The Life and Death of Charles Williams

By Atlanta Contemporary

Curated by Phillip March Jones

Charles Williams (1942-1998) was born in Blue Diamond, Kentucky, a place he described as a “little old country hick town in coal mining territory, eight miles from Hazard, Kentucky, back up in the hollow where the blacks lived.” Williams worked avidly on paintings, drawings, assemblages, sculptures, and furniture until his untimely death in 1998.

Spectacular Captain Soul: CAPTIVES OF THE COSMIC MAYFLOWER, Chapter 1 (1960) by Charles WilliamsAtlanta Contemporary

Shown here is an early issue of Williams’ first original comic, J.C. of the Job Corps. The comics appeared on page 8 of the Breckinridge Bugle, the newspaper of the Breckinridge Job Corps Center which Williams enrolled to learn practical job skills after he dropped out of college. Williams ultimately created an entire roster of characters including J.C. of the Job Corps, Captain Galaxy, Captain Soul, Black Son, and Captain Thirteen, among others.

The Life and Death of Charles Williams (1963/1998) by Charles WilliamsAtlanta Contemporary

Beyond comics, Williams maintained an elaborate yard show, painting the trees around his house and embellishing them with cutouts of Mighty Mouse, Batman, and others. In his own words, “I got me this place here and decided to do something with it. I have always had art on my mind and wanted to do something out front there that I hadn’t heard of no other person doing. I fixed up the trees to give them some new life, some color, one idea got another idea and so on down the line, each idea kept building into another idea.”

This mural shows Williams’ Lexington home, complete with painted trees and lawn sculptures.

Pencil Holders (Installation View) (1983/1993) by Charles WilliamsAtlanta Contemporary

Beginning in approximately 1983 and until his death in 1998, Charles Williams created hundreds of pencil holders, mostly from materials found at the IBM (later LEXMARK) factory where he worked as a janitor.

Pencil Holders (Exhibition View) (2020) by Charles WilliamsAtlanta Contemporary

Pencil Holders (Exhibition View) (2020) by Charles WilliamsAtlanta Contemporary

“Plastic melts off the machine and it takes certain forms when it hits the floor. I put them on a stand and paint it, keep it in its unique weird stage, and some of them forms looks like a animal’s brain. Makes you think of a brain.” - Charles Williams

Charles Williams (Exhibition View) (2020) by Charles WilliamsAtlanta Contemporary

Untitled (1980/1989) by Charles WilliamsAtlanta Contemporary

In the 1980s Williams created at least four colorful sculptures that combine imagery from his earlier comics with his newfound pencil holder aesthetic. The resulting arks or spaceships carry both knowledge and the promise of advancement.

Tar Paintings (1998) by Charles WilliamsAtlanta Contemporary

These four paintings are presumed to be the last works of art created by Williams during his lifetime. In 1998, the artist learned of his positive HIV status and, according to friends, his health and willingness to live, both declined rapidly.

Assemblage (1) (1998) by Charles WilliamsAtlanta Contemporary

The assemblages, created by forcing found objects into hot tar, including recently consumed bottles of cheap vodka, represent a last creative effort for a man who spent his entire life in pursuit of artistic greatness.

Credits: Story

Works in The Life and Death of Charles Williams on loan from the Kentucky Folk Art Center at Morehead State University, Institute 193, the High Museum of Art, and Souls Grown Deep.

Photos by Kasey Medlin.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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