Imagine how many times you drive past something interesting without even knowing it. On quiet suburban hillside streets south of Business 40 in Winston-Salem, you find neighborhoods of modest family houses as you do throughout the South. And you’d no doubt drive past William Fields’ house with no more than a glance at the slightly more gracious porch thick with potted plants. Yet, if you did go inside the house Fields grew up in and returned to 15 years ago, you’d find rooms packed densely with altars, mantles crowded with Buddha-figures, walls covered with paintings.
William Fields was born in Winston-Salem in 1940 and has lived there for a good portion of his life. He is a modest man with a pleasant Southern gentility who has quietly pursued a career in the arts 40 years (including teaching stints at the North Carolina School of the Arts and in South Carolina at what is now the Gibbs Museum of Art). In the last five years, his work has gained wider attention; it was included in the American Visionary Art Museum’s 2002 High on Life show, and he has shown in the Luise Ross Gallery in New York. Currently, five of his pastel and colored-pencil works hang in the Homegrown Southeast show running through Sept. 30 at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem (SECCA). In November, he will have a large single-artist show at the Orange Hill Gallery in Atlanta.
What is different about Fields and his art is that it is grounded in visionary experiences he has had throughout his life, beginning with out-of-body experiences in his childhood. Prior to falling asleep at night, he would, at the age of 7, find himself outside of his body, moving about his house and neighborhood, down the corridors at the nearby elementary school. These events have persisted in one form or another throughout his life.
Visionary experiences are intense, but above all, ordinary parts of the lives of those who have them. Because they are intense, a person wants to share them with others, the way you’d want to talk about a great movie or being in love. The problem, of course, is that what is so matter-of-fact for the person having the experience is so different from what passes for the norm for others. Working out what this means can take a long time. For Fields, it meant years studying different spiritual traditions, including Saivism, Tibetan Buddhism and the Western Hermetic Tradition, all the while developing a repertoire of skills in the visual arts for communicating the content of his experiences.
Fields’ pastel and pencil drawings are almost all figural depictions of spirit beings to whom he relates in visions. The drawing itself is elegant and restrained; the works stand on their own in terms of craft. At first glance, the images have a psychedelic vocabulary, but their power goes far beyond the ornamental design effects of 1960s art. The figures are complex, with multiple faces and bodies. Often the larger figure contains several figures turned toward each other across the mid-line, or looking out in separate directions, and then those shapes make up the brow or shoulders of a more hidden central being. The effect is to suggest a dynamic, relational presence.
While the images are of spirit beings encountered by Fields, like all figuralist art, they also speak to issues of identity and are, in this sense, representations of the kinds of beings we are or might be. Fields’ work has echoes of earlier modernist approaches to the figure, including the Cubist figure, broken into linear planes; the mounded, protean figures of Surrealism; but also Expressionist figurations like De Kooning’s terrifying women.
Unlike De Kooning’s women or the mechanical primitive of Cubist art, however, the spirit beings Fields evokes are surprisingly magisterial and benign. The drawings suggest a remarkably positive take on the fragmented modern self, even as they suggest that the self is plural and relational.
Fields is most often classified by the art world as an outsider artist, and reviews link him to Chicago imagists like Henry Darger who became popular in New York in the ’90s. The problem with the “Outsider” or “Art Brut” category is that the work is largely significant as a fetish of what is possible outside of the academy. While the category permits Fields a wider audience, in another way it relegates him (and the kinds of experiences he has) to a ghetto. Since Fields has spent a good part of his work life inside the art establishment, this most likely happens because of the content of his drawings. It’s probably expecting too much, but it would be nice if we found his experience as ordinary as it is to him.
There is something quintessentially Southern about Fields. Not the South of Steel Magnolias or even the South of contemporary Southern literature–which are, after all, versions of a suburban Americana. Rather, it’s that rife South that is possible behind the suburban façade. A place where, instead of junebugs and juleps out in the piney, you might meet an old Irish lady who says casually, “Hey, look at the fairies up in that tree.”
Fields, now in his 60s, has retired from teaching and is painting full-time. Because of the unexpected nature of the visions, he no longer drives. His current project involves a set of 72 spirits associated with the planet Mercury, whom he invokes and then draws. Fields’ studio is in what would have been the drawing room of his family house, and the lights there are covered with orange silks because Mercury spirits are partial to orange. In his old bedroom, his roommate’s acrylic renderings of fire spirits cover the walls, and in a third room, an old student of Fields’ has a music studio where he composes. Everywhere inside this old Southern house there is image and creativity and work. One wonders what else is hidden behind that American façade, nestled among relations, the way the central figures of Fields’ drawings stare out at us from within their complex, larger shapes.
Take a road trip to Winston-Salem before the end of September to check out the Homegrown show at SECCA (www.secca.org), or a longer trip to Atlanta in November to catch the large show of Fields’ work, or even a trip up to Baltimore to see the American Visionary Art Museum. Sure, routes 85 and 95 are ugly, but that’s not the only side of the road.