“In many ways, the story is about what's vanishing,” says Tom Kohler of the photography show currently on view at the Sentient Bean.
“North of Victory: Savannah's Soulful Signage” is part of a project Kohler embarked on in the late 1990s to document the disappearance of the once abundant hand-painted signs that appeared on downtown churches, nightclubs, barbershops, restaurants and other area businesses.
Kohler enlisted the help of local photographer and author Susan Earl and together they amassed nearly 800 photos, which are now archived at Georgia Southern University's Waddie Welcome Archive and can be viewed online at bit.ly/2RVoP3R .
“North of Victory” is just a sampling of these highly stylized signs and murals. Most all of the images in the exhibition were painted by one of four local African-American sign painters: Jimmie Williams, Marcus Polite, Leonard Miller — also known as "The Sandman" for his Tybee sand sculptures — and William Pleasant, who was also a fine artist whose work is included in the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Of the four, Williams is the only surviving member of the once tight-knit group of sign painters. Williams himself is very much alive and kicking and is in fact still producing work.
“This is my life, man,” says Williams. “I've painted with everything, from my fingers, paintbrush, cigarette butts, whatever. Whatever's available.”
Williams has a distinctive style that's self-taught and has served him well for many decades. He joined the military at 17 and served in the Vietnam War, but he came directly back to his hometown of Savannah and has been painting ever since.
“I joined the army in my spare time,” laughs Williams. “I had to come on back and get back to business.”
Williams is truly a living link to the past. As a child he would frequently get haircuts at the barbershop of Ulysses Davis, the famed sculptor and wood carver. And in addition to his sign painting, Williams was commissioned for a number of murals and indoor wall paintings over the years. He talks about a narrative mural he did many years back titled “Freedom Ain't Free,” which was a blunt and graphic depiction of slavery, freedom, and redemption that likely made too many people uncomfortable because it ended up getting erased about a month after it was put up.
“The thing about it is, when a person sees the truth, if it hurts you, holler. If it don't hurt, just stick it out,” says Williams.
All of the photographs in “North of Victory” were taken by Susan Earl who has been instrumental in preserving this rich culture of Savannah's artistic traditions.
“I've always loved photographing signs and store windows, and started capturing these as an on-going project after talking with Tom Kohler,” explains Earl. “Tom is a native Savannahian and had admired these signs growing up. When one of his favorites — for The Music Lounge on Anderson Street, painted by Jimmie Williams — was whitewashed, he knew it was time to start documenting them.”
“As increasingly rapid gentrification changes who lives and works in the neighborhoods north of Victory, more hand-painted signs disappear,” Earl said. “Corporate businesses with mass-produced signs are outpacing a local, distinctive, African-American art form, and a valuable part of Savannah's culture.”
Be on the lookout for a longer profile of Jimmie Williams in Sunday's SavArtScene column in February in the Savannah Morning News.