• ads

Bayou Artist | Edmund Williamson

By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Artist
Jun 3rd, 2024
0 Comments
546 Views

article by April Doughty
portrait by Brad Arender

Edmund Williamson would have been 72 years old this month. To honor his contributions to the arts, a retrospective art exhibition will be held in June. 

It’s been nearly 15 years since Edmund Williamson passed away, and the impact he made on Monroe and West Monroe, especially in the arts community, continues to be felt. He is perhaps most famous in Ouachita parish for his public art, including the Maypop in downtown Monroe, the Tomato Worm at the West Monroe Community Center, the Trenton Flowers on Antique Alley in West Monroe, and the Great Blue Heron at Restoration Park in West Monroe. 

To honor Williamson and his contributions to the arts, a retrospective art exhibition will be held June 6, from 5-9 p.m., in cooperation with the Downtown Gallery Crawl. The exhibition will take place at The Gallery at 118 Cotton St. in West Monroe, Louisiana, and will run until mid July. Because the reach of Williamson’s work is so large, works that could not be featured in the physical show will be featured in a virtual gallery on the Northeast Louisiana Arts Council’s website. The opening event during the Crawl will allow family members and others who knew Williamson to share about his life, work, and legacy.

Childhood
Like most artists, Williamson’s interest in art began when he was a child. According to Tina Guilliams, Williamson’s baby sister, Williamson picked up his love for art and gained a lot of his skills and talent from their mother, who was an artist, a painter, and a creative person at her core. “With my mother, art was a part of every day growing up,” Guilliams said. “She liked to draw and paint, and we were right there painting with her, or getting in the way.”

For this reason, Williamson was already an artist before he ever had the opportunity to take classes. Guilliams was 10 years younger than Williamson and recalled that when she was little, maybe about four, Williamson shaped a small duck and egg out of gumbo mud for her to play with. When their mother passed away, Guilliams said she found that her mother had kept the duck and egg in a drawer and that the figures remained intact after all those years. 

On another occasion, when Williamson was supposed to be babysitting Guilliams, he started painting a mural on a wall in their house, and Guilliams joined him. “I remember him saying Mama’s gonna spank us both,” she said. The two of them scrubbed the wall together to clean it, but Guilliams could not recall the outcome or whether they got in trouble.

While they were growing up, Williamson would often draw caricatures on Guilliams’s school folders, and even as a teenager, the immensity of Williamson’s talent was becoming apparent. He enrolled in art classes as early as he could, and by the time he was 15 or 16, Williamson was doing impressive pen and ink drawings, paintings, and sculptures, some of which he would display at craft shows in the region. At one such event in Columbia, Louisiana, Williamson displayed a wax sculpture he had carved of Eve handing Adam the apple. Guilliams said the figures were nude but not depicted in an explicit way. Still, she said many of the elderly women who witnessed the sculpture were offended. Since that time, the sculpture has remained in Williamson’s family and now belongs to Guilliams. 

Young Adulthood
Williamson graduated from West Monroe High School and went on to study painting at both the University of Louisiana at Monroe and Louisiana Tech University in Ruston. When he was a young artist living on his own, Williamson lived for a time in an old Victorian house owned by his friend Alice Jordan. The house was fondly known by those who lived and socialized there as Peach St. Williamson had attended West Monroe High School with the owner Alice and her sister Di. In fact, the sisters had been featured in a mural he painted at the high school that depicted Di as homecoming queen along with several yearbook portraits of their classmates, including Alice.

According to Terry Tugwell, one of Williamson’s friend’s who met him at Peach St., Williamson lived there with Alice and other friends for several years. “It was a gathering spot for a very artsy, bohemian group of people,” Tugwell said. “We used to have a saying that Peach St. was not a place. It was a state of mind.” Tugwell also said that the people who frequented Peach St. were not just friends or acquaintances. They were like family to each other.

Another friend of Williamson’s, Doyle Jeter, met Williamson in 1969 and was also familiar with the Peach St. crowd. He, too, echoed this notion of closeness between Williamson and his friends. “Ed was family,” he said,”and our relationship was like family.” Jeter said he and Williamson had mutual friends and that they did everything together from sharing meals and partying to attending funerals. Jeter said this group had a lot of fun partying together. “We were all children of the 60s,” he said, “and it was the psychedelic era.” At the same time, Jeter emphasized that Williamson was much more than a partier. In fact, multiple of Williamson’s friends mentioned how prolific he was as an artist. “Edmund was constantly creating work,” Jeter said, “and I don’t know anyone that doesn’t own a piece of his art.” 

