Interview with CHARLES WILLIAMS about his solo exhibition “Swim” at Morton Fine Art

24 Sep

Charles Williams Interview Questions

 

Charles Williams, Lost and Found 4, 72"x96", oil on canvas

Charles Williams, Lost and Found 4, 72″x96″, oil on canvas

Inspiration for Concept

 

Q: You have mentioned that not only the experience of something traumatic, but also the way it is handled, can shape a persons identity; how have your fears and your steps to overcome them shaped your personal life and artistic career? 

 

CW: My fear of the water has been both a blessing and a curse. Because of it, I have realized how lucky I am to have survived these accidental drownings. Being aware of my good fortune brings a gratefulness into my everyday living. I also appreciate that my traumatic water experiences have allowed me to become a conduit for others’ fears. I understand fear to be something that is universal. Even if your fear is not drowning or swimming, most everyone has something in their life of which they are afraid. In my art, I explore these ideas of fear in the hopes that others looking at my work will have to confront their own personal fears and realize that hope and overcoming is possible.

 

Q: Was it the traumatic experience of almost drowning that created this fear or was there already something about the deep dark ocean that frighten you as a child? 

 

CW: Growing up, I was always afraid of the dark. There is something about the murky and unknown depths of large bodies of water that evoke that same fear that I experienced as a young boy in a pitch black room. But my accidental drownings certainly created a fear of water that I did not necessarily have. My inability to swim was impacted by the racist dialogue that surrounds swimming the South. Continually hearing that “black people don’t swim” made me aware that there was potentially something wrong with me that would prevent me from swimming.

 

Charles Williams, Nighttime Study 12, 12"x12", oil on panel

Charles Williams, Nighttime Study 12, 12″x12″, oil on panel

 

Q: Did you know how to swim before this incident, do you know how to swim now?  Did this fear of the ocean spread to all large bodies of water like lakes, rivers, pools? 

 

CW: While one of my accidental drownings took place the ocean, the second happened in the deep end of the pool. I would say that my fear extends to all bodies of water that are large enough for me to be submerged in. At this point in time, I still do not know how to swim.

 

Q: Do you find creating the oceanscapes and other related pieces within this body of work to be therapeutic?  It seems as though you are not only in the belly of the beast but you are recreating the beast with every painting, your fear and attraction of the water go hand in hand, as if you are longing for something dangerously beautiful.

 

CW: Yes. The water has human-like qualities to it that are alluring, attractive and calming, but also frightening, intimidating and fear-inducing. With these various components, you have to respect the ocean just like you respect a fellow person.

 

Q: Although images of the ocean are in the forefront, the conversation is more about your relationship with the water than the water itself.  How else are you connecting human emotions to the natural environment? What made you want to tackle this subject matter?  

 

CW: The water is able to provoke in me a variety of emotions ranging from serenity to panic. In every aspect of these paintings’ creation and their display I am thinking of the moment when emotions overwhelming me and seem to engulf me. Despite these emotions taking over me, I refuse to let them define who I am. I want others who look at my work to see that struggle of having emotions engulf you, but not letting it determine who you are.

 

Ultimately I am interested in the idea of a progress, of continually working to overcome and to get better. This idea of progress and of continually getting better is an idea that I have heard since I was a child in my life.

 

Q: It seems that you have used your personal experiences and fears as a stepping off point to discuss a more cultural, psychological dilemma.  What do you want the wider conversation to address and confront? 

 

A: Pejorative race talk surrounds swimming in the South. Having grown up with these stereotypes ringing in my ear, I want my work to at once address the universality of fear and of confronting your fears but also raise awareness of the conversations that we, as southerners, are having about race and swimming.

 

Self Portraits

 

Charles Williams, Self Portrait with Goggles 3, 10"x8", oil on mylar

Charles Williams, Self Portrait with Goggles 3, 10″x8″, oil on mylar

 

Q: What is the meaning of the omissions, parts of your face are missing? 

