The Deep End of Fear

By Lisa Rubenson

Charles Williams is a McColl Center for Art + Innovation Summer 2015 Affiliate Artist. His current work includes several series of paintings that explore the concept of fear – its derivation, its personal and cultural costs, and our shared need to confront it. 

When Charles was little, he was afraid of the dark. He asked his mother for a night-light, but the dim shadow it cast made things worse. He’d tiptoe through the hall for a drink of water, where things would get even scarier.

On his way to the kitchen, he’d hear the breathing coming from the pitch black living room. No matter how many times Charles reminded himself that it was okay, that the noise was familiar, he’d still tremble when his father’s voice shot through the quiet: “Is that you, Charles? Go back to bed.”     

For Charles’ father, coming home from work to sit in the dark stillness of his own home was relaxing. For Charles, the idea that there could be an invisible presence waiting and watching from the darkness was terrifying. It was also a theme that would later inform his work as an artist. 

“The more I kept quiet, the more I could learn about the world around me,” he says. “I was an observer, and I figured out early on how to engage all of my senses.” 

It was not until Charles’ father had a religious awakening that he began to understand Charles and encourage him to pursue art. His parents helped Charles secure private art lessons in high school, which led to a scholarship at nearby Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) and a degree in graphic arts. His father urged him to take commissions and to place his art in galleries to earn money. 

After college, Charles enjoyed success as an agency designer, but would come home every night and paint. He told his father he dreamed of becoming a full-time artist. To Charles’ surprise, he said: “God gave you a talent, and you need to go make use of it.” 

Raised on the coast in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, Charles’ early work drew upon familiar landscapes – waterways, riverbanks, trees, beaches. A prestigious Hudson River Landscape Fellowship allowed him to further study painterly realism and the natural world. 

As much as he loved to paint the outdoors, Charles kept his distance from the water. While he did not spend much time thinking about matters of race then, he grew up believing that "black people don’t swim," an assumption that he points out was and is prevalent in the African-American community. 

The two times Charles had encountered large bodies of water, he nearly drowned. 

When he was eleven, against his father’s warning, he waded out to jump waves with his cousins. A wall of water overtook the boys. Charles was caught in a riptide and had to be rescued by his father and uncle. As an adult, his then-girlfriend Shannon (now his wife) took him to a friend’s swimming pool. From the safety of the shallow end, she showed Charles how to push off the pool wall and “glide” as far as he could. Shooting through the water was exhilarating, and Charles continued after she got out. He soon found himself in the deep end, unable to swim or catch her attention. 

“It was a white light moment,” he says. “I thought it was over. That’s when I felt the presence of something much larger than myself with me. Suddenly I was moving through the water and could touch the edge.” 

The experience gave him new purpose as an artist: to understand the emotion of fear – be it personal or universal, tied to or separate from cultural identity.

The “Swim” series, a collection of large-scale oil paintings and smaller studies of oil on mylar, explores personal and cultural fears about water. His oil on mylar self portraits address struggles with identity, tropes of masculinity, and ideas about skin color within the African-American community. 

In addition to a collection of semi-autobiographical oil portraits, his work also includes a series of all-black, dimensional oil paintings that focus on the dark of night and the unpredictability of water.

“I always want to keep learning, to help others understand something about themselves,” he says. “To do that, I have to be willing to be vulnerable in the face of my fears.”

For the “Swim” series, Charles visited the beach every night to revisit the murky green, foamy waters that had once overpowered him. Remembering that his parents used to take their kids on nature walks at night with nothing but a flashlight to guide them, Charles stood knee deep in the ocean, shining a flashlight and taking pictures.

The facial expressions in his self-portraits are sometimes welcoming, sometimes formidable. We see the subject only from the neck up, often wearing the hood of a sweatshirt, swim goggles, or a towel. On each of the mylar paintings, some part of the face has been wiped away. 

Is it because, like Ellison’s Invisible Man before him, the subject does not feel fully seen by society? Or is it an act of empowerment, a holding back of some sacred, private wholeness? 

Charles would ask us to put issues of race aside for a moment and consider the shared space of human emotions. He does not want to put any boundaries on the interpretation, saying, “What you make up in your mind is all that there is.”

In other words, you can stay in one place, letting your fears or others’ perceptions define you. Or, you can move forward, pushing off of the side of the pool, to bring the mystery into the light. 


Charles Williams leads a watercolor painting workshop on Thursday, July 16, 2015 from 6-8 PM as part of the McColl + Response Summer Workshop Series. Participants will improve their existing skills or learn new ones using the two-part fundamental process for realistically portraying objects using watercolor. Learn more.