On Oct. 18, artist Charles Williams attended a reception at Charleston’s City Gallery at Waterfront Park – a public acknowledgement putting him out there as the winner of the Coastal Community Foundation’s Griffith-Reyburn Lowcountry Artist of the Year award.
To become eligible for this grant, the recipient’s work must reflect the “spirit and feel of the Lowcountry,” according to the foundation’s website. A weeklong exhibit followed this reception, featuring a series of new paintings by Williams as well as the work of previous recipients from the past decade.
At 29, Williams may already have garnered more accolades than artists twice his age, having appeared in dozens of publications, including American Art Collector, Creative Quarterly and Charleston Magazine, and featured on ETV/NPR radio to promote his “In Thought” exhibit last year at Robert Lange Studios in Charleston.
He completed the Hudson River Landscape Fellowship at the Grand Central Academy in New York, and his work has been exhibited in galleries all over the East Coast. He is a graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design.
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His work will appear in an upcoming episode of the CBS midseason series, “Reckless,” which takes place in Charleston.
A Georgetown native now living in Charleston, Williams is in the process of creating a series of pieces for a solo show called “Swim,” slated for 2015 at the Franklin G. Burroughs-Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum in Myrtle Beach.
“Every painting I do has a different and a particular mood – a human aspect that I have captured,” said Williams. “Each time I create a piece, my goal is to grab the viewer in whatever way the viewer is grabbed. Whether that response is positive or negative, I feel like I have done my job.”
From landscapes to his much-lauded ocean scenes, Williams covers the range of human emotion in nature.
“Once I put something on canvas, that’s the feeling I am capturing – from me standing there at that moment and translating that.”
“We’ve featured Charles for a number of group shows and two solo shows,” said Megan Lange, co-owner of Robert Lange Studios ( http://www.robertlangestudios.com). “Charles being trained at the Hudson River School as a painter and being a SCAD graduate has created a combination of Old World and New World perspectives that makes stimulating and intriguing paintings. [He] has created a signature painting style of sharp realism that often fades to abstract drips; this style appears as both homage to his two ammeters and also an allegory of how nature is ever-changing.”
For Williams, it’s all about the process, perhaps starting with a quick thumbnail sketch on the back of a receipt, capturing something he saw.
“From there I go to my sketchbook, write down notes and do a full drawing.”
He might go out and take photographs.
“I am basically documenting all of the elements, which I learned from the Hudson River Fellowship – all of the pieces that make a painting or composition. So once I gather all of the photos, I edit them, do a final drawing and then transfer that onto canvas or panels. The beautiful part for me is the process.”
His career trajectory has also been a process, starting early on in school where he showed an innate ability to create and moving on to include a group of people who provided support, guidance and reinforcement.
The catalyst for this was his father, who walked into his son’s high school art class one day and, in effect, issued a challenge to Williams’ art teacher, Heath Hampton.
“He said to him, ‘I know my son is talented and you are a teacher. What can you do for my son?’ ”
Hampton began working more in depth with Williams after school, and the relationship flourished.
At some point, Hampton sought out renowned figurative painter Bruce Chandler to help Williams with private watercolor lessons.
“From there, she [Chandler] got me a job at the Rice Museum,” he said. “I was packing boxes, shipping stuff off and doing chores while taking private lessons from Bruce Chandler.”
It was this relationship with Chandler that resulted in Williams taking part in watercolor shows at the Rice Museum and snagging Best of Show awards from 2001-2003.
A support system was developing around him.
“I got reconnected with my [elementary school] art teacher, Christie Weaver, during my high school days, and she said, ‘Let’s see if we can get your work into Litchfield and Pawleys Island,’ and she spoke to Linda Ketron [Art Works in the Litchfield Exchange]. I didn’t realize all of this was happening, but this team was forming.”
“Charles Edward Williams is a ‘phenom,’ – so talented, so accomplished, so generous,” said Ketron. “When he first joined my gallery, Art Works, I couldn’t believe he was still in high school.”
She added that Williams is what every mentor hopes to see in a mentee.
“[He has] an open mind that soaks up knowledge, applies it and then turns to the next generation to pass it on.”
Williams had his sights set on SCAD. With Hampton, Chandler, Weaver and Ketron in his corner, the proposition became less daunting.
“The four of them were like – OK, you are getting ready to graduate – you want to go to SCAD. Let’s prepare your portfolio and try to sell works to raise money toward your tuition.”
Vida Miller of Gray Man Gallery in Pawleys Island was instrumental in helping get his pieces matted and framed.
He started doing solo and group shows like mad – and he sold his work.
“I remember one fair in Litchfield. I sold 10 paintings at once and I still have that collector.”
All money taken in from his art sales went into a fund set up by his parents that he couldn’t touch, although he admits he wanted to. And he got into SCAD with a portfolio scholarship along with his college fund.
“It helped tremendously,” he said. “At that time, SCAD was $36,000 a year, but I can tell you it was well worth it. When you come out of a school like that, with the name recognition and the prestige behind it, people know that – OK, you went to SCAD and you have been trained.”
