Natchez artist paints from life after brushes with death

Published 4:54 pm Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat — James Williams paints in his trailer on Marin Avenue when the weather turns cold. On warm days, he paints under his carport. Williams uses various types of brushes, below, from traditional horsehair brushes to foam brushes found at the local hardware store.

NATCHEZ — When James Williams paints, his easel is usually set up under his carport beside stacks of car tires, which he sells to folks who stop.

“I sold one this morning,” Williams said.

The proceeds from the sale, Williams said, are used to buy canvases for his paintings.

Sunday, as a result of some of the first winter-feeling weather of the year, Williams posted up inside his trailer on Marin Avenue. Inside, incense burned to temper the smell of paint thinner, portable heaters kept the small space toasty and Grover Washington Jr. played soul-jazz saxophone from an old boom box near his paint brushes.

A curtain separated the bedroom and kitchen areas from the den turned studio.

“Jazz gets my brushes going,” said Williams, who was wearing a white T-shirt, jeans and long necklace of colorful plastic beads, which he strung years ago on some fishing cord and now wears every day.

“It’s cheap,” he said of the necklace.

Williams used to make the necklaces for friends and family — just like his folk-art style oil paintings, which now go for $200 to $350 a pop.

Though Williams, 47, has been compared to folk artists such as Clementine Hunter, Alvin Batiste and Purvis Young, like them, he isn’t classically trained by any means.

He graduated to oils from pastels and then watercolor on the recommendation of a Craft City clerk.

“You got paint in a tube?” Williams, with his eyebrows furrowed, said he asked the clerk.

“(The clerk) said, ‘It’s oil.’”

That was a few years ago, and since then, Williams has found his niche. Oils bring out one of the most striking traits of Williams’ work — color.

“I was getting colors like this immediately,” he said, pointing to his paintings on an ArtsNatchez gallery flier.

“I love color,” Williams said.

Williams got involved with ArtsNatchez when a few people from the gallery approached him at his home. Word had apparently gotten out about his hidden talent, Williams said.

“They came and got me; I don’t know how they found me,” Williams said.

They pulled up as Williams was painting under the carport, he said.

“I thought they wanted to buy some tires,” he said.

Williams said he told his fellow artists he just paints as a hobby, but they insisted that his work was too good, and he needed some exposure.

This month Williams and Natchez Clay artist-in-residence, Audra Darbyshire, are featured artists at the gallery.

Williams’ folk art can be seen on display at ArtsNatchez daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

While Williams didn’t start showing his art professionally until less than three years ago, he said he’s been drawing since he as 7 or 8 as a hobby.

A native of Natchez, Williams said he used to play Under-the-Hill as a child, “when Under-the-Hill was really Under-the-Hill,” he explained with his eyes. And some of his paintings reflect that memory.

“I love to draw things the way I see them in my head. Everyday living. I love to bring paint to life,” Williams said.

But life after a tragedy and three — yes, three — brushes with death brought him away from Natchez and away from his art.

In 1988, William’s 7-year-old daughter, Camille Johnson, was killed in a car accident when she was on her way from Jackson to see him. Williams didn’t talk about the incident much, except to point to a picture of her and say that after Camille’s death, he left town for Minneapolis, Minn., for a job and a life away from the memories.

He had many jobs, including one construction. While on the job, Williams survived a 40-foot fall from a building he where he was working, in the days before construction sites required ropes or scaffolding.

“It was a freak accident,” Williams said.

As a result, Williams still walks with a limp and has metal plates in his leg.

Also in Minneapolis, Williams was the inadvertent victim of a shooting. He said a teenager was once threatening his girlfriend’s daughter, and Williams told him to leave her alone.

The teenager shot a gun at the young woman, but hit Williams in the neck instead.

Doctors told him leaving the bullet in his body would do less damage, so Williams can still point to places in his neck and even in his arm where he can feel particles from the bullet.

“Most of it is in my neck,” he said.

Williams had a third brush with death when a car slammed into his car near while driving to eat lunch with his boss.

“I got ran over at 67 miles per hour,” Williams said.

And a few years ago, someone he knew threw keys at his face, which ultimately blinded him in one eye.

“They tried to save my eye,” he said. And though his left eye doesn’t see, William said he thought it wasn’t worth it to get a glass eye implanted.

“Why go though all that pain if I’m still not able to see?” he said.

Williams said he was concerned he would have trouble painting again because of his vision, but a procedure helped him focus straight ahead instead of on his peripheral.

Williams moved back to Natchez seven or eight years ago when his father grew sick. It was then when he started painting more steadily, which helped him cope.

The only painting that hangs in his house is the first one he painted after his father died, Williams said.. In the corner of the canvas is a graveyard with the headstones of all of his family and friends who have died, but the painting, with its ray of light and natural setting, appears uplifting and somber all at once.

Painting not only helps Williams deal with his emotional scars — but his physical ones, too.

“It’s medicating for me,” Williams said. “I’m in a lot of chronic pain, but (traditional) medication and me don’t agree.”

Williams said he often gets inspiration from the thigns he sees, whether it’s a tree — “I got a thing with tress,” he said — the Mississippi River, an emotion or an observation of society.

“I walking my dog, and I had a vision,” he said, describing inspiration for one particular painting called

“Sometimes you see the sun and the river, and the reflection makes it so the water don’t look muddy.

“And I just seen something there that had to be on paper,” Williams said.

“I draw what I feel.”

Another painting, called “Choices,” shows an older person and two younger followers walking toward a jailhouse and a graveyard. All three are smoking a cigarette.

Walking toward the other side of the canvas are more young people, without cigarettes, walking toward a library.

“In life you have a choice to make to do this and that — but there are consequences,” Williams explained.

Copies of “Choices,” were donated to the Natchez-Adams School District to hang in the schools, Williams said.

And in most pictures, Williams places a symbol of himself — a single eye — representing his vision and his own single eye.

William’s folk art often tells a story about life, whether it’s a moment or commentary on culture.

“Life is very serious, so I don’t take it for granted,” he said.

“I want people to feel my painting.”

William’s didn’t gain his perspective lightly.

“I’ve had three close calls in my life—that’s why I just paint,” he said.

“I just love to paint.”

In addition, Williams said he likes the idea that his paintings offer posterity — something to give the later generations a glimpse of his world while he was alive.

But Williams doesn’t need a reminder of his own vitality.

A good painting that represents his experience is his vision of a flower.

“It’s an old flower that used to grow on our porch, and nobody would water it, but it just wouldn’t die,” Williams said.

The title of the painting, Williams said, “Still here.”