Manning Williams was a character larger than life, a man of history and opinions, a collector of books and pens. He was a man with a big heart and a willingness to share, experiment, and push over and behind the hills, both literally and metaphorically.
From American Indians to Mickey Mouse, Manning documented Southern American life. He painted the landscape and the comedy and tragedy of life on very small and extremely large canvases. Whether through representation or through the abstracts he favored over the last 18 years of his painting career, Manning's work had a sense of place — his beloved Lowcountry and the place of heart. He told stories following long Southern and Celtic traditions. He was proud of place and history. He was determined to share his work, his knowledge, and his passion.
He probably gave away more work than he sold, and he sold a great deal over his long career. It was not about keeping the work — although if a piece went out too soon from the studio, he felt lost until at least a copy came back so he could see where it was and take the next step forward.
Manning once stated in a show catalog, "I was born here and, like many South Carolinians, my passion for this place — this land — is intense. I studied in New York and Philadelphia and returned to Charleston in 1967. In the 1970s, Barbara Roe and Harold Rosenberg came to the College of Charleston for a seminar. In response to a student who asked if art of any value could be made outside New York, both stressed strongly that it could not. It struck me that this kind of arrogance signaled the end of something, and that it might be possible to make art anywhere — even in Charleston." And that he did. He was prolific and good.
Often, Manning would "show" me how I needed to walk up to the top of an object and then down the other side. In life and in creating art, he would quietly repeat, "Watch, the pencil line goes up here, then across, then down behind. You need to be doing the same thing. Do it, feel it, experience it. Do not just paint a color, a stroke, or a shape. Feel the planes, the facets that are objects and life." I can hear him whispering now: "Go get another story, make a story, tell a story, know that we can make great art right here where we are and we can share it."
Manning Williams did that often. His creative process was fascinating — a photo or cartoon "doodled" upon, turning the original subject into an abstracted version. He broke down the parts and reassembled them in a whole new way.
I once said that as a Charlestonian, I walked the same paths as the many artists who came before me, smelling the same air. The receiver of this phrase thought I was nuts. Smelling the pluff mud, seeing the light bounce off the worn bricks, these things I am lucky to say I shared with Manning Williams. He looked at art from all sides, literally turning the pieces around each way. He would even put hangers on all four sides of his works. He leaves us with the lesson to look at life from all directions and explore every method of telling the story of it. He certainly did.
A Charleston native, Lese Corrigan is an artist, gallery owner, and an enigma to many. She has been a part of the local arts scene since 1969, the first time she exhibited work at the Gibbes Museum of Art.