Charles Williams deserves his own exhibit. You don’t need any background to find Williams’ two series on display at the Weatherspoon Art Museum visually arresting. In the two first-floor rooms displaying the work of graduating MFA students of UNCG, Williams’ pieces stand out even among other compelling works. But once you know the backstory, it becomes obvious that Williams is a first-rate intellectual artist. On Tuesday at noon, Williams and a half-dozen other graduating students presented impressive works, many of which tap into an explicit social consciousness. Each artist took a turn briefly introducing their art to a small cohort of friends, classmates and teachers. The exhibit includes an installation and video from Sherill Roland, who wore an orange prison jumpsuit to class and school functions for a year as part of his celebrated and wonderfully provocative Jumpsuit Project that illuminates the personal cost of incarceration.

Several apparel-themed pieces by Joyce Watkins King call attention to the costs of fast fashion, including an 80-pound, “Game of Thrones”–esque garment she assembled from thousands of gold keys. Caroline Bugby’s “Silver Dredger” spills forth from the back of one of the rooms, and is worth sitting in front of to fully take in. Indeed, each graduating student presents a unique, worthwhile concept that becomes all the more apparent when listening to them talk. Julia Caston, Kate Gordon and Codey Gallas — the other students in the exhibit — have much to be proud of, contributing alluring components to the display. But Charles Williams should get his own exhibit. His two series currently on display both tap into “Red Summer,” better known as the Chicago Race Riot of 1919. Williams teases out the history of the conflict’s origins, which began in a segregated swimming area. A black teenager drowned after being hit with a stone, touching off broader unrest. In the self-portraiture series I AM, Williams poses shirtless, sporting green goggles and red floaties around his muscular biceps. He can’t swim, he admitted during his artist talk, but it’s on his bucket list. In the oil paintings, he leans in from the left for a side profile, faces the camera and leans his head back looking skyward for a right side profile in the third. There’s a purposeful parallel to mugshot poses, but the paintings look soft viewed up close.

Williams survived three near drownings himself, hence the three pieces. The paintings, which bleed gently into red — a callback to “Red Summer” — jump off the white background of the canvas. They’re masterfully executed, and despite being priced at $4,000 each, somebody already claimed the straight-on centerpiece. Williams’ adjacent series, Untitled 1-10, depicts churning black waves on a series of square panels, lined up and fading towards whiteness. The thick oil paintings look almost like gasoline, and you could lose yourself in the tumult of the waves. Williams explained that the pieces were meant to mirror the idea of buoys demarcating the segregated Chicago beach, an incident he learned about while researching police violence and riots.

The waves are unsettling to stare into, which is intentional. Williams would anxiously wade waist-deep into the ocean in South Carolina — where he’s from — to take photos for the series, then quickly leave the water for the safety of the shore. Besides the obvious parallels to race and the role of water in the 1919 riot, water is also a unifying aspect of our shared humanity, Williams said, noting that we’re mostly made of water. The roiling waves spill from one square to the next as the darkness of the first few fades towards grey, and Williams said he’ll eventually add more to the series that run the spectrum towards whiteness. It isn’t just one entranced culture writer and one loaded benefactor who recognize the skill of Williams’ work — he just found out that the North Carolina Museum of Art is buying some of his other work. They’ll pick it up Thursday, he said. And the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Ga. will feature I AM and the Untitled series in 2018, kicking off a tour. If you don’t know about Sherill Roland’s work, you aren’t paying much attention. You could be forgiven for not knowing about Charles Williams, but you will assuredly regret missing the opportunity to see his thesis work before May 21. He is going places, and some day you’ll want to brag that you saw him back when.






A mentor, a support system and a community of people who were open-minded. That’s what Charlotte-based artist Charles Williams says saved his life. Life saving in that his self-worth was actualized and he received the support he needed, which has led to a successful art career.

With the help of his high school art teacher, Heath Hampton, Williams was guided and urged to put his art up in community spaces. From banks to frame shops to local stores, his work was there. He learned the business side of doing art before heading off to college.

He says the high school entrepreneurial venture taught him, “Okay, here’s how you present, here’s how you follow up,” he recalls. “Whether they bought something or not, I was encouraged [with], ‘you will be great, don’t give up.’ It really helped push me when things got tough and challenging.” Art paid his way through the Savannah College of Art and Design — more than $30,000 annually at the time — during which he continued to send artwork back to his hometown of Georgetown, South Carolina and did commissions. He calls it a community investment. But it also served as a life investment that sustained his exploration into the depths of his psyche which now permeates his art. See, Williams almost drowned as a child. His artwork speaks to that.