His Work
For Williamson, art was a part of his life as much as breathing, and it was at times a way for him to express his love for his friends as he would often give pieces away. His sister Guilliams said that he would also borrow them back on occasion. “He was never really completed with a piece of artwork,” she said. He would see it on the wall while visiting, study it, then take it down, and give it back later. “He would return it very changed,” she said. 

In addition to being prolific, Williamson was very diverse in his body of work and went through “seasons” according to his sister. He painted abstracts, landscapes, animals, and portraits. He also worked in pen and ink and charcoal and created 3-dimensional sculptures and assemblages with a variety of materials. He worked on large and small scales. He even went through a period in the 90s when he painted jungle scenes on houseboats. According to his friend Billy Stanley, Williamson made his signature bigger and more flamboyant than the painting on some of these boats to make a statement. One of the coolest pieces of Williamson’s that Stanley could recall was a shark’s mouth that he painted on the front of another friend’s ski boat. Stanley said the shark looked like it was opening its mouth when the boat accelerated on the water. 

Another special piece, for which he received national recognition, was a Christmas ornament he designed for the White House Christmas tree. Displayed in 2001, the ornament was a miniature replica of Layton Castle in Monroe, which was then owned by Carol Layton Parsons, a friend of Williamson’s. According to Pam DuPuy, Parson’s daughter, the idea for the design came to Williamson when Laura Bush decided she wanted to decorate the tree with ornament replicas of two historic homes from each state. Williamson submitted his design for Layton Castle and was chosen. The task was a new challenge for Williamson who said at the time, “I’m used to taking something very small, like a dragonfly, and reproducing it in large form.” Williamson altered the actual layout a bit for balance and constructed the ornament from balsa wood. He and Parsons were invited to see the ornament on display at the White House. DuPuy said it was a memorable moment for her mother and that Williamson’s friendship was important to her. Four paintings by Williamson deck the walls of Layton Castle today, including one of DuPuy’s late mother Carol Parsons. Parsons’s daughter Pam DuPuy said she has pushed for something to be done to honor Williamson many times, and she’s pleased the retrospective exhibition is finally happening. 

Williamson also had a daughter, Kate McGehee. When her mother passed away, she was raised by her mother’s brother, but Tugwell said Williamson loved her dearly and that many of his pieces, especially the more playful ones, were inspired by her.

Williamson’s work undoubtedly touched many lives. Although he is most widely known for his public art, Tugwell said that in the arts community, he was known more for his paintings, especially his landscapes. He grew up and attended school in West Monroe but spent a lot of time on his family’s farm called Woodlace in Richland Parish. While on the farm, Williamson would paint outdoors, depicting the unique beauty of north Louisiana with scenes of pastures, animals, and sunsets. Tugwell said, “He would paint these pieces that were realistic, but there was always a bit of magic or surrealism in them. There was always something a little on the fantastic side. The magic was always the thing that made his work distinctive.”

Williamson would also spend a lot of time painting along the Ouachita River. Stanley said, “He was a Louisiana artist at his core. He was a product of Louisiana, and he was who he was. You always wanted to see what he would do next, and he was a joy to be around.” According to Stanley, Williamson also had an appreciation for nature that he passed along to Stanley. The two knew each other when Williamson operated a gallery known as The Lost Bazaar on Trenton St. in West Monroe. Stanley was interested in plants and took care of the garden behind the gallery. The two spent a lot of time together, and Williamson was a big influence on Stanley. They would hang out and play croquet together in the evenings. “Edmund did art in all kinds of mediums,” Stanley said, “but his greatest art was how he lived his life. He wasn’t a big dude, but he had a persona that was just magnified.”

Public Art
During his career as an artist, Williamson worked closely with Tommy Usrey on multiple projects. Usrey was development coordinator for the Northeast Louisiana Arts Council when he met Williamson and was president of the organization for most of the time he and Williamson worked together. “He was always a talent,” Usrey said of Williamson. “I could see that immediately, and he had a gut feeling for an awful lot of things.” Usrey worked with Williamson on his public art projects and said sharing art with the public was always a priority for Williamson.  

According to Usrey, Williamson was fun to work with and had a strong business sense. He always came to Usrey with ideas that were very well thought out. Usrey helped him write his first grant and said he soon became very proficient, growing in his ability to design and plan detailed projects, including not only the artistic elements of the projects, but also all aspects of funding and execution. When asked to comment on his Maypop project as it was coming to fruition, Williamson said, “The process of this project requires that I be that jack-of-all-trades—writing the grant, fundraising, building community support, designing the sculpture, and building it.”

