TELL ME of LIFE
1984

Inspired by DON McCULLIN’S book, “HEARTS OF DARKNESS”
Photo 79, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. New York, and distributed
by Random House, Inc. New York. 1981

Photography and film have always had a profound influence on me. I spent hours as a kid looking through the varied collections of magazines like Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, National Geographic and even a copiously illustrated Bible all at my grandparents in downtown St. Louis in the 50’s and 60’s. It was a personal highlight during my family’s frequent visits to Grandmother and Grandfather Hickman’s homes on Page Avenue and then on Morgenford Street. Maybe the fact that I was confined to bed for two years from 1952-54 beginning when I was five years old with rheumatic fever and had few outlets for amusement other then looking at pictures in books and magazines and obsessively watching early television all pushing me in a visual direction honing my interest in reproduced film images of all sorts. Certainly my fantasy life was tweaked by the stories behind the pictures whether reportage, illustrations or some esthetic imagery projected in print or played out on the T.V. I was an addict of the visual reproductions laid out before me. I could not stop looking at those pictures and would avoid most any other form of diversion or responsibility; i.e. homework, piano lessons, household chores and even sometimes playing with my friends.
It was compulsive!

One of my first serious stabs at sculpture was derived from a photo of a male silverback gorilla from a book in our home library; that was in my senior year of high school in 1965. Later I relied on photography and incorporated renderings of photographs in my paintings, beginning in 1968 when I transferred to Southwest Missouri State College (now Missouri State University) in Springfield, Missouri to further my studies in art. I used magazine and newspaper images and later brought out the black and white family photographs that my father had prolifically produced coping images of myself and my family for many of my self investigative paintings of the period.

My attraction to watching the television news and reading periodicals heightened during the “turbulent” 60’s and 70’s. In the U.S., Vietnam, civil rights and the domestic and international attention brought on by “American Pop Culture” pushed this young student into activism and artistic response. I started thinking politically and responded with my esthetic tools at hand influenced by film and photographic reproductions.

So it’s not a surprise that some years later in 1984 when a friend handed me “Hearts of Darkness”, a collection of photos from various trouble spots around the world by the brilliant much honored photographer Don McCullin, that I had to have a look. The images were in black and white and very disturbing. My day, that day, was not going to tolerate further depressing news from the outside world. That year and at that time in my small life things were gloomy enough. I was quite actually about to close the book when on I saw photo 79 and the image took hold of me; it immediately and dramatically provoked my desire to create my own version in three dimension. The caption for the image at the end of the book reads: “Albino boy, not only starving and at death's door, but ridiculed by fellow sufferers for skin pigmentation, 1970”

What I saw was this lone sculptural figure popping off the page!
He was holding a tin of some sort as if it were his prise procession or the essence of his total being which needed to be held physically close to him for fear of its loss. His life was there on a tight rope, precariously balanced between two possibilities; life or death.
Drop the tin, loose the fight?
This tin also seemed to be a presentation to the world of something internal which he needed the observer to confront.
No where to go, not even his mates to depend on due to his inherited condition. And all of those kids were in a horrible fix.
In a world were white is might and so often black is a detriment and cause for suffering; the photo represented such a strong irony. This poor Biafran kid was not only a victim of the war, they were all suffering from, but he was ‘white’ in a black world and singled out for prejudicial suffering as well.
Such total isolation and despair that I felt overwhelmed to help even knowing that the drama had long since played out!
So then what to do?
My solution was to give this boy a tribute, as well as pay homage to Mr. McCullin’s craft and strength.
The photo was black and white and black and white seemed to fit the subject thoroughly. Not often do things seem that simplistic in the resolution of trauma. It was ‘live or die’ for this kid; black or white?

In the sculpture the “tin” was transformed into a glittering jewel of sorts. Mirror fragments were adhered to the inside of the tin to give off reflected light and at the same time catch the reflected image of any viewer curious enough to investigate the internal workings of this particular detail. The captured reflection was intended to symbolize the viewer as part of this art works statement. The reflection theoretically makes the viewer either part of the solution via their recognition of the dilemma and their emotional response or part of the problem in their ongoing denial which creates further hardship and similar situations world wide. Black or white?

And the request, or dare, the boy poses in my title, Tell me of life!
Or maybe, “What can you tell me of life that, I, in my youth do not already know; the unpredictability, the lack of fairness that we all witness and some are forced to live out in a short span of un-fulfilled dreams.
-being born, not into privilege, but despair and hardship in a place not suitable for progress; but merely, if I’m lucky, for survival and endurance.
-if luck be not with me maybe it is the best luck of all.
End this suffering one way or another!
For me, I see only black or white!
If you see more, tell me; Tell Me of Life!”

Frank Williams
Moscow 2006

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