LaVon Van Williams Jr (born 1958)

“I want to accentuate and preserve the humanizing connections we discover and embrace in art. We are works of art." (LaVon Van Williams Jr on his website in 2016)

Born in Lakeland, Florida in 1958, LaVon Van Williams Jr moved with his mother to Colorado when he was ten, when his parents divorced. There he began playing basketball, exhibiting clear talent. He played for the University of Kentucky with the team that won the NCAA national championship in 1978. He graduated with a degree in sociology and then played basketball professionally in Italy and Japan. In the 1980's Williams returned to Lexington to live and work as a teaching assistant at the university along with creating his art. (On the left above, Williams is #52 in a 1978 game where Kentucky won over West Texas State 121-67. Part of the James Edwin "Ed" Weddle Photographic Collection at the Kentucky Digital Library.)

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After years of the strict practice regimen of college and professional basketball, the freedom of woodworking was refreshing to Williams even as the craftwork involved still called on the hard work and attention to detail that he was used to from basketball. He adopted the distinct African-inspired carved sculpture tradition of the Carolina coastal Gullah/Geechee people to find his voice. "He sketches his ideas on the paper first, and then transfers it onto the wood. After cutting the wood [with a chainsaw], he uses a mallet and chisel to complete the work. He also often applies found items to his pieces, using nuts and bolts for buttons on a man’s suit or wire to simulate women’s hair. The final step is painting and staining the grain of the wood (often Oak), which accentuate the figures." (Source: Brut Force which "is dedicated to curating, electronically publishing, and developing a national online archive of Outsider and Self-Taught Art.")

On right: Ella, 2007. Below: Daddy and His Woman; Saturday Night/Sunday Morning (two-sided, with the same figures but a different scene on each side); and The Piano Teacher.

At the 2018 Foothills Folk Art Festival.

At the 2018 Foothills Folk Art Festival.

Williams considers himself to be an Urban folk artist, drawing inspiration from blues and jazz that were tastes he absorbed from his father and from the multitude of clubs near his home growing up in Colorado. As a consequence, many of his works show people playing piano or other jazz instruments, or dancing, or brawling. In this Artist Statement he explains his approach, "If you're trying to make a woman, you're not trying to do the most beautiful woman in the world. You're probably trying to express the soul or the inner part or the personality of a person, more so than trying to capture the exact image, like a photograph would do. ... You're looking for a fantastic movement or a fantastic shape that comes in the piece, and that's the whole power to the piece. You want it to explode out when the viewer sees it, or you want it to be calm, but yet you still want a powerful presence in the piece, so that it dominates or takes off." (Source: Black Cultural Center Virtual Museum)

Williams in 2013: his history, his family, and how he feels about his art. (From KYForward, Kentucky's Online Newspaper.)


Van Williams was one of the artists featured in HMA's exhibition New Horizons: Self-Taught Art in The 21st Century (September 23, 2017 - January 7, 2018). Van Williams was the Artist In The Schools in conjunction with the 2017 and 2018 Foothills Folk Art festivals, visiting schools at all educational levels in the Catawba County area to talk about folk art, do demonstrations, and invite active participation with the students.

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This post is # 32 of the 75 stories to celebrate HMA's 75 years.

Post by Karin Borei, HMA Project Coordinator, writer and editor as needed, and HMA blogger since our blog's inception in March 2015