Usrey mentioned a long list of projects Williamson worked on, including sets for the Twin City Ballet, holiday decorations for Kiroli Park, the Maypop in downtown Monroe, the Tomato Worm at the West Monroe Community Center, the Trenton Flowers on Antique Alley in West Monroe, and the Great Blue Heron at Restoration Park in West Monroe. Williamson’s first major public art project was a dragonfly sculpture in Forsythe Park. The sculpture was a fixture in the park for nearly 20 years, and during its lifetime, many people climbed onto it to pose for pictures. In 2014, the sculpture was removed. It had fallen into disrepair and resulted in an injury and lawsuit. At the time, the city reported that attempts to repair the sculpture failed and that it would remain in storage until the lawsuit was final. Williamson passed away prior to the removal, but some of his friends remain bitter over the decision. 

Another mark Williamson left on his community lay on the walls and ceilings of St. Matthew Catholic Church in Monroe. Williamson painted alongside his friend and fellow artist Glenn Kennedy. The two completed the fresco ceiling and sanctuary of St. Matthew Catholic Church in Monroe together. Guilliams said the Kennedy family had Mojo, a gallery and boutique near Williamson’s Lost Bazaar, and Glenn’s work was featured there. The two became close during that time. Guilliams recalled that they also once got into trouble for “defacing public property” after painting murals of wildlife along the sea wall. Their attempts to beautify the wall were painted over, but Guilliams said she did not believe either of them were actually charged with anything. 

Galleries and Impact
Williamson spent much of his life creating art, but he spent an equal part of his life trying to bring art to the public eye and trying to lift other artists up. “He was a proponent of art across the board,” Stanley said. “He was trying to make it inclusive.” Williamson operated multiple galleries in his lifetime, most notably The Lost Bazaar, and Stanley said he would do open calls for artists and essentially go out beating a drum trying to get people to bring art in. His efforts resulted in discovery of unknown and self-taught artists that might never have shown their work otherwise.  

Stanley watched the various works being brought into the gallery with awe. “He was a hero to me,” Stanley said. “He made me believe it was possible to be a poet or an artist.” After being discouraged from pursuing art as a kid, Stanley said Williamson was the first person he met who declared himself an artist. His talent could have taken him to other places, but Stanley believes he stayed here in Ouachita Parish because he felt safe here. That sense of safety likely came from the close network of friends he made and the support he received from the community, which empowered him to grow as an artist and support other artists as well. 

Another important facet of who Williamson was as a person was that he was openly gay. At the time of his death, Williamson had been with his partner Jeffery Jones for over 10 years. Tugwell said, “Jeffery was a great partner for Edmund and took great care of him. Everyone fell in love with Jeffery instantly.” Jones was several years younger than Williamson. When they met, Jones was a young man from Baskin, Louisiana, who had just come out. Jones said, “He (Edmund) was an artist—bigger than life, intelligent. I was enamored.” Williamson never hid their relationship. “He gave me a sense of pride,” Jones said. “If you’re a good person, people will like you regardless. I learned that from him.”

Although they hosted some great parties in their time together, “You can’t really make a living running an art gallery,” Jones said. While they were together, Jones waited tables and helped Williamson with the gallery, but he said, “It was kinda rough times actually.” One thing Jones said always amazed him was how they could be struggling day to day, but Williamson could have an idea for an art project and get it funded. 

While Jones and Williamson were together, Williamson operated the first gallery on what is now Art Alley in downtown Monroe. Jones said, “Before Edmund, there was nothing. At first, it was just me and him, and it was cold as hell with one space heater, but eventually, he revitalized the whole downtown art scene.”

Another key player in launching the arts scene in downtown Monroe was Brad Arender. Arender met Williamson in 1999 after wandering into The Lost Bazaar. Williamson inspired Arender with a lively discussion about art and a shared passion for photography, which led Arender to seek more advice as he delved into photography himself. “His guidance and subsequent curation of my work set the trajectory for my entire career,” Arender said. “He couldn’t have been more supportive than he was.”

By inviting Arender to participate in a group exhibition shortly thereafter, Williamson helped Arender connect with the finest artists and creative minds in our region. “This experience left a lasting impression on me, sparking a newfound passion and sense of belonging within the artistic community,” Arender said. Such a story appears to be one of many similar stories about Williamson’s support of his fellow artists.

Together with Alan Brockman, Arender and Williamson also approached Tommy Usrey with the idea for the Downtown Gallery Crawl. Usrey said they wanted to have live music and create a festival-like atmosphere. After this meeting, Williamson, Arender, and Brockman co-founded the Downtown Gallery Crawl, catalyzing a vibrant artistic community.

From Arender’s perspective, Williamson’s legacy in the arts community is unmatched. “His initiatives birthed Antique Alley and later paved the way for Art Alley,” Arender said. “Through his prolific creation of public sculptures and paintings, he inspired countless individuals, myself included, to delve into the world of art.”