“Be careful Charles. Don’t go jumping waves with your cousins” Charles’ father called from the picnic area.
But the boys raced down to the edge of the shore anyway. The sea spray felt cool on their skin as they leapt through the first knee high swells and continued wading into the surf, splashing and laughing in the summer heat. Each successive wave brought with it more laughter as the boys tempted fate and cooled their noon baked skin. The last wave rose up in front of the boys, continuing to grow as it gained momentum, when it reached its peak, it paused, towering over their heads. The wind caught the crest of the wave, spraying a mist of salt water across the sky and creating a shimmering rainbow in the stillness. The boys yelled in anticipation as the full weight of the water came crashing down around them, forcing them under, and tossing them off their feet in a roaring wash of salt, sand and foam.
Then everything was dark.
His cousins popped up laughing exuberantly, wiping the salt out of their eyes and squinting against the glare of the bright afternoon sun. Charles was nowhere to be seen. He would come to, several minutes later, with his father and uncle anxiously leaning over him. Charles sputtered, then coughed. His father smiled with relief and held the breathing boy close, Charles Williams was alive.
There would be several more drowning scares as the years stacked up, and Charles’ fear of the ocean would remain strong, while some other urge kept drawing him to the water. It is this dichotomy, the fear and the attraction, that makes Charles Williams‘ paintings, now on display at the McColl Center for Art and Innovation where Charles is currently an artist-in-residence, so alluring.
“The thing that moves me the most about Charles Williams’ vision is his focus on fear and overcoming that fear.” says Mitchell Kearney, Image Maker.
Fear can be a funny thing. At times it is paralyzingly obvious, but on the whole, fear tends to be more insidious. Hiding in plain sight, rarely acknowledged, but insinuating itself into every decision, tainting every dream with a shadow of anxiety.
Charles is no stranger to fear, he has confronted and overcome it numerous times throughout his life. Like the time he decided to use his artistic talents to pay for college instead of taking the easier route and simply working a part-time job.
“My dad told me ‘I don’t want you to work at McDonald’s or the Grocery Store, not that there is anything wrong with that, but I want you to figure out a way to use your talent.'”
And that is exactly what Charles did, from displaying his art on any shelf in town that would have him, to selling out galleries. Or when he left a successful career as a graphic designer, having won industry awards and made a name for himself, to whole heartedly embrace his passion as an artist. Charles knows what it feels like to be afraid and uncertain at the crossroads of life. He knows what it is to have the hopes and dreams of a community resting on his shoulders. And through all of the progressions; professionally, personally and artistically, the fear of the water still remains.
Yet Charles has always been drawn to the water. He has lived by the water all of his life, and most recently moved with his wife to Charlotte from James Island, where they lived near the beach for the past four years.
Every day…every single day, Charles would go down to the seaside and watch the waves. He would take photographs of the water, analyze the currents, dissect the combination of light and texture, dimension and fluidity within the tides, and see, really see the ocean. See it in all of its color and majesty, all of its power and awe. That “seeing” was Charles’ way of embracing his fear. He is not ashamed to acknowledge his weakness, or embody his desire to overcome it, and in the process produce breathtaking works of art.
“For his recent exhibition, “Swim,” Charles Williams creates powerful and mesmerizing images of the sea. This force of nature becomes a metaphor for other potentially threatening emotional and societal undertows that must be navigated with courage and skill. An accomplished artist, Williams will continue to probe topics that need further dialogue.” says Carla Hanzal, an Independent Curator.
Charles has channeled his fear of swimming to create some of the most realistic paintings of the Atlantic Ocean I have ever seen. His canvasses are larger than life. Looking at Charles’ renderings of waves curling and thrashing with each other inspires awe and fear.
“All of the works that were in the exhibition, I wanted them to be large…I wanted you to feel like you were there, and doing them small would not have captured the essence of the emotional tie that I have to not being able to swim.” says Charles.
The ocean demands those feelings, commands your respect, and that intensity is palpable in Charles’ paintings. Mother Nature is awesome, in the true and original sense of the word, and fear is not an inappropriate feeling to have when in her grasp.
The depth of Charles’ paintings, the texture of the water, the interplay of light and color, is so realistic you feel like you are in the trough of a swell. On the east coast there are no waves without foam. And if you have ever been to the coasts of North or South Carolina, you know our waters are not crystal clear, or even blue. They are a rolling, roiling, turbulent color that alludes to the sand and life churning just beneath the surface, and they are always covered in foam. Charles captures the essence of our coastal waters with a unique honesty and vivid realism.
“I paint like a water colorist…but I work wet on wet so the cool thing is that I like to scrub out…. so you get all of those layers shining through… which gives it that glow.” Charles says of his particular process for finding the colors to make his portraits of the sea so incredibly life like.
Charles has big things on the horizon. As he continues his journey and faces his fear of the water, he plans to document his progress with photos and video, using these images to tell his story. Charles is currently working on pieces for his upcoming shows, as an artist-in-residence at the McColl Center for Art and Innovation, where he will be through early August.
That means we, as Charlotteans, have the rare opportunity to not only experience Charles’ realistic and imposing paintings of the sea, but to witness the craft and skill by which he brings the ocean into his studio. Stop in, take a few minutes to appreciate the dynamic beauty of his work, and talk with a man who is determined to better himself.