If at first you don’t succeed, draw, draw again. That motto has served Charles Williams in contentious interactions with ocean, river and swimming pool. As his hopes for conquering the water sink, his artistic career rises.
He’s the featured visual artist in Sensoria, the multidisciplinary festival Central Piedmont Community College mounts April 8-17. (His work is now on display in CPCC’s Ross Gallery.) Meanwhile, New Gallery of Modern Art on South Tryon Street shows his paintings through May 15. These exhibits, “Continuum/Night” and “Continuum/Day,” complement each other in the tale of the Guy Who Can’t Swim But Can’t Stop Trying.
“I’m fascinated by the facets of water; you have to learn to respect it, or it can kill you,” says Williams. “I grew up in a town at the coast (Georgetown, S.C.) and wouldn’t tell anyone I couldn’t swim. In these series, I wanted to understand myself and declutter some of my psychological junk.
“This has gone on for close to two years. The (point) has been to use myself as an example of someone who gets panic attacks and is blessed enough to still be alive. It’s a lifelong journey of forcing myself to get comfortable with water while publicly announcing my weaknesses. That builds my confidence.”
Sensoria covers lots of ground, from CPCC productions of theater and opera (“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” “The Old Maid and the Thief”) to “hip harpist” Deborah Henson Conant to author Ben Marcus (“The Flame Alphabet”).
Amelia Morris, creator of “Bon Appétempt,” will explain how she turned her food blog into the book “Bon Appetempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (with Recipes!).” Amy Bloom, the 2016 Irene Blair Honeycutt Distinguished Lecturer and Author, will discuss her work, including her recent novel “Lucky Us.” You’ll find the complete schedule at sensoria.cpcc.edu.
But none may have as strange a story as Williams.
The first part follows convention: A talented high school kid loves art, finds a mentor, gets a job at a small museum and paints, selling his first commissioned portrait – a pastor at his church – for a bag of candy and a Coke. (“I was hoping for a hundred dollars.”) A woman later buys an acrylic of a shrimp boat for $700, and he soon sells enough work to attend Savannah College of Art and Design.
He majors in graphic design, gets an advertising job in Florida and paints corporate commissions on the side. He commits to fine art in 2009, at age 25, when he wins a fellowship that introduces him to landscape artist Jacob Collins – who, by chance, was the first painter to seize his attention in an art magazine as a boy.
By then, Williams’ muse has seized him and held his head under three times.
“The first time, I was little and got taken by a wave at Myrtle Beach State Park. My dad said, ‘Stay close to me.’ I didn’t listen and woke up on the sand.
“The second time – I’d had swimming lessons but didn’t pass – my girlfriend was showing me how to glide under pool water. She got out to read a magazine, I glided past where I could put my feet on the bottom, and I panicked. Really saw the white light. My hand slapped a wall, and I had a supernatural experience where I felt a tugging on my hand, like I was being pulled out. That pull, I felt, was God; anyone else can fill in the blanks the way they want.
“The third time I was with my girlfriend, tubing with her parents, and I flipped out of my tube. A man grabbed my hand, picked me up and put me in the tube like a baby. I tried to look for him later, when we got (to safety), but never found him. Again ... who knows why he was there?”
Williams began to paint the surging ocean, sometimes with himself preparing to challenge it (with swimmies on each arm) or symbolically subduing a Big Gulp cup. He almost never paints other people; he hints at them, as in a series of works showing sneakers dangling over a pool or at the edge of the sand. Like Andrew Wyeth – “whom I look at with awe” – Williams conveys his world through environments.
“You learn what an artist believes by looking at his work,” says Williams. “You get the essence of Wyeth’s upbringing and values by seeing all the objects he decided to paint. I’m trying to show that, too.”
CPCC’s multi-purpose arts festival runs April 8-17 around the campus off Elizabeth Avenue, though certain events – for instance, appearances by author Ben Marcus, who will also read at the McColl Center – are connected to other venues. Details: 704-330-6534 or sensoria.cpcc.edu.