A child is kidnapped by nefarious seamen as he walks the waterfront and begins a life at sea. Over the next 49 years, he spends time as a crewman on a whaler, a Man O’ War, and everything in-between, before ultimately settling in Savannah.
There he catalogs his nautical adventures in a series of crayon drawings that catch the eye of rich socialites, propelling him to artistic prominence.
These are just a few tidbits of the incredible tale of Georgia-born folk artist William O. Golding. And thanks to Telfair Museums’ recent acquisition of seventeen pieces by the African-American seafarer, Savannahians will soon have the opportunity to explore his life and drawings up close and in person.
"The artist produced all of his work in Savannah," said Harry DeLorme, Senior Curator of Education at Telfair Museums, "and Telfair is now poised to tell the amazing story of this artist through works spanning his entire creative period, 1932-1939."
Much of the record of Golding’s life is still in question due to inaccuracies and contradictions, but the early details are fairly clear: He was born in 1874 in Liberty County, and adopted by William A. Golding, "a Reconstruction lawmaker and founder of an historic African American school, the Dorchester Academy," said DeLorme.
At eight years old, "he was tricked aboard a Canadian ship at the Savannah waterfront," and "it was more than 20 years before he made it home."
However, during Golding’s total of 49 years at sea, the water gets a bit murky, historically speaking. One of Golding’s personal letters, for example, "seems to have conflated details or embellishments, like a sailor’s yarn told over and over again," DeLorme explained. Still, the curator noted that census data points to an apparent stint in the Philippines with the Navy during the Spanish American War. And the works themselves show details that prove that the tales are based in much more fact than fish story.
"Ports are always depicted from the water, and often include details and buildings such as sailor’s hostels, saloons, and custom houses - all landmarks of interest to a seaman coming into port," DeLorme described.
"Fully rigged sailing ships and nautical signal flags are depicted with the kind of accuracy that indicates first hand knowledge."
Golding may never have become an artist of any historical significance had he not been hospitalized at the United States Marine Hospital in Savannah (located in Oglethorpe Square in what is now SCAD’s Bradley Hall) from 1930-1940, the period during which he created all of the hundred or so pieces he is known to have drawn before his death in 1943.
"There he was befriended by [Margaret] Stiles, a professionally trained artist and educator from a well to do family who volunteered at the hospital," recounted DeLorme.
"She bought Golding’s work and helped him sell drawings to others in her circle from Savannah to New York. Golding drew ships that he was familiar with, the Savannah waterfront, and ports he had seen around the world during his travels."
Telfair Museums intends to display the new collection, alongside the four existing works of his in their possession, as part of a large exhibition of Golding’s works in February 2022. Although the artist was active nearly a century ago, DeLorme believes his drawings are relevant today beyond even Golding’s fascinating life story.
"It’s particularly compelling today to think about his perspective as an African-American seaman who grew up in post-Reconstruction Georgia, traveled the world, returned to the Jim Crow South and made his art at a time when the work of self-taught artists was just beginning to achieve notice in the U.S.," he opined.
"We hope that through this acquisition…that we can bring more attention to this incredibly fascinating artist."