Thursday, February 29, 2024

Delving into the past: Artist tackles Black history, personal growth in new CAM exhibit 

“Young American” by Charles Edward Williams, on display at CAM starting this week as part of “Stay in the Light.” (Courtesy photo)

WILMINGTON — Durham-based artist Charles Edward Williams is bringing to life his own story within Black history and doing so in a larger framework of moments in civil rights.

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“Stay in the Light” is a collection consisting of more than a dozen pieces of art opening at Cameron Art Museum this week. It ties in personal moments from Williams’ life, homing in on family and strength, while also showcasing people in protest, anguish and power struggles. 

The exhibit opens in time for Black History Month. Williams said in an interview last week that delving into Black Americans’ history helps mold his own sense of identity. Vibrant pops of color appear in portraits of Black Panther Party members and mugshots of the Freedom Riders, for instance. Three new pieces also are being debuted, along with memorabilia from his childhood.

“To talk about the truth of history is to say, in a very simplistic way: This was done — this was in the past — so how do you give yourself reciprocity? How do I move forward?” William explained. 

“Stay in the Light” is the latest series from “Everyone Loves the Sunshine,” which began in 2018 and debuted at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Since then, the artist — who now teaches at North Carolina Central University — has added to it with “Sun + Light,” exhibited at the Morris Museum of Art in Georgia, the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College, the Susquehanna Art Museum in Pennsylvania, among others.

CAM decided to feature Williams’ work due to its portrayal of historical events that are still relevant in today’s society. 

“He’s grappling with important themes, the Civil Rights movement, and how that continues to impact us and resonate today, in addition to all of the current events of our own times and his own experiences as a Black man,” CAM spokesperson Matt Budd said. “These images are powerful and you think about them long after you’ve stopped looking at them.”

Two paintings included in the exhibition are titled “Boyscouts” and “Young Panther,” the latter showcasing portraits of young members of the Black Panther Party. 

Williams — who graduated with a bachelor’s from Savannah College of Art and Design and the University of North Carolina Greensboro with his master’s and now teaches at North Carolina Central University — paints from photographs he finds in history museums and archives. Referencing a photo and portraying it in his own way is a process he refers to as “excavating.” 

“Young Panther” as shown in CAM’s latest exhibit. (Courtesy photo)

When painting the portraits of the Black Panthers, Williams focused on illuminating the original purpose of the group: providing for community. The Black Panthers were founded as an outreach effort to offer service programs, specifically feeding families and Black children in Oakland, California. 

When considering the party’s early history, Williams found commonality in the goal of community-building. It was instilled upon the artist from his grandmother, Gladys Williams. He calls her an influential part of his artistic direction and the reason Williams seeks a sense of community — specifically, through art.

“She always made stuff and had me ride my bike or walk to the neighbors to give baked goods or meals to them,” Williams said.“It always came from this idea of love and sense of community and spirit.”

Williams said most of his artwork is dedicated in her honor, due to her guidance in youth. Though his entire family was always supportive of his artistic output, he said, which began at a young age. 

His mother sang in the church choir and his father played guitar. A military man who traveled a lot, Williams said his father exposed him to various forms of music and visual art, which played a priority in his upbringing (along with his younger brother, Michael, now a Broadway dancer).

Williams’ mom told him his drawings were a “God-given talent — a gift,” he recalled.

“She tried in the best way she knew to foster that,” Williams said. “She would take me to the galleries, museums, art shops and art sales to expose me.”  

His grandmother also purchased Williams art supplies during her Friday shopping trips to the Piggly Wiggly.  

“I’d show her a drawing, and no matter what it was, she would love it.”

“Taken Root” is another piece showing in the CAM exhibit, created by Charles Williams. (Courtesy photo)

One of the media she would purchase him would be rainbow scratch paper, a popular ‘90s art supply from his youth. The trendy art medium enabled children to etch drawings onto a black surface, unveiling a spectrum of rainbow colors. His grandmother always purchased it for him.

Williams utilized it in “Young Panther” and “Boyscouts.”

“What makes it attractive is the fact that you have polar opposites,” he said. “The key is to have balance.” 

The media elicits a feeling of nostalgia — something that Williams intended. 

“When thinking about the concept of me being a young boy, and those joyous tender moments, I thought it would be authentic to include something that I had as a child,” he said. “I thought it perfectly encapsulated the spirit and emotion of the show by recreating some of those items.” 

Also included in the CAM exhibit is an heirloom from Williams’ grandmother — a radio from 1958. Williams said he used to listen to it while sitting at her kitchen table. And a symbolic toy from his childhood — a viewfinder — makes its way into the display. Williams’ rendition will feature photos of paintings from the “Sun + Light.” 

“You’ll see the spirit of me as a little boy and see how I tried to portray it in the artform,” he said. 

The viewfinder will be interactive and fully functioning. 

The exhibit will additionally present a series of artworks titled “Freedom Riders.” As components of the “Sun + Light” collection, these paintings showcase the mugshots of 12 women who engaged in integrated bus rides across the southern United States. Their goal was to challenge the lack of enforcement of Supreme Court decisions that deemed segregation on interstate buses unconstitutional. 

Williams chose to feature only the women over men. Amid the struggle for racial justice, a gender conflict was unfolding in the 60’s, placing women involved in the Freedom Rides under heightened scrutiny. For instance, mothers who participated were being criticized for standing up for their rights rather than staying at home to care for the family.

“They stood by men who wanted to effect change within our social political climate of equality,” Williams said. “And they were willing to risk their lives. It was such a courageous and spiritual act.” 

For Williams, these women were comparable to his grandmother in that they exhibited a similar resilience. 

“My grandma would always say, ‘Behind a good man is a strong woman,’ and I always questioned what that meant,” Williams said. “Why do they have to be behind, why can’t they be beside me or in front of me?”

The “Freedom Riders” paintings are illustrated on top of a deep yellow background. The color yellow plays a big part in adding to the narrative, WIlliams said. He expressed the duality of the color can represent joy, energy and optimism and contrarily can be associated with danger and cowardness.

“I began looking up the psychology of color and what they mean in our world,” Williams said “like the happy face, or school bus, and caution signs.” 

In the next iteration of the series, Williams’ plans to paint all of the women Freedom Riders to create a periodic table mosaic.

Among the three new pieces in the exhibit, one is a self-portrait, “Kiss the Sky, Breaking Through.” Measuring 22 inches by 30 inches and created with oil on gesso watercolor paper, it shows Williams swimming, which covers a sensitive aspect of his life.

“Kiss the Sky, Breaking Through” by Charles Williams. (Courtesy photo)

“I have seriously drowned three times and was brought back to life; I have PTSD from the situation,” Williams’ said. “I showed it because I use art as therapy.” 

It’s one of Susan Whisnant’s favorites; she is CAM’s registrar. 

“It conveys incredible strength and vulnerability at the same time,” she said. 

Williams is at the center of the piece, wearing green goggles and red floaties. 

“It made me realize that I am courageous enough to take my shirt off, go into the water, – panic attack and all —  and photograph myself with my floaties on,” he said. “I’m not making fun of myself, I am facing my fears — I’m facing the truth.”  

According to Williams, this same concept is used to approach learning moments in Black history. He said it’s about getting to the truth. The memory of his grandmother keeps him grounded and focused.

“Grace and perseverance and to stay loving myself,” are keys — ”the same way my grandmother did,” he said. 

“Stay in the Light” opens Thursday, Feb. 8, with a 5 p.m. early preview for CAM members. Williams will give opening remarks to the public at 6 p.m. It’s free for CAM members and $15 otherwise. 

The exhibit will be on display through May 26 and conclude with an event featuring five short films from Charles Edward Williams. 

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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