When Fletcher Williams III's debuted "Freshly Cut" at his Souvenir show in March, he didn't know how hauntingly prophetic it would become. Installed in a Spring Street storefront, the piece was meant to memorialize those killed in shootings throughout Charleston. Williams arranged nine bouquets of Palmetto roses on the floor beneath a crucifix composed of the same material. It was the most memorable piece of a memorable show.
Also in the exhibition, Williams wove dozens of roses, using them to frame illustrations of gun-related deaths, as Gullah women try to intervene. The pieces were named for their real-life locations: "Ashley Shores," "Chicora," and "Rivers Ave." The artist never could have predicted that just months later, a young white man would steal nine black lives and reshape Charleston's place in history forever.
"I was making work about things that were relevant," Williams says. "When I look at it, I don't even see the connection to what I initially created it for. Now all I see is the Emanuel Nine, which is pretty interesting, but I appreciate that element of it."
A School of the Arts graduate, Williams earned his BFA from the highly selective Cooper Union in New York City. During the six years he spent up north, he started exploring using elements of modern black culture — gold teeth, hair weave. Upon his return, he started working on Souvenir, a study of the Palmetto rose and of the countless deaths that have taken place that never made national headlines. The show displayed Williams' skilled technique as an illustrator and his clever use of a common Charleston material. It also started a conversation among his audience, one that became all the more important in the aftermath of the June 17 shooting.
But that discourse was left unfinished. Williams says the focus has moved away from confronting serious societal problems into a message of healing, and as a result, the issues that he's tried to work through since he moved back to the Lowcountry have been brushed aside. "It's just kind of rubbing things out," he says. "'It's OK, we're going to get through this, it's a healing process.' But there's some things that really need to be addressed in a very critical way, which I don't think is happening." Especially, he says, among artists.
In Charleston, where the demand for charm and beauty dominates the creative market, Williams thinks it may be hard for many of his peers to make anything other than something pleasant and pretty. As a result, Charleston's artists aren't living up to their cultural potential.
"I'm not saying that people don't want to make work that's socially conscious or political or anything other than what we're used to seeing," he says, but "It's not nurtured. It's not welcome. I don't know what it's going to take to change that."
While he points to local artists like Colin Quashie and venues like the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art and the City Gallery at Waterfront Park for hosting thought-provoking shows (although, he adds, they're typically not local) Williams is aware of the isolated place he occupies in the local art scene.
"I don't want to have to leave, because I wasn't making work like this in New York," he says. "I knew there was some element that was missing and that was being here in the heart of it, in this culture."
So, for now, this is where he lives and works. As Williams continues to draw inspiration from Charleston, his new work will expand upon Souvenir — he'll be incorporating more roses and local crafts, but in a way that's more contemporary and that can appeal to a younger audience, sneaking even more subtle notes of pop culture into his illustrations. By continuing to combine present-day themes with the city's tradition and history, he hopes his work will reach beyond the Lowcountry.
"I can't be preaching to the choir," Williams says. "I think it'll be important for other cities and art lovers and activists and whatever else, anybody, to see what's happening in Charleston other than number one status in a travel magazine. There's two sides to every story.
"You have some kind of civic duty as an artist," he adds. "You have the ability to create a narrative that can be shared with people. That's what I really need to refine and get out there."