Made in St. Louis: Ceramic art pieces tell a story

Made in St. Louis: Ceramic art pieces tell a story

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Each piece of artwork Jerry Williams creates discloses itself to viewers by degrees. From the smallest pinch pot to large sculptures, what is hidden is revealed on close inspection. A small vase winks and refracts the ground glass he pools over a glaze through the small opening at the top. An eagle’s wing uncovers scenes from an ancestor’s history. Turn over any piece to unearth a second artwork, equally compelling, layered and mysterious.

Williams has been making art his entire life, but he began making ceramic art only after he became disabled by injuries sustained over a long career of physical work. Through classes at Jefferson College in Hillsboro he learned skills in the ceramic studios that took his art — and his life — in a new direction.

Today, Williams makes art and is an independent study student at the college. “I’m there whenever I am able,” Williams says. Some days, persistent pain and infrequent episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder keep him away.

A journey to art begins with his witness to tragedy • “I was 12 years old, riding in a truck with my cousin, when I saw my 9-year-old brother, John Carl, try to jump on the running board. He fell, and the back wheels of the truck ran over him. I saw him roll to the side of the road, his blood running down the gutter,” Williams says. His brother’s death “brought me to who I am today, like it or not. Because of it, I started painting. Making art helped then and still does.”

Symbols • The signature on the foot of every piece of pottery, “JC” Williams, honors his brother, John Carl. Williams carves, stamps, paints and presses symbols into the clay. He arranges them with precision. The yin and yang. Light and dark. Circles and structures to let in the ancestors. Feathers and eagles. Starbursts, moons, suns. Covered bridges, pines, forest scenes — each mark holds meaning.

The artist moves to claim joy • Although making art kept him occupied, he wanted to meet a special someone. “One day, I got mad and went off into the woods. I said to the universe, ‘If there’s a woman out there who feels the same as I do, let her meet me.’” Soon after, friends suggested Jerry contact Lea. They spoke on the phone a few times to get acquainted. They met in person a short time later, on Jan. 20, 2009. Lea called Jerry that day. “I was so excited on Barack Obama’s inauguration day, I called him. Jerry said ‘I’m proud to be an American today.’ I said to myself ‘I’ve got to meet this person.’ He suggested we celebrate,” Lea said. “He picked me up on his motorcycle to go for a ride. We fell in love instantly.”

Growth • Their marriage brought two like-minded people with complementary strengths together. Lea believed Jerry’s work deserved to be seen by a wider audience. Jerry agreed, even though he wasn’t comfortable taking the next steps. Although he is well-known for his work by students and faculty at Jefferson College, he hadn’t ventured into the world of galleries and shows until October 2017 when Lea introduced his work to the broader public.

“My social work background hadn’t taught me how to market fine art. With help and encouragement from Tony Borchardt, one of Jerry’s teachers, I started contacting galleries, I thought it would take two or three years to get Jerry’s work into a gallery. It took two to three weeks,” Lea says.

Encourage and strengthen • “Jerry gives back in so many ways, not only to students at the college, but to the community; he has an open heart,” Lea says. “I’m a very private person,” Jerry says, “but I’m hoping people read this and understand that we all deal with our past. The college is very important to me. When I see students who are angry or unhappy, I invite them in to talk. We don’t know each others’ histories, so I don’t judge.”

Honor life’s struggles • “I raised three kids on my own, hunting and fishing to put food on our table. A few years ago, when Lea and I were driving, we found a doe, nearly dead, and bleeding out on the side of the road. We stopped, and I ended her pain. She was pregnant. I tried to save her three fawns, but it was too early for them to survive. “We laid out the fawns and their mother in the earth’s four directions and prayed. In that moment, I knew I would never take another animal’s life. I went back, in my mind, to the day of my brother’s death, seeing his blood in the gutter. I survived those terrible days. That’s the power of art,” Williams says.

J. C. Williams Fine Arts

Makers • Jerry C. Williams Sr. and Lea Ann Nall-Williams

Ages • Jerry is 59; Lea is 55

Family • Jerry and Lea are married. They live with one dog, Lucky Ned Peppers. Their blended families include five children and eight grandchildren.

Home • Hillsboro

What they do • Jerry uses his skills in painting, drawing, carving and mark making in his functional and sculptural ceramic art pieces. His unique signatures on the foot of each piece are also artworks. Lea acts as manager for her husband, coordinating gallery connections, sales, social media and business interactions.

Where to buy • The Green Door Art Gallery, Webster Groves, and Mississippi Mud, Alton. Twice a year, around Mother’s Day and Christmas, they sell at the Jefferson College Pottery Sales of student work in Hillsboro.

How much • $20 to $5,000


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