"This feels like a family reunion," says Charles Williams, standing, grinning, a little out of breath, surveying tables covered in crayons and blank watercolor papers; sheets of brown and white paper are hung around the room, waiting for Williams' deft hand. This studio on the Gibbes ground floor will be Williams' home, or at least artistic hub, for the next two weeks. He's rushing to get everything set up — there's a fellows luncheon in a few hours and executive director Angela Mack swings by to let him know some members may be stopping in. Williams is more than accommodating; he's a nice guy, but he's also confident in his work. He isn't afraid of a few premature visitors.
"As a child I remember coming to the Gibbes, and now I'm here during Spoleto, it's huge." A Georgetown, S.C. native and Savannah College of Art and Design alum, Williams is a man of the Lowcountry through and through, and community is important to him, especially in Charleston. "I feel like Charleston was a city that really stood out with all that's been happening [with race relations in the country] ... it just really showed the essence of what the Lowcountry embodies. Charleston really set the bar [of how a city should respond] and I thought 'How can I capitalize on this?'"
Hot off of "two years of intensity" at UNC Greensboro — Wiliams just graduated this spring with a Masters in Fine Art — the artist is ready to let loose, to break down barriers and knock out walls. "The power of museums and art galleries is they're community centers. They serve multiple purposes. But when you go to these institutions, they say you can't touch. And I understand why ... but you go to these places repeatedly and they keep saying 'you can't do this.' The rebellion and curiosity in me says 'Well, what if I did touch, what if I did make a mark?'"
In his new series premiering at the Gibbes, Child's Play: Everyone Loves the Sunshine,
Williams uses old black-and-white photographs from the 1920s through 1960s that show people from different backgrounds coming together, uniting behind a common cause. Williams was inspired to seek out this theme after the multiple police brutality incidents of 2016, "There was one incident that really compelled me ... that led me to create this work. What I wanted to say with this work is look at how little we've changed. History is like looking at our own reflection. I think when you know where you’ve been and where you’ve come from you can reposition yourself to move
'And Still I Love'
And, there's no point in moving forward if we don't move forward together. Which is where we, the public, come in. "So basically I've created this adult coloring book," says Williams, directing my attention to a sheet of paper with two intricately drawn figures, two little boys, hands intertwined as one helps the other with what appears to be a hurt finger. The image is taken from one of Williams' historic photographs, the boys fading away at the edges, surrounded by scratches of "school bus" yellow, smudges of gray, circles of red. "People can come and add color to this, draw over the figures, whatever they want." My heart drops — let some random stranger potentially ruin this beautiful, carefully crafted work with an errant mark?
Yes. But it will not be a ruining, it will be a rendering, one that Williams will continue to work with. "Viewers can come in and paint, and recreate works with me. If they want to paint over arms or legs, that’s OK. My goal is to break down the barriers."
Williams puts me to work, having me rip (carefully!) watercolor papers into 10x10 scratch pads that visitors will be able to color on. I'm not someone who can "eyeball" something, and I tell Williams this. But he trusts me. Trust has to be an integral part of his process — it's trust that unites, says Williams. "When Charleston came together there was a trust that was there, that connected everyone to stand strong, to not destroy the city. Within that trust, I thought 'What does that symbol look like?' And that symbol looks like the handshake. Growing up, my grandfather couldn’t read or write so he told me that you have to have a firm handshake. He had five kids, and needed to provide for his family. He said 'You look a man or woman in their eyes, shake their hand firmly, and do what you say you’re going to do.' That establishes trust. So I was thinking, how can we in the community reestablish that?"
Williams, by highlighting images with hands that depict "strength, power, control, vulnerability, help, forgiveness," is creating a space of trust, a space sans barriers. He doesn't copy the images — that would miss the point entirely. He uses them as a base, a foundation that he builds on to evolve the photograph in his "own language" with intuitive mark makings and strokes. "There's me reestablishing the narrative."
By adding color — particularly the school bus yellow that is included in every piece in the series — Williams is making the pieces his own, and mine, and yours. Williams, ever the student, says that "all the colors are specific from my studies of the psychology of color and how they affect humans. School bus yellow in Child’s Play is observant, happy, expressive, curious ... For me, I’m curious to see what viewers and participants make and do with the crayons and markers. And I can weave in and out with the marks they put. Painting has a long lineage of documenting the now. I'm pushing the envelope of how I can open the dialogue further."
And if you come into the Gibbes on a day when you're feeling glum, or out of sorts, you don't have to draw bright yellow sunshines on Williams' large-scale adult coloring book. "Whatever color you’re feeling, put down that. If you're feeling blue, use blue. That's the beauty of it, no barriers."