of polyurethane clear gloss.

    I was originally going to put a bathtub into the tree over there and put a screen over it to catch leaves from falling into it so it wouldn’t stop it up. I was going to wrap a hose around the tree attached to the bathtub coming down to a faucet, using rainwater for people to wash your hands, and on the side of the faucet a urinal for people. On top of the bathtub I was going to put a cutout of Tarzan from the waist up sticking out of the bathtub, and in another adjoining tree I was going to put Jane swinging in to meet up with Tarzan in the bathtub.

    On the other side of my duplex there lived a automobile mechanic. He had seen where I was headed with the trees, and started hanging automobile parts from them and turned it to looking like Sanford and Son, and that was the end of my show. It wasn’t no fight or argument or nothing, I just stopped and let him do his thing. I stopped using trees on that basis.

    I started making the furniture sculptures in ’82. People were telling me to go check out the art classes at UK, which I did so, and it gave me the challenge to do things that was in my head. I thought about my childhood. When I was a little boy, I’d get a chair and nail car parts to it from around in the environment, everything I could get or whatever associated with a car. I did dream of owning my own real car instead of the toy cars I had then. So I thought about that—one of my childhood fantasies of having my own car. People that have looked at it have called it a time machine, but it’s a fantasy automobile.

    About then, I made this papier-mâché pencil rocket. To a certain extent, it was a experiment on a experiment. I had dealer with papier-mâché back in school in Chicago but didn’t like it. I attended a fair in Kentucky and had bought a pencil balloon, and I thought about what I could do with it other than a pencil. I thought about a mold, in other words, doing papier-mâché from the pencil. After I got it down, I attached a fan propeller to give it movement. I set it on the porch and the wind turned the fan. It was a little bit fascinating to everybody that came by.

    This art student at the UK art school was supposed to make a sculpture, so he bought some expensive sheets of metal, and throwed away some cut-up metal that he didn’t use, and I found them and used them to make that thing. And when the student saw what I did with his throwed-away, rejected stuff, he didn’t like me much after that.

    That lamp with the mirror on it and a light bulb was made with concrete and Bondo done on a wood frame. You put a wet sack over the wood, keep it wet, put concrete over it. The sack keep the concrete in place while it dries. I learned some tricks from some people at UK.

    I made a bunch of pencil holders, all sizes. That first one was from stuff some guys gave me at work. Plastic melts off the machine and it takes certain forms when it hits the floor. It becomes solid with weird shapes. I put them on a stand and paint it, keep it in its unique weird stage, and some of them forms looks like a animal’s brain. Makes you think of a brain.

    My drawings or sculptures are from ideas of things I do think of or about, not from some emotion feelings or anything of such. Though nothing is wrong with such. But my artwork is from things I see, think of, create, or all of the above.

    Taken from interviews and correspondence with Charles Williams by William Arnett in 1995.


    Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South

    Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South

    A wide-ranging survey of Black art in the American South, from Thornton Dial and Nellie Mae Rowe to the quilters of Gee’s Bend For generations, Black artists from the American South have forged a unique art tradition. Working in near isolation from established practices, they have created masterpieces in clay, driftwood, roots, soil, and recycled and cast-off objects that articulate America's painful past--the inhuman practice of enslavement, the cruel segregationist policies of the Jim Crow era and institutionalized racism. Their works respond to issues ranging from economic inequality, oppression and social marginalization to sexuality, the influence of place and ancestral memory.
    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 2

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 2

    Completing the two-volume set, "Souls Grown Deep, Vol. 2" takes the visual and historical presentation of the first volume to a richer level, offering an even broader array of artistic styles and media. Breaking away from the stereotypes that identity folk art and the South with rural, isolated, static and agrarian ways of life, these pages unveil an art that embodies social change and continues to flourish at the dawn of a new century.
    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 1

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 1

    The African American culture of the South has produced many of the twentieth century’s most innovative art forms. Widely appreciated for its music—from the blues and jazz, to gospel, soul, rock ‘n’ roll—the region has also played host to a less visible but equally important visual art tradition.

    Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South

    Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South

    Royal Academy of Arts
    March 17, 2023 to June 18, 2023
    For generations, Black artists from the American South have forged a unique art tradition. Working in near isolation from established practices, they have created masterpieces that articulate America’s painful past – the inhuman practice of enslavement, the cruel segregationist policies of the Jim Crow era, and institutionalised racism. Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers brings together sculpture, paintings, reliefs, drawings, and quilts, most of which will be seen in the UK and Europe for the first time. It will also feature the celebrated quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama and the neighbouring communities of Rehoboth and Alberta.
    The Life and Death of Charles Williams

    The Life and Death of Charles Williams

    Atlanta Contemporary
    January 23, 2020 to April 19, 2020

    Charles Williams (1942-1998) was born in Blue Diamond, Kentucky, a place he described as a “little old country hick town in coal mining territory, eight miles from Hazard, Kentucky, back up in the hollow where the blacks lived.” As a child, Williams taught himself to draw by copying comic book figures like Superman, Dick Tracy, and Captain Marvel but never finished high school.

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South

    Michael C. Carlos Museum at City Hall East
    June 29 - November 3, 1996
    "Souls Grown Deep: African-American Vernacular Art of the South," a groundbreaking exhibition of over 450 artworks by some 30 contemporary artists, highlighting a significant artistic tradition that has risen in concert with the Civil Rights Movement. This exhibition presents an art form that is universal in its appeal and currency yet highly individuated in its origins within the African-American South.

