Emmett Ardie Williams has had a profound influence on my thinking, especially my perseverance in creative pursuits. His willingness to share insights is remarkable. I discovered his art long before I had the opportunity to “meet” him on FaceBook. I have learned much from him over the years.
Emmett was born in Washington, D. C. in the early 1960s. He lived and studied art by drawing and painting street-life in D.C.’s notorious 14th Street corridor. Emmett’s introduction to art began with drawing animated cartoons from television. Later he created his own comic books. He did portraits of musicians and sold handmade posters as a child. His family briefly relocated to Ohio where he attended The Columbus College of Art & Design on the weekends beginning at age eleven. His mother agreed to match half the class fees if he earned the other half himself. He was told that his grandfather was an artist, and his father dreamed of becoming an architect. When he was fifteen his family returned to D.C. He had studied the Impressionists since age ten from books and began creating self- portraits. On his return to Washington, the city streets became his focus. Drunks, cops, pimps and streetwalkers permeated his sketchbooks for the next five years. He occasionally went to Atlantic City to the Playboy Club to draw gamblers and bunnies.
His earliest mentor was Georgette Seabrooke (Powell), the Harlem Renaissance painter. She created Tomorrow’s World Art Center and occasionally hired young Emmett to capture her events, such as “Art In The Park,” live on canvas.
Emmett’s talent didn’t go unnoticed. His work was shown at The District Building (City Hall) with adults. “Spirits: The Makings of Masters” was his first group exhibition. Accepted at The Corcoran School of Art, he became the first recipient of The Marie Fredenburg-Torsani Memorial Award in 1983.
Emmett has donated musical murals and paintings commissioned by the District Government to D.C. Village retirement home, formerly “Junior Village,” an orphanage where he was a resident for a few months in the 1960s. While there he was taken to the White House for a Christmas Party and viewing of “The Wizard of Oz.” He met Tricia Nixon who approached him as he drew her shoes. She wanted the drawing and she traded him candy for it.
After leaving the Corcoran, Emmett grew bored with Impressionism. Everyone was working in that style. He had always been attracted to Cubism and found new ways to make it work for him in a current world. He could appreciate and apply any technique that had already been tested and accepted. He wanted to be as unique as Duchamp and Picasso. His intent was to capture actual moving figures on city streets, figures that will not sit still; he wanted to find a way to capture the intangibility of musicians at play, from rock stars to jazz singers.
Emmett talks about his use of Cubism and some of the ways his work differs from other artists on his website:
“Cubist Art can be as simple or complex as an artist wants to make it. What makes the style impactful is the visual power of a form when broken down to basic bold elements used in depicting the subject matter. Everything that makes the image stand out is exploited by emphasizing bolder contours than one might normally use. Everything that is subtle usually included sparingly at the end of the painting process to somewhat soften the brutal technique. Cubism is not without beauty these days. I often wondered why the subjects could not be painted prettier and with more finesse so I tried it and feel I added something new to it. What appealed to me most about the style was the opportunity to explore various angles and views within one work. After that I rethought the static nature of cubist works, and experimented on applying not only angles and views but expanded my focus to capturing the motions of moving subjects. I was inspired by various works by impressionist painters who seemed to reflect movement in a delicate painting treatment…and wondered visually if the same qualities could work in depicting a more visually confrontational style. Certain types of persons fit better with certain painting treatments. If I am painting a ballet dancer, I would want to use impressionism but if I was painting an athlete or banker I would use a more impactful technique like cubism to capture the essence of that subject.”
His work found its way onto the walls of some local Jazz Clubs in D.C. He soon landed his first solo exhibition in Bethesda, MD. This was a pivotal moment in his understanding of life as an artist. During the massive traveling exhibition of the works of Van Gogh, the press refused to cover him. He was employed as a concierge. People were buying tickets to the Van Gogh exhibition, paying $50 or more. Then a reporter told Emmett that no one was going to cover him; not one person was going to write about his own solo show.
Emmett began writing them letters and sending postcards with his imagery to reporters who covered art. He finally found one writer who wrote a series of pieces about Emmett and his show. The gallery kept extending his show. It was a near sell out; the gallery even bought some works.
I first saw his paintings of jazz and blues musicians at the African American Atelier in Greensboro many years ago. They were evocative and memorable, so much so that when I later saw some of his paintings of horses I remembered his earlier work. Horses are one of my favorite subjects. Emmett’s were dynamic, expressive, and reflected his knowledge of equine anatomy and behavior. It turns out he has worked with horses and has an excellent understanding of their moods and motion.
Emmett relocated to Greensboro, N.C., opening his own studio in 2003 after a successful solo at a gallery there. Numerous features appeared in print and press. His work attracted captains of industry to his door. Then his work was featured at the Design Institute of America-Planum Showroom. That led furniture executives to his door, where they began to buy out his studio. They returned with offers to have his works featured on their high-end club chairs. Eventually this led to his work receiving continuous inclusion at The High Point Furniture Show for a decade or more. Emmett now makes his own furniture designs, available by commission.
His interest in comics hasn’t been lost. He creates graphic works for his “SuperPen Comics Line Up,” begun in 1979. New characters are in the works.
Collectors would do well to take a look at his work.
Emmett Ardie Williams provided much of this information.
I was honored to collaborate with him on this piece.