At the May Kalamazoo Art Hop, artist Cheri Williams is holding a fundraiser for the YWCA shelter at Studio Grill. The shelter acts as a safe house for victims of domestic abuse and their children.
Williams says just like the women at the shelter, she knows something about pain. Within just a few short years, Williams ended her more than 20 year marriage and lost two of her sisters. First her sister Tracey died of complications from diabetes in her 40s.
“She was an artist. We ran away from home when we were 14 and 15. She used to fund many of the things we did by drawing on people’s coats and hats and stuff like that. People loved her work," Williams says. "She was just an amazing skinny, scrappy, feisty person.”
Then her step-sister Jo-Ellen passed away from cancer. Williams says Jo-Ellen was an incredible people person.
“When I went to visit her one time, they should have had like a take-a-number in the kitchen because there were people waiting to go see her. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. People just loved her," Williams says.
"And as I watched them pass—Jo-Ellen was 51 I believe—it’s just like I kind of made a decision. You know these things that I used to fear—this kind of stepping out and getting to know people and just expressing and really truly living. I really try to make an effort to just do it.”
With her sisters in mind, Williams just started drawing—something she hadn’t done in a long time.
“The only thing I ever drew—and it’s kind of funny because I was in elementary school—I drew a sunflower. I did it with chalk and I remember wiping the chalk all around and stuff. And that’s actually how I started this again at—God, must have been 41,” she recalls.
Williams’ calls her series "Catharsis." She says art is like therapy for her. Many of Williams works have jagged streaks of black and red chalk or marker, often depicting a woman with scars on her face. Some people who see her art call it “the warrior.”
“What I try to promote is strength, and not just in women but in people who feel weak," says Williams. "People who feel that they can’t handle what’s going on in their life or that they don’t have power or strength to have a voice, or that they don’t have the ability to make people understand the truth of their existence and experience.”
Williams doesn’t refer to herself as an artist. She uses simple materials and she says she never knows what she’s going to draw before she starts—it’s just pure expression.
“I’m usually just a dancing, wild mess when I do it—usually on the floor. Now that I’m drawing, I throw my paper on the floor, get on my hands and knees, put my stuff around me and I’m just literally—I’ve got music going and I’m just cranking something out,” she says.
Because Williams only spends a few hours on each piece, she says they’re more like photographs of how she was feeling at the time. Some of them bring up memories she hasn’t thought of in years. While hanging works at Studio Grill, she stares at a simple black painting with layers of white and red streaks running down it.
“I was afraid to look at this one because I remember the day I painted this," Williams says. "And basically my entire personal life was coming to an end. My kids were grown, I was getting a divorce, and everything was changing in my life. And this was literally how I felt—everything was just melting away.”
Aside from her own work, Williams has invited other women to share their struggles through art on one wall of the restaurant.
“I think what we tend to do as a culture, especially as women is that we tend to cover things up. We want to be pretty. We want to be right and correct. You know we want to walk right and talk right and do all these things right. And what I’ve realized out of this experience is that I think one of our base human emotions that we all share is pain,” says Williams.
“I just think it’s reality. It’s something that needs to not be hidden.”
You can see Cheri Williams' art at Studio Grill this month in Kalamazoo. 20 percent of Williams sales will go to benefit the YWCA domestic violence shelter.