    "Pencil Rocket"

    Paul Arnett

    Pencil-as-weapon and pencil-as-escape are Pencil Rocket's introductory metaphors. This sculpture is one of the innumerable African American vernacular invocations of the culturally crucial myths of transcendence, migration, and the powers of literacy. The civil rights movement began in full with the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which ended legalized school segregation throughout the country. The rocket, meanwhile, was the great patriotic emblem of midcentury America's global ambitions. Vectors of our dreams and our politics, missiles pointed at the moon and at our nation's ideological adversaries. Within our borders, on the other hand, the civil rights movement was the rocket's obverse: an internal struggle with our consciences, a gauge of whether there were any values back home really worth exporting to other countries—or other planets. Williams's pencil-at-lift-off unites the lofty goals of the space race and the Great Society.

    This rocket's launch position is the acute angle of a combat missile. Literacy has likewise always been a weapon-like, subversive, and empowering skill for African Americans in the Deep South. If you could read, you could leave. (And you might well be forced to leave, as artist Mary T. Smith found out from the plantation owner when she began accurately tallying the annual harvest for her unlettered, sharecropping husband.) In addition to heaven, outer space, and flying, the missile's "upward" position has also meant geographical flight "up North”—the original economic and political ascent/exodus for slaves and sharecroppers on the run.

    Pencil Rocket adds to these noble ambitions a "whose rocket is longest?" farcical machismo perfectly tuned to Cold War and racial insecurities. For "up" is also "erect," and Williams's rocket is aimed toward taboo emotional territory: the mingling of literacy and sexual potency. In the modern world, the ability to prosper economically, along with the attractiveness to others which prosperity brings, has become a function of education rather than of physical strength. This literacy/prosperity/sex linkage has been especially cruel for African American men, because literacy (as an "encroach- ing" upon the European's letters) and miscegenation (as an "encroaching" upon the European's woman) were cardinal interdictions for blacks in the Old South. What happens to white supremacy if the stereotyped black “buck"—sexually potent but illiterate—gets "smart"? To be blunt: Are not these categories of "access"—access to writing/education (and all they connote) and to sexual freedom (the freedom to choose one's mate and, therefore, the future appearance of humanity)—core concerns of the recent liberation struggles in America?

    Pencil Rocket is also a monument, a vernacular cousin of executive pen-and-ink sets and plastic model warplanes and the Real (surplus) McCoys that pose in front of military bases nationwide. The most commonly seen form of southern yard ornamentation is certainly the whirligig, an elevated, often kinetic sculpture typically fashioned of cut metal or plastic. Resting atop a table-fan base with an attached fan-blade propeller, and sitting out on the artist's Kentucky porch, Williams's rocket was a glorified (or understated) whirligig—a portable one, of course, in case the artist finally did make his big move up to Chicago—which harnessed the forces of nature to make a statement about the power of literacy. Literacy's affiliation with powers of relocation and navigation implies one's becoming completely unlike the illiterate uncle whom Williams remembers as having been helpless in Chicago, trapped and befuddled by modern life. The base of Pencil Rocket rests upon a kickstand/doorstop. This prop, destined for a kicking-out from under the missile it supports, guides the pencil's sharp line in an endlessly repeated sine wave of peaks and valleys, ups and downs, that is in hilariously piquant harmony with the artist's personal narrative of ascent and descent, good times and bad times, high hopes and deflations. To reinforce this autobiographical theme, occasionally in the pencil holders there appears a pencil custom-embossed in gold with Charles Williams's name.

    The pencil holders, as holsters or silos for these dangerous and liberating implements, are cornucopias of extruded plastic coughed up by machines at the factory where Williams worked. The plastic "ink" is psychedelic-Superman blue, Captain Marvel red, Dick Tracy yellow. Formless, abstract, malleable plastic replaces metal as the post-industrial smith's raw material, replaces ink as the writer's tool, and replaces paint as the visual artist's medium. Like a root sculptor's roots, plastic is a quintessentially dead material-discarded plastic even more so. African American vernacular artists often eschew paint and ink—elemental "artistic" substances—in preference for plastic and other waste materials. This is a doubly interesting ecological move for a son and nephew of coal miners, who were diggers of the earth and despoilers of its surface. (But plastic also comes from coal.)

    Williams compares the plastic's forms to brains, from which pencils seem to sprout as regenerative growth. Williams's pencil holders become miniature stage sets, or showrooms, for the artist's dreams. The pencils, brushes, and pens command such admiration from him that they are nurtured and honored almost as living beings, and afforded the plushest possible living conditions, including miniature gardens of twig trees and oak leaves, Technicolor fountains, and wall-to-wall carpeting. Yet Williams's idyll does not exist within the romantic or nostalgic tradition of an unboundedly vast nature, but within a carnival. (Pencil Rocket was in fact inspired by a carnival balloon.) His Fantasy Automobile is a carnival ride, a seat in an autobiographical, historical, and aesthetic Tilt-A-Whirl. The protective hard hat/space helmet is made from the lid of a garbage can.

    The otherworldly deliverance the pencil makes possible is counter-balanced by ecumenical, inclusive wishes for privacy, modest peace, homeownership, simple decency, and self-determination—prized American pastorals all—themes so much like those of Royal Robertson, Nellie Mae Rowe, and Georgia Speller. See the model train dioramas, the mud pies, the cartoons, and the balloons. They all flow freely from a happy childhood in an unhappy place, and from a happy future in an unsatisfactory here and now. They are microcosms of a perfect universe: Everything you always wanted in a world. And less.