2018 Hall of Fame inductee LaVon Van Williams, Jr., was born in Lakeland, Fla., and attended the University of Kentucky, graduating with a Bachelor’s of General Studies in 1980. He was recruited to play for the UK basketball team and was a member of the team that won the NCAA Championship in 1978. After college, he played basketball in Europe before returning home in the mid-1980s.
After his return, Williams pursued his passion in a career in art, with a particular niche in wood carving. Much of his wood carving work reflects the close-knit community of his native Florida. His father was a jazz aficionado, who passed his love of this type of music to his son. When Williams was 11 years old, his parents divorced, and he moved with his mother to Colorado.
Williams uses the traditional wood-carving techniques of western Africa to depict images of contemporary African-American life. He learned these skills from his brother, who originally learned them from their uncle.
Williams felt attracted to art, but at first struggled to find his voice. After painting for several years, he turned to wood carving on the advice of a mentor. In this medium, he went on to find his voice. Williams’ style is to first draw his subject, then transfer that image to a piece of wood. He roughs out the piece with power tools and uses hand tools to carve the fine details in low relief. Finally, he paints the piece in vibrant colors.
Williams’ dynamic carvings are filled with emotional energy as he depicts dancers, lovers, church worshipers and jazz musicians. He also makes larger wooden panels that often depict an emotional moment with a group of intertwined people. His art could be seen as a visual form of jazz —a syncopation of the human form of motion. It is grounded in the African-American experience, and universal in its appeal.
Now based in Lexington, Ky., Williams was the recipient of the Kentucky Governor’s Award in the Arts in 2006. A retrospective of his artwork, “Rhythm in Relief,” was mounted by the Kentucky Folk Art Center of Morehead, Kentucky in 2009 and traveled extensively in Kentucky and Ohio. He is included in the book, “When the Spirit Speaks: Self-Taught Art of the South,” by Margaret Day Allen.