Updated Tue, Jun 25, 2013 12:41 pm
How fitting that George Williams built his home near one of The Plains’ largest burial mounds, where Native Americans sculpted the land, their ground an expansive, never-ending world of art.
Williams, at 93-years-old, is surrounded by a world of his own creation.
All the houses on his street? He helped build them. The artwork on his walls? Original paintings straight from his upstairs studio.
The dozens of woodwork pieces, the TV stand and even the cane he spins on his lap while sitting down are all his own works.
“If I had all the crafts I’d made they wouldn’t fit in the house,” he says, his cane in motion.
For once, they aren’t expected to.
This Friday, for the first time in Williams’ life, a collection of his paintings and woodworks will be on public display at the Starbrick Gallery in Nelsonville.
Although none of his pieces are for sale, visitors can see a lifetime of work that only relatives and the clouds over Italy have seen.
As a airplane repairman for the Air Force in World War II, he was tasked with painting the nose of a B-24 bomber with what he called “good lookin’ ladies.”
Williams has received little formal training. Long ago, he briefly took night lessons from an Ohio University professor, but most of his talent has come from practice.
He can sculpt — one of his most noted woodworks features a pair of six-wheeled semi-trucks, complete with a wooden container which holds a set of bunk beds. A tiny ladder gives the imaginary driver a chance to reach the top bunk.
He can paint words — as an ordained minister, he has served as a preacher for over 60 years at dozens of churches and is currently a reverend for the Longstreth Community Church near Buchtel.
He can even paint a fairway.
“I played a game of golf yesterday. Eighteen holes,” he says, his cane resting between his legs like a putter.
How’d he do?
“150 yards straight down the middle,” his son David says proudly, noting that his dad has notched three career hole-in-ones.
Asked which was better, drawing the finishing touches on a beautiful painting or nailing a hole-in-one, Williams laughed. His cane stopped rolling. The man who’d once won a poster drawing contest in elementary school drawing “a rooster or something” leaned forward and answered, as he often does, philosophically.
“There’s a certain amount of satisfaction in doing something, achieving something,” he answers.
His art studio, lofted above his living room, is itself a brilliant work of architecture. Williams, who’d once owned a cabinet-making business and worked building houses, angled his ceiling and built a rectangular opening which aims downward to his easel.
During the daytime, this presents an ocean of sunlight pouring down on his work from the window above him.
In front of him is an almost-finished landscape of a vast mountaintop, with Bob Ross-like trees and a windy branch in the foreground. On the branch rests a bald eagle, in part a symbol of his war service.
He often travels the country visiting relatives, taking photographs to eventually draw out. As an artist, he is a staunch realist, perhaps a product of the gritty reality he witnessed growing up on a farm during the depression. His father died when he was a child, but Williams says his poor upbringing helped him gain perspective for later in life.
“It seems like you’ve got a broader look at what life’s all about,” he said about having lived on a farm.
His stories flow from one to another, all of them entertaining and most filled with references to Bible parables as analogies. He’s no toothless old man needing to search for dates and names to anecdotes which border on irrelevancy; Williams commands a room as he does a paintbrush, with ease and enough mental sharpness to make one forget he’s nearing the 70th anniversary of his World War II Air Force unit.
“Good grief,” cries Rene Olson, co-founders of the Starbrick Gallery. She can barely believe the weight of what feels like endless talents.
Olson’s work will also be featured during July, a collection titled “Things I Sold and Wished I Hadn’t,” which shows re-creations of many of her favorite pieces.
A retired Athens High School art teacher, Olson had one of Williams’ grandsons in her class many years ago. By happenstance, Olson recently discovered that her former pupil’s grandfather was an accomplished artist but never had his work formally displayed.
Looking around at the various paintings and woodworks in Williams’ home, Olson said she couldn’t wait for the public to finally see his work.
“I’m suitably impressed,” she says. “It’s phenomenal.”
Williams looks back with his suitable modesty. He sits on a wooden bench, which he probably made, his back to a small organ. Turns out, he knows how to paint a melody, too.
“I didn’t realize I was doing something great,” he says with a wry smile.
Olson and Williams’ exhibitions will be on display from June 28 until July 26.
From there, Williams says he has more drawings in mind along with his garden to tend to. It’s no Native American burial ground, but he sculpts and molds his land just the same, his gloves like paint brushes and backyard a living, breathing art project.
“I look back at my life … I don’t know how I did all that stuff. It must not have harmed me too much, ‘cause I’m still alive,” he says, his self-crafted cane spinning beside him.