J. Williamson


I’ve always been a huge fan of the “naive” French painter, Henri Rousseau. His large canvas, “The Sleeping Gypsy” (1897), has been one of my favorite paintings since I first saw it at MoMA in high school. I love the story of Rousseau, that he was self-taught, followed his own painting method, and painted subjects (jungles, wild animals) entirely from his imagination. I’m a romantic, so the idea of that “purity,” that lack of concern with craft, excites me; it’s so different from my own artistic background and practice.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingAnyway, the other day I “discovered” my own Henri Rousseau. His name is J. Williamson, and I found him last Friday afternoon selling his work on the corner of 23rd Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan.

As I came up to Williamson’s sidewalk table, it was covered in tiny oil-painted canvases, 50 or more in total. Each painting was mashed in next to the other. The subjects ranged the gamut, but one that caught my eye right away was a rendition of that infamous Ivan Brunetti picture of Ivan stabbing himself in his eye. I soon saw other themes: classic superheroes like Superman, Batman & Robin, and Captain America; awkward sex scenes; Mr. Met (!); and a number of George Bushes. (One of them showed Bush naked… as a woman. Disturbing.) I was instantly charmed by the artist’s lively, childlike touch — and the fact that he had clearly never gone to art school. I also loved the fact that the paintings were so small, most of them less than 4″ wide. Best thing of all was how affordable his pieces were, mostly in the $10-$20 range.

Pointing out the Brunetti piece, I mentioned I was a cartoonist too and struck up a conversation with Williamson. He is a big guy, missing a tooth or two, and has a strong New York accent. He’s soft-spoken, with an unkempt, street-person aspect (all feeding into the “naive” artist image). He said he’d been selling on that corner for two-three years (‘tho i’ve been there many times and had never seen him). I asked him about his process and he said he could dash off an incredible 3-4 paintings an hour. I told him about the upcoming MoCCA festival, and recommended he get a table, or at least set up outside the Puck Building, assuring him that he’d sell his whole inventory in a couple of hours. But he seemed nervous — whether from the prospect of leaving his familiar spot, or just not understanding me regarding MoCCA, I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t push him on it.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingI ended up spending way more money than I planned on three pieces, two of which I show here. I got Sari the painting of the girl and the horse sharing a milkshake. What can be said about it that does it justice? It’s just too brilliant! The Warhol piece also called out to me, painted as it is on what seems to be a mini-whiskey bottle. (I know — it should’ve been on a tomato can! As Williamson told me, he was just beginning to experiment with painting on surfaces like bottles and metal containers.) The third piece — a close-up of a Hulk-like monster’s eyes — I got as a little gift for my buddy man_size.

I hope I’m not coming across as too glib about Williamson and his art: I really do love it. I’ve never been a fan of kitsch or “bad” art, and especially not stuff I would hang on my own walls. I really admire Williamson’s talent and offbeat genius — and his pseudo-autistic persona definitely adds to his allure. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before he gets profiled in New York magazine, scores a Chelsea gallery, and starts selling in the six figures.

I could have bought a lot more of Williamson’s art that day, but I didn’t want to overdo it and blow all my cash. My only regret is not buying the Mr. Met painting, but maybe it’ll still be there tomorrow, when I