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Arts: Painting the fear

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Charles Williams is fascinated and frightened by the ocean.

Though he can’t swim, he wades into the waves at night to make photographs of the movement in order to confront and paint what he fears: a dark and menacing sea. Williams is exhibiting eight large oil paintings and 40 smaller works that explore his emotions about the ocean at the Burroughs and Chapin Art Museum in Myrtle Beach.

Gallery organizers asked him to take a personal approach. “They felt I had a story to share with this body of work,” said Williams, 31, a native of Georgetown and graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design. It has been his custom to visit his former art teacher Christie Weaver every year, and Williams conducted classes for her students at Waccamaw Intermediate School and invited them to his exhibit at Myrtle Beach on Saturday. Williams said Weaver was his art teacher when he was in second grade at Kensington Elementary. He calls her his “second mom.”

Waccamaw Intermediate students painted ocean waves and sky. They used bright blues and greens with white for the frothing caps, not the menacing blacks and blues of Williams’ paintings at the gallery. “When I was 11,” he said, “I was taken under at Myrtle Beach State Park while jumping in the waves with my cousin. That, along with having a few more frightening incidents, turned my perception about water. This exhibition is an acknowledgement of my fear. The paintings had to be life size because my fear is life size.”

Learning to swim is on Williams’ bucket list. “I’ve had swim lessons,” he said. “I didn’t pass the beginner portion.” One gulp of water and Williams is seized by the same panic he felt as an 11-year-old. His research revealed that black children drown at a rate almost three times greater than white children. During segregation, blacks were not allowed to swim in pools with whites and as accidental drownings accumulated it put a fear of water in parents’ minds: They couldn’t swim and neither could their children. Williams said his son took swimming lessons in Charleston and competed in swim meets. He said watching the boy swim left him with a feeling of wonder that he can only find within himself through painting.

The paintings in the gallery nearly reach from floor to ceiling. “I want the pieces to take over you,” he said. They fill three rooms. The first — Williams called the experience “submersion” — holds four oils on canvas titled “In Seconds” depicting a boy going under water and struggling toward the surface. Williams said they represent him under the waves at Myrtle Beach State Park 20 years ago. “People talk about dying and seeing the white light,” Williams said. “I saw it. The painting is warm, full of life, and this is me letting go.”

The middle room features 40 smaller pieces on paper and canvas. Thirty represent a month’s study of waves off Folly Beach near Charleston. The works are done on mylar with oil paint in layers. “It’s like sculpting on paper,” Williams said. The colors are the muted, muddy greens he saw near the Folly Pier. Ten other works are black oil on wood panels. He put a thick layer of paint on the boards and let it sit for an hour before carving waves with a palette knife.

The third room contains four big “Lost and Found” paintings showing the ocean either menacingly dark or illuminated by light. Recorded ocean sounds add to the experience.

Williams will return to Georgetown for a Gullah festival on April 18 as a guest of the Mitney Project. He will join artists Jonathan Green and Mary Whyte. “They have been my idols,” Williams said. “When I met them I said this is what I want to do, be an artist.”

“Swim An artist’s journey”: Through April 23, Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun. 1-4 p.m., Burroughs and Chapin Art Museum, Myrtle Beach. Free [E-Mail Article To a Friend]

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