 

CW: Parts of my face are missing because I am incomplete. The missing piece refers to the missing piece of me. When I go to the beach and see others’ interaction with the water be so organic and genuine, I long to experience the same liberating freedom of just enjoying the water without fear. Until that time, I will feel incomplete.

 

Q: Why did you choose to include certain articles of clothing like the hoodie and goggles? What do they represent? 

 

CW: I like the dichotomy that including these items create. In draping the towel over my head in the paintings I am referencing the hoodie, which in recent years has become associated with gangster-culture and the supposed-danger of black men.  As much as the hoodie has become a symbol of danger, personally it is also an element of comfort. I feel a connection to the character Linus in Charlie Brown who carries a blanket with him for comfort. When I woke up after my accidental drownings I was wrapped in a towel. Growing up, Charlie Brown was a pillar in my life. Throughout my childhood I watched it as often as I could and feel an affinity with Linus.

 

Alternatively, the googles are a symbol of innocence. In choosing to wear them I am referencing the child-like innocence of swimming. Childlike swim gear in general are the tangible items that represent my longing. I long to be in the water, swimming carefree, like the people I see at the beach.

 

Charles Williams painting "Swim"

Charles Williams painting “Swim”

 

Q: It appears that you age and add weight to yourself in some of the self-portraits.  Do you deliberately do this, if so why? Is there a correlation between your past, present and future selves?

 

CW: When I create these portraits, I do so freehand. I don’t use measuring tools such as a grid or ruler. I am painting simply what I see. I want to capture the mood more so than my physical attributes. My skin tone alters slightly in each of the paintings but this is done to enhance the mood I want the painting to convey.

 

Oceanscapes

 

Charles Williams, Day 41 Study, 10"x8", oil on mylar

Charles Williams, Day 41 Study, 10″x8″, oil on mylar

 

Q: How do you source your images?  Do you create these realistic oceanscapes from memory or do you use a camera to capture the images and then recreate them? If you use a camera where are you positioned, on the shore or in the water?

 

CW: I am in the water when I take these images. I typically wade into the ocean until I’m waist height. I have with me a camera and a flashlight. Standing in the water, I take pictures of the ocean swells around me and point the flashlight to illuminate the waves for my camera. Once I am back in the studio, I work from those images. This is part of what makes my art experiential. These works were not created from a daydreamed image, but from my real life experience of going into the ocean. Often times, I am risking my life and mental health to take these images and create this art. But without the true experience of wading and standing in the water that so nearly killed me before, I don’t believe I could convey the same amount of fear that my canvases currently display.

 

Going into the ocean at night, you don’t get perfect shots. The photos are often shaky because of the moving water around me, but also because I am having a panic attack while being in the water. This process and the art that results from conveys the unexpectedness of life.

 

Charles Williams, Unseen I, 8"x8", oil on panel

Charles Williams, Unseen I, 8″x8″, oil on panel

 

Q: Many of your oceanscapes are set at night, does this speak to another fear of the dark?  

 

CW: Yes. Although I am recently painting daytime oceanscapes as well. I am interested in the emotive contrast that the different times of day provoke. Many associate the daytime with safety, there is safety in light.

 

While the oceanscapes are at night, I have a flashlight with me. That flashlight serves as a metaphor for a childhood safety net, a tool for exploring and seeing troubling illusions in the dark – the monster in the closet. Observing the ocean as it exists in darkness with a flashlight allows me to not only study the water at night, but to confront my monster in the dark and subdue the fears that consume me both physically and mentally.

 

Q: Your In Seconds #1- #4, when viewed together appear to speak on the notion that our lives can change in a split second. One second you are safely treading water and the next you are pulled under by a rip tide or strong wave.  Was this your intention?

 

CW: Yes, this was my intention. It also mimics my first accident when I was eleven and I was pulled under by a current. Before I went under, I was jumping waves with my cousin.

 

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