For starters, he’s legally blind. The 51-year-old artist has Stargardt Disease, which causes progressive degradation in the retinas of his eyes. Today, he can’t see what’s in front of him, and his peripheral vision mostly consists of indistinct shapes and color fields.
That means, in order to paint, he has to use bright lights and a powerful magnifying glass, his nose hovering just inches from the canvas.
Williams is a full-time file clerk at the IRS, which he describes as a “hostile work environment.” Every day, he spends two hours riding to and from work on the bus. He paints at his home in Crosstown neighborhood, where he lives with his mother, five siblings, and four nieces and nephews.
But stand in front of Williams’s work, and you’ll forget all that.
Instead, you’ll see light. Radiant sunlight, reflecting off slick city streets after a thunderstorm (“After the Rain II”). Soft morning light, stippling the flowers of a dogwood tree (“Suburbia Morning”). In its loose brushiness and its playful approach to color, it recalls the fauvist work of Andre Derain or Georges Braque.
“Instead of trying to catch what’s in the photographs,” he observes, “I try to work it out for myself. I’ll change the light, you know, or the mood of the sky.”
Williams started painting when he was 10 years old. He says he got the idea from his mother, Mattie Williams, a self-taught artist. But he didn’t begin to cultivate his talent until junior high, when he met art teacher Helen Stahls.
“The teachers, they didn’t want me in their classes,” he remembers. “They thought I couldn’t do the work. They thought I was slow.”
“But Ms. Stahls,” Williams continues, “didn’t place any limits on me because of my eyesight. She knew that I could do it, so she would teach me the different crafts.”
Williams’s career as a professional artist started early: he would sell sketches to his high school teachers at $5 a pop. From there he went on to win art contests at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Memphis in May, and the American Printing House for the Blind.
Williams recently had a gallery show (“Epic Vision”) at Crosstown Arts, and he has been featured on FOX 13 and in The Memphis Flyer. He has also founded a nonprofit, the International Association for Sight-Impaired Artists, which works to empower blind artists around the world.
“When you’re visually impaired,” says Williams, “people think you can’t do anything. I started doing art because it was something people thought I couldn’t do.”
“The Mid-South has 70,000 individuals who are blind or visually impaired. If Memphis only knew what kinds of treasures they were sitting on… I want to take those people and push them outside their comfort zone. I want to give them hope.”