Fear and vulnerability are the underlying themes to his latest exhibition, “Continuum.” The collection of work has two different showings at two different galleries in Charlotte: “Continuum/Day” April 1 at the New Gallery of Modern Art, and “Continuum/Night” is currently on view at the Ross Gallery at Central Piedmont Community College.

The collection of oceanscape oil paintings and photographs are his way of sharing his own insecurities and fears in a relatable way with the hopes of coming together, recognizing collective struggles and needs, and walking in unity. In the exhibitions, Williams navigates the human psyche and questions what it means to be free. He raises the question of whether true freedom can be had without overcoming fear.

“There is so much we can say and stand for, and so much that [is] not being said, and for those things art can show a vulnerable perspective,” he says. “The whole premise of the show is based on the acknowledgement of self. Being aware and okay [that] vulnerability will help you progress individually. One can acknowledge fears and hopefully overcome one step at a time, one moment at a time.”






In the self-portraits of “Swim,” Charles Williams presents himself in goggles and other aquatic paraphernalia, his muscles taut and his skin burnished. The South Carolina artist, however, isn’t bragging about his prowess in the water. He actually has a powerful fear of it, in part because of a childhood incident in which he nearly drowned. The three series gathered in this Morton Fine Arts show are quite different, but all address Williams’s fraught relationship with the sea.

The largest works are realistic paintings of yellow sand and frothy surf under night skies. These are based on photos Williams took while wading in the water and experiencing — the show’s catalogue reports — “shallow breaths, a quickened heartbeat and trembling hands.” That anxiety is not conveyed by the pictures, which are calm and precisely rendered, even if the blackness above the water does indicate that this is no day at the beach.

Even darker are the small oils of waves at nighttime, entirely in black. The water’s motion and contours are depicted entirely by line and texture, and visible only when the light hits at a suitable angle. These paintings resemble engravings and bas-relief sculptures.

Although Williams is no impressionist, the self-portraits are a bit looser than his large surf pictures. Most of them are painted on Mylar, which lacks the absorbency of canvas and thus gives a more immediate appearance. Sheer white, apparently representing harsh sunlight, obliterates areas of the image. These ephemeral qualities, however, are countered by the strength of the artist’s features and form. Even when the subject is simply water and air, Williams’s style always feels substantial.






Haunted for years by nearly drowning in the ocean as a boy, African-American artist Charles Williams has turned terror into inspiration by creating Swim: An Artist’s Journey, a series of paintings that confronts both his deep-seated fear of the sea and the cultural and psychological barriers to swimming experienced by black youth. The exhibit explores the artist’s interactions and anxieties associated with the ocean, both positive and negative, merging the simultaneous, contradicting perceptions so many of us have of the sea: alluring and sensual, yet tempestuous and potentially deadly.

Williams presents the relationship between nature—in this case, the ocean—and human emotion. His works evoke panic in the guise of enormous impending masses of water and uncertainty, as when one is surrounded on all sides by darkness. Swim then becomes a metaphor for the way life sometimes comes upon us, suddenly, overwhelmingly and totally enveloping. But by presenting us with this metaphoric experience within the comfort of our Art Museum walls, Williams creates the opportunity for us to hover beyond life’s unexpected broadsides and think about the simple knowledge we need to react to them, ride with them and safely make it to shore. Swim affords viewers of all ages the opportunity to go alongside Williams on his personal journey to confront and, subsequently, conquer our most basic fears.



Charles Williams captures the liquid fluidity and bold power found in various forms of water in massive oil paintings for his new exhibit, Swim. The works were generated by an obsession with water caused by a frightening childhood experience when he was abruptly swept away from safety by an ocean undertow. Charles invites the viewer to share both the monstrosity and the magic of his phobia, including the sensation of being taken under, the awareness of letting go and the magnificent beauty of the waves with the reminder that danger is always just a split second away.

Within the Swim exhibit is a series of large paintings entitled Lost and Found, depicting nighttime ocean scenes as though one is face-to-face with a dark wall of waves. It is almost as if Williams (the child) has taken his flashlight to show us the monster in the dark. But, the light is a metaphor for truth revealed, and the monster isn’t real.

The tightly rendered details and sensual intoxication of swirling foam and rushing oceanic whoosh are enhanced by an audio soundtrack intended to generate a sense of being underwater. This emotionally driven manipulation of the senses is an orientation to the visual poetry of the artist’s collective perspective—both real and imagined. The challenge is to relate the experience of Swim: An Artist’s Journey to one’s own personal fears and find inspiration for transitioning towards fearlessness—a journey not without risk but delightfully full of healing and surprises.