I remember my Uncle Brother. His nickname was “Brother.” I want to mention that now so that when I refer to my Uncle Brother, you don’t think of me and my family as being incestuous rednecks out in the woods.
Uncle Brother had a passion for art. Painting, sculpture, all forms of visual art. And that’s just what I knew about for years. One day, I found out that the man wrote poetry. He had notebooks full of poem after poem. I didn’t even know he was into that. I’m not sure the rest of the family knew he wrote.
You see, there was a little problem with my Uncle’s art: it was god-awful.
I really can’t convey how bad it was. It was all so heavy-handed and ham-fisted: all glitter and gold paint and shininess. It was art as if a rich gentleman in the 17th century was given the ways and means of macaroni art and had evolved it as far as it could possibly go.
I recall one piece – an ornately carved wooden frame surrounding a mono-color canvas to which a sculpture of a bird, flat on one side, had been glued to the centre of the canvas and covered in silver glitter.
You could see where he was going with some of it but it really just was atrocious. And nobody dared to tell him. No one, not even the closest members of his family – who by the way, were almost all much better educated than he – would let him know how bad his art was.
I remember one Christmas where he made gifts of his art to my aunts and uncles. I was a young lad in my early teens and I and my mother and father and brother and my aunts and uncles and my cousin were all standing outside my uncle’s home.
The adults started making fun of him.
I was incensed. The man had poured his heart out to them – not that they realized it. He had incorporated his hopes, his dreams, his visions of a better tomorrow into his art – as all artists do – and he had shared this with his brothers and sisters – and they were laughing at him behind his back, right outside his very house. On Christmas no less.
I told them all they should be ashamed of themselves. A usually quiet lad, I let them know in no uncertain terms how vile they were being and how much the man loved them to share with them his art. And, to their credit, they accepted the rebuke and hung their heads low and stopped making fun of him and his work and went home.
My mother – well, we don’t have enough time for me to go on about my mother – she decided if I thought so much of my uncle’s art that I could hang it in my room if I wished. I guess what I’m trying to say is that she missed the point, most likely deliberately in response to being rebuked by a child. My uncle’s work – in this case, a glitter covered zodiac wall plaque – found its way into our washroom. In this way, my mother could say that we had hung it on the wall and be telling the truth and yet the piece would not offend the eyes of any of my mother’s friends.
My mother’s friends were those sort of people. The “keeping up with the Joneses” kind of people. Our church, a Black Baptist church, was full of them. I wonder now if that wasn’t the real sin my uncle had committed as far as the family was concerned. He produced art objects that were designed to be shown – well, what art objects aren’t? But they were so ugly that there was no way anyone in the family would hang them anywhere they could be seen.
And so rather than help the man to grow as an artist, rather than give him the knowledge and means to do better, or even try to do better, he was a pariah and without ever even knowing it. Or at least, I hope he never knew.
It pains me. It pains me so much to see such a great gift of passion squandered. And squandered by a world sorely lacking in beauty. Yes, his art was terrible but it could have conceivably gotten better. The man lacked the knowledge of what art was – what art could or should be – that an artist needs to grow better. He was a flower that no one ever bothered to water. They could all see the rain couldn’t reach this flower and they didn’t care. They just sat there and watched it wither and die.
I wish he’d gone to college. I wish he’d received a proper education. I don’t fault the man for making ugly art. I doubt he made it all the way through high school. He worked odd jobs and hustled here and there and lived hand to mouth and was always in debt to one family member or another. He was born in the ghetto and he lived in the ghetto and he died in the ghetto. I wonder if Michaelangelo or Beethoven or Shakespeare would have done as well as he in the situation he lived and died in.
I wonder what would have happened if he had lived in a country like Germany where you can get free education all the way up to a Ph.D. I wonder if he might not have gone to a great art school and developed an artistic sensibility to match his passion. And I wonder what great works he might have forged if he had. I wonder if the name Alexander Williams Jr. might have joined the pantheon of great artists. But he had no education, and far far worse, no realization that he so desperately NEEDED one and no patrons willing to sponsor him to develop his art and so a man of immense artistic passion is remembered by few and one day, relatively soon, it will be none.