Like pimento cheese or shrimp and grits, paintings of the Lowcountry are standard fare in Charleston. Wander past any of the galleries on Church or Broad Street and you're bound to come across the stock images showcasing soggy marshes, palmetto-lined landscapes, or Rainbow Row — the types of paintings you'd expect to find in a chain hotel bathroom somewhere in Kansas. So often is the coastal Carolina landscape bastardized in primary hues that one starts to believe that a Red Roof Inn-quality print is the best you can get when it comes to an image of the Lowcountry. Then you meet Charles Williams, and you discover you're totally wrong.
Williams is to Lowcountry landscapes what Sean Brock is to Lowcountry cuisine: an interpreter, an innovator, an original. He takes a good thing — i.e. the beauty of the South — and makes it better, more exquisite, more vivid, and occasionally surprising. A Georgetown native, Savannah College of Art and Design graduate, and recent Charleston transplant, Williams grew up painting.
"My dad is a big influence," Williams says. "My parents always supported me in the arts."
From a young age, he was encouraged to explore his talent. Williams took art classes, attended a gifted and talented school from fifth grade on, was showcased throughout his teens at galleries and at the Georgetown Rice Museum, and, of course, subsequently went to SCAD. After graduating in 2006 with degrees in fine arts and graphic design, he abandoned his paintbrush for a job with an advertising firm in Tampa.
"I got so involved in doing the best I could with graphic design that I didn't paint at all," he says. Williams worked as an art director and did everything from hiring models to working with food stylists. Exciting as the job was, eventually the 60-hour work weeks took their toll. "After three years in Tampa, I just started painting again as a way of relaxation."
Listening to the jazz albums that his father taught him to love, Williams pulled out his acrylics and oil paints and started putting the scenic images from his younger days in Georgetown on canvas.
"Day after day I got better," he says. "I continued to work and paint but it was so frustrating doing both. I eventually just said enough is enough."
Williams made the decision to quit his job to try to become a full-time artist.
"I was scared out of my mind," he says.
Scared, but not stupid. Using his advertising background, Williams quickly launched into self-promotion, calling up galleries and looking for other opportunities, including a fellowship with the Hudson River School.
"I'd applied year after year and was rejected. Out of thousands of applicants, they only take 30," he says.
In 2009, Williams was accepted. Of the 30 students, he was the youngest person there.
"It was like boot camp," he says. "We learned the anatomy of nature. We painted all day and only took breaks for lunch." Then one day during the fellowship, Jacob Collins, a leading figure in the contemporary classic painting revival, pulled Williams aside. "He noticed my ink study I was working on and asked me to paint all day with him at a lake."
The plein-air experience was eye-opening. Williams made sure to absorb every moment of the fellowship and returned to Tampa confidant in his skills and his ability to work with oil. Other artists took note, including those at Robert Lange Studios, where Williams was offered to be part of the 2009 Yellow and Blue exhibit. This was quickly followed by an invitation to the Black and White series, and most recently Williams partnered with artist Joshua Flint for the gallery's wildly successful Still: Moving exhibit. Williams featured 12 pieces. He sold them all.
The beauty of the artist, much like his work, is his humble appreciation not just for the Carolina coast, but for being able to do what he loves for a living.
"At the opening of Still: Moving, my second grade art teacher came," he says in awe.
His fans, who have followed his work since he was a boy, are equally grateful to see him with a paintbrush in hand again.