In September at my alma mater Wake Forest University, I am having my first solo art exhibition in almost ten years. What is interesting is not that I am showing my artwork again, but how these paintings came about and why. I could have never guessed ten years ago that I would be making this artwork. Six years ago, I would have never guessed I would be using these words to discuss it.
I have written before about my Father’s suicide on April 27, 2006 and have talked a bit about the coping process I continue to work through. But, interestingly, creating artwork was not a part of that coping process – at least for the first three years. My artwork for several years up to 2006 had been technical, analytical, philosophical, and intentionally cold and emotionally vacuous. After Dad’s death, I was not sure what creating artwork really meant to me anymore. I would rather just work in my yard, on my house, or do something else “practical” with my time.
For three years, I did not paint a thing. I entered my basement studio a few times, but I just stood there and looked around and was not compelled to engage. In retrospect, I believe all of my creative energies were focused on reinventing my self, getting to know my self, getting to know the world in a state that did not include the physical presence of my Dad. I had nothing else creative to give.
Then, in 2009, I went to New York and saw an exhibition of paintings by Francis Bacon. I came home. I started painting. It was as though I had no choice. I couldn’t explain it. There were no words.
I had three years to reflect on. The painting process was cathartic. But, it also became sociological, philosophical, and psychological. I had fun. I made a mess. I cried. I laughed. I cranked Godsmack and Metallica. Intensity. I blasted Hank Jr. and Willie Nelson. Longing. I boomed Disturbed and Rage Against the Machine. Anger. I meditated with Pearl Jam. Indifference.
I lost 6 and 8 hours at a time rarely acknowledging my self, exhausted from three years of reflecting on my own existence. I just dialogued with the materials; they told me as much about where to go and what to do as I did them. I had no plan. I had no vision. It just kind of started happening.
As the process gave way to discernible thoughts, I began reflecting on my experience of loss and the physical and mental challenges, paradoxes, dislocations, and general contradictions of the trauma and reconstitution of it all. I wake up one day and my mind is ready to head into work and is energized to get back into the mix; my body feels like I have been hit by a truck. I wake up another day and am ready to start exercising, eating right, and getting my body back working for me again; my mind wants me just to go back to sleep or just isolate in hopes that tomorrow it will feel clearer and more focused. I can read again, but I don’t want to talk about it. I can laugh again, but only around those I am most comfortable with. I can work again, but not in the same personal way I used to be able to. I am re-forming.
Back and forth, on and on, my mind and my body distinguished themselves and their own mourning patterns and needs. I had no real control. It was a dissonance I had to learn to live with. By the time I started painting again, I didn’t need to tell anyone; I just needed to “talk” about it. I didn’t need anyone else to understand. I just needed to get something out. These paintings were for me. They were about me. They were about living. There were no words.
As I finished new paintings and propped them up in corners and against walls, my studio became a chorus of new friends and philosophers, each talking with me and helping me explore further. Some had bad ideas and needed more work; some felt transcendent; others sat silently to speak to me another day, or perhaps never at all.
And now, I will put them out there for others to see, for them to have their own dialogue with my internal experiences and external manifestations, to interpret a language that I have created for myself and that was never necessarily intended for them. Some may judge and despise them. They don’t speak to them. Some may be engaged and ask questions. They provoke them. Some may be moved and be unable to say why. There are no words.
I am conflicted in acknowledging that these paintings were for me and yet now desiring for someone else to find meaning in them.
This is why art matters. Francis Bacon didn’t paint so that I might cope with suicide. He did it for his own reasons. And, while I am certainly no Francis Bacon, I now put my work back out into the world and wonder if it just might speak to someone when there are no words.
Anderson Williams currently serves as the Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Tennessee College Access and Success Network and is a Partner in Cascade Educational Consultants. He began his education work as a youth organizer with Community IMPACT! Nashville where his work with students on college access was recognized in 2006 as a finalist for the Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation. In addition to regional, national, and international training and consulting work, Anderson co-authored “The Core Principles for Engaging Young People in Community Change” and “Youth Organizing for Educational Change” with the Forum for Youth Investment and his writing was published in a special issue of the international Journal of Community Psychology on “Youth and Democracy.”
Anderson is currently working on his Master of Business Administration at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management, holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art, and received his B.A. from Wake Forest University. Email Anderson Williams.