He admits that SCAD was no walk in the park, but he says he was strengthened by remembering the people who supported him – not just by buying paintings but telling him that he was going to make it and was going to be a well-known artist someday. Williams received his BFA from SCAD in 2006, having majored in graphic design and advertising with a minor in fine arts.
And because of his constant reinforcement and support, Williams set out to pay this forward with the C.E. Williams Collaborative ( http://cewcollaborative.4ormat.com), a nonprofit organization designed to give a leg up to aspiring artists in middle and high school.
The Collaborative’s website sums this up: “C.E. Williams Collaborative is a private program to provide deserving youth, who wish to pursue an art career, with an opportunity to work with a professional artist who will help them improve existing skills and learn new techniques. Students will have the opportunity to develop their technical abilities, prepare portfolios and learn about the business side of an art career, including networking and other business related skills. They will benefit from being encouraged, mentored and will receive professional critiques of their creative works.”
Of course, the endgame is higher education.
“Local businesses will be asked to join together in the C.E. Williams Collaborative to provide students with financial assistance and encouragement. Upon entering college, the ‘Collaborative’ students will have an advantage over their peers, not only because they will have grown as artists, but also because they will have gained self-confidence as a result of being endorsed and supported by their local community.”
Williams said he is the product of what can happen when a community comes together, and his aim is to help provide the same opportunities for other students.
“I realized that there could be another me out there,” he said. “If there is, what is available outside the school that these kids can go to?”
The Collaborative is not just about fine art, according to Williams.
“I want them to focus on the end goal of becoming whatever they want to do in the arts – whether it is fine art, graphic design, illustration, advertising – you name it.” Williams himself spent some time in the advertising world before taking up his brushes full time.
Workshops and lessons for the C.E. Williams Collaborative are presented twice monthly at Williams’ home base and studio, Redux Contemporary Art Center in Charleston.
Christie Weaver, art teacher at Waccamaw Middle School in Pawleys Island and an original member of Williams’ support system, is on board with the Collaborative as co-director along with Williams’ wife, Shannon Williams, as partner.
Weaver has a unique perspective, since she was also Williams’ art teacher in the first and second grade.
“[Charles] was always one of those children that went above and beyond whenever he was creating a piece of work,” she said. “I remember him being really dedicated to anything he was working on.”
As confirmation of the support system during his high school years, Weaver says that Williams was an easy kid to help because of his gratitude and sincerity.
“Sometimes people get well known and they sort of forget their roots. He never will, because every time there has ever been anything written about him, he always mentions all of us – every time. He has never forgotten any of us.”
In fact, Williams invited Weaver to his recent City Gallery reception.
“He’s got plenty of people that he knows now down in Charleston, but he remembers his first- and second-grade art teacher.”
In addition to the Collaborative, Williams has done weeklong stints as teacher in Weaver’s classroom.
“He is a very good teacher,” said Weaver. “He is able to relate because of his youth and teach the techniques. He keeps their interest, and that’s big. If you can grab their attention, you are doing a good job.” She added that Williams has the ability to get students excited about art.
As for the future, Williams has embarked on an ambitious project called “Swim,” which will debut in 2015 at the Franklin G. Burroughs-Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum of Myrtle Beach ( www.myrtlebeachartmuseum.org) – and the impetus for this began with a frightening experience.
“When I was doing my advertising job in Tampa, the apartment complex that we lived in had a pool. My now wife was teaching me how to glide underwater, where you push off from the sides of the pool and you coast underwater,” he said, adding that he had swimming lessons before but is not a good swimmer.
“I ran out of air, panicked and nearly drowned.”
Things slowly started to germinate. He remembered visiting his cousin’s house when he was growing up.
“I would hear various stereotypes, and one of them was that black people couldn’t swim.” He kept thinking about this. “Maybe it’s from slavery days, like – if I’m a slave owner I can’t teach my slaves how to do what I know. We all know that education is empowering, and that knowledge is power.”
He determined that swimming epitomizes freedom.
“This made a connection with me because of the times I was trying to learn how to glide. I would watch my wife dive into the pool and just literally coast all the way to the other end. I would say to myself, ‘gosh, how liberating it must feel to do that.’ ”
Williams juxtaposes pristine sneakers with scenes involving water – with a mind to revealing stereotypes and raising awareness about the importance of learning how to swim – and perhaps to bring about a paradigm shift and as he says, documenting perceptions of black teens associated with swimming.
One of these works is a diptych documenting a recent sad incident in Mississippi.
“Six teens were at a family reunion and they all drowned,” said Williams. One slipped into the river and the other five were trying to save him. I documented this, and as I painted each scene, I tried to place myself as if I was that first kid who fell in and drowned – and what I would want to be remembered by. I took the latest edition of the Kobe Bryant Nike sneakers and painted them immaculately on a muddy bank at night.”
Williams says he was talking to his father about this project recently.
“My father is a man of faith. He said to me, ‘son, do you realize what you are doing? God just literally gave you a vision to take information that has been ignored for years, to sum it down to a few paintings.’ ”
“Hairs were literally standing on my arms,” he said.
For more information about Charles Williams, visit http://cewpaintings.4ormat.com.