Jimmie Williams is one-of-kind.
You could say he's the last of a dying breed, but if he has anything to do with it, he'd like to pass his knowledge down to be carried on for posterity.
First true love
Williams is an old-school sign painter and artistic polymath whose work has helped define the character of Savannah for generations. His canvases were the nightclubs, barbershops, hair salons, and other area businesses that Williams would hand-detail with his signature style and to this day, he hasn't tired of his first and trusted love.
“It's like a dying art, because there's really no one left,” says Williams. “I see some work from some of these kids, but they don't put themselves into the stuff. Evidently it doesn't mean as much to them. If you don't do it the way that it comes to you and it comes from your heart, you ain't doing nothing. Your work is not going to speak for you because you didn't put nothing in it.”
The current photography exhibition on view at The Sentient Bean documents some of Williams' work, along with now-departed fellow artists and sign painters Marcus Polite, Leonard Miller, and William Pleasant. “North of Victory: Savannah's Soulful Signage” is an important showcase that rightly preserves some of Savannah's artistic history. You can read in more detail about the exhibition at dosavannah.com.
But Williams isn't done creating. As he lights a cigarette and leans forward in his chair, Williams explains the importance of painting from your heart and soul.
“If you're trying to say something, then go ahead and say it,” says Williams. “You can't just mess over it. That's what drives me to keep doing what I do, because there's a lot of people in my lifetime who believed in what I could do and I wasn't about to let them down.”
Painting the truth
One of those people was Williams' mother, who bought him his first set of paints and never wavered in her support of her gifted son.
“I've always painted. I never really stopped,” says Williams. “I'm a very confident person. I'm quiet, but I'm confident. I know what I can do. I can show you as good as I can tell you. We can do this on this spot and I can show you how I feel about certain things, where my feelings come from. It's not hard to figure me out.”
Williams describes one of the murals he painted, “Freedom Ain't Free,” saying he put so much time and effort into a wide-ranging narrative depiction of slavery, freedom, and redemption on a wall on Pennsylvania Avenue, only to have the mural painted over less than a month after it went up.
“It's been a struggle, man, because I went through the Martin Luther King days and all,” says Williams. “My art mostly speaks for me. That's how when 'Freedom Ain't Free,' when that came to me, those were the lines I was thinking along. Equality and different things, because we all share blood from the same spot. And why we can't live on this one spot together in peace, I can't understand.”
“That thing was hot as a firecracker ... But some people don't like seeing the truth.”
Williams doesn't know exactly why the mural was erased.
“It's was strictly legit,” says Williams. “We had permission and signed it, documenting it.”
That was nearly 20 years ago, but the image is still fresh in Williams' mind and he says he would relish the opportunity to revisit the work.
“I've got it up here,” says Williams tapping his head. “I can put it down any time. I know I could re-do it.”
Honoring the past
As Williams sits comfortably in his backyard among the accumulation of decades worth of inspiration and collected miscellanea — including a motorcycle he's planning on painting in memory of U.S. veterans — he reflects on the passage of time and the loss of long-cherished locations like Ulysses Davis' old barbershop.
“So much stuff is being destroyed,” says Williams.
He explains how he would go to Davis' barbershop as a kid and each time he got his hair cut, he'd see something new Davis had carved since he was last there, including one wood carving of an outhouse with a little man who would peek out when you opened the door. Today there's nothing left on the location where Davis' barbershop once stood, not even so much as a sign in remembrance, even though that barbershop represented the very best Savannah had to offer at one time.
There's a belief that when people gather together and create memories in one particular place, something of their spirit or soul is left behind in that place. With so many old buildings and historical locations getting plowed over in the name of progress, it almost seems like sacrilege not to honor these spaces in some way.
Savannah has enough ghosts as it is. We don't need to create more. And Williams is alive and kicking, so perhaps he can help exorcise the bad juju some of Savannah's more crass developers have wrought. Helping to get “Freedom Ain't Free” repainted might be a good start.
For Williams' part, he doesn't have any complaints about life. The tides of time ebb and flow and he's still riding the wave.
“It's been a good ride, man. I can't think of a bad thing to say about Savannah. This is my home. This is it.”
Kristopher Monroe is a writer documenting the intersection of art and community. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @savartscene.