Using oil on canvas to grapple with difficult subject matter such as traumatic childhood experiences and police brutality, UNCG grad student, Charles Williams, calls painting his ministry. Focusing on social issues from both a historical perspective, and from a personal one, Williams uses his paintings to engage with his audience on an emotional level. While studying here at UNCG, Williams is a practicing artist whose work reflects his personal struggles, and uses his thoughts about the world as a way to bring people together.
Williams says “My work is about self-exploration, dealing with some of my personal experiences that I’ve had in life, whether that’s through childhood or now as an adult. I like to tell stories, narratives, that people can relate to or place themselves in the context of. More importantly, being drawn to the work and placing themselves in the work. To know more about themselves, and more about me.”
While formally and technically seamless, Williams’s paintings touch on themes of fear, trust and forgiveness. Some read as photographs upon first glance, while others teeter on the edge of abstract. I was lucky enough to be shown into his studio where I was able to get a closer look at some of his work. He explained a couple of his current projects, one of which is focusing on small portraits of his father, with whom he has a complicated past.
He also showed me a few paintings from his series of self-portraits. When he was younger, Williams experienced three accidental drowning incidents that still haunt him. Struggling with the fact that he couldn’t swim, but also wanting to learn how to conquer his fear, led to his series of self-portraits. In this series he explores the stereotype of being strong, and exposes what he views to be one of his biggest weaknesses.
“I’m on this lifelong quest to learn how to swim,” Williams explains, “but more importantly, I think it’s important to share weakness because I believe that we all have our own weaknesses. So, the commonality between that: If I share something and you share something, we can relate and connect and there is no hierarchy. There is no ‘big’ me, ‘little’ you or ‘little’ me, ‘big’ you. We are all equal.”
I also talked with Williams about his series, “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See Them”, a series of paintings based off historical photographs dealing with police brutality. I asked him whether he felt this powerful series was subversive or could be twisted into something negative, but for him, this series is about trust. “I started questioning myself,” Williams said, “In 2016, how can trust be reestablished? Because when I was growing up, policemen were like super heroes for me, and now they’re like this feared monster.”
Williams based this series on historical photographs that he re-appropriated from his internet research. “I wanted to go back in history to show that this is a recurring cycle of racist cops projecting and exhibiting, in a physical form, their beliefs of racism. So, I wanted to pose the question: ‘how can we establish trust?’”
While this series is a continuation of his oil on canvas method, they read as beautiful watercolor paintings. I asked him what he was trying to accomplish with this series, and he told me: “I like to reflect the sign of times, and I like to pose questions. Any way that I can feel like I’m giving my service for reflecting how I feel, even If I’m not the actual victim. I like to show that I’m with you, I care, but also to pose questions. My paintings aren’t really answers they’re just statements for us to just know the awareness. It’s like seeing another advertisement.”
It became very obvious in just a short talk with Williams that he is an extremely compassionate soul. His emotions-based body of work is powerful and socially relevant. Williams’s work is a part of his contribution of goodness into a world that is seeking healing. Charles Williams plans to continue his ministry by expanding on similar subject matter. He also has plans to make his future work and exhibitions more interactive, as a way to further engage with his audience.