Former UK basketball star carves his way through African American history
Sometimes even as a young child, you find your calling or passion in life. You don’t know how you’ll get there, but you do know what you love.
LaVon Williams, Jr. fell in love with art as a young child growing up in Sanford, Florida near Orlando. Now 64 years old, Williams remembers his first art teacher in life. Poet, author, and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou hosted an art show on PBS every Saturday back in the 1960s.
Williams recalls, “I think until I was 15 years old, I watched that show every Saturday. So, she would talk about different artists, poets, paintings. She talked about Picasso, (and many other greats). I was sitting there mesmerized as she explained about art.”
Turns out Williams had many art influences in life as a child. His father was a teacher, his grandmother made quilts, and his great-uncle became a master carver who taught Williams’ older brother the craft. Williams says his mother would tell him stories and show him illustrations in books. “When I was coming up, I made things, and we built things, and cut things.”
Drawing skills, knowing which colors worked well together, and learning how to use tools like a saw would be important later in life for Williams and his passion for carving art pieces. At the same time, Williams began to excel at playing basketball.
He had moved to Denver, and his high school team won the state championship. Williams was named “Mr. Basketball” in Colorado. All this drew the attention of Coach Joe B. Hall at the University of Kentucky. Williams signed a scholarship to play for the Wildcats and was on the team from 1976 to 1980 which won the national championship in ’78.
Later Williams played professional basketball overseas in Japan and Italy. But his heart was always on his art. Williams’ older brother had taught him carving. “Even as a kid I was watching PBS one time, and there was a show called the American Masters, and when I saw that show, I said that’s what I want to be.
Not being a basketball player, not being anything else. I want to be on the American Masters.” After his basketball career ended, William tried attending an acclaimed, private art school in Los Angeles. He says the professors were not encouraging, and so he left to come back to Lexington, and immerse himself in carving.
His art studio is in a 130-year-old, tiny house on Jefferson Street in Lexington and it’s filled floor to ceiling with art that inspires him. “I have my brother’s work in here. I have work from the Pacific Islands. I have work from Africa and Japan. I just have a multi-cultural art studio.”
Shavings from his carvings cover the floor as his six-foot-six frame towers over a worktable using a mallet to strike a chisel and carve his latest project.
Many of his wood carvings are two-sided panels with brightly colored characters with elongated feet and hands representing African Americans and their culture. “I love the human form. And then I love American history. I love just the history of people.”
Some of his work can be seen at U-K’s Lucille Caudill Little Fine Arts Library, the U-K Albert Chandler Hospital, and the Keeneland Library. Williams says Keeneland commissioned him to do two pieces that represent black jockeys from the late 1800s.
His pieces are on display along with art from the legendary sports painter, Leroy Neiman. “I didn’t know the magnitude of it until I stepped in the building and saw the show, and I was like whoa! Right now, that is probably one of my biggest accomplishments.”
Williams is also working on six panels for the Isaac Murphy Memorial Garden in Lexington at Midland Avenue and East Third Street. It’s another art project that combines history with African American culture. Murphy won three Kentucky Derbys in the late 1800s but was largely ignored later for his racing accomplishments.
Williams has no plans of stopping. “I think it’s the only thing I can do, that I want to do. There’s nothing else more in the world that I have a passion for other than my children and grandchildren. I mean I’ve always had a passion for art as far as I can remember.”
What’s his message to younger people about art? “Art teaches you about your past, it teaches you about your culture, it teaches you about your future. But the one thing with art is art is universal. If you love art and your culture, I think that’s what being as American is…”
The art carvings of LaVon Williams, Jr. can also be seen on his website: lavonsfolkart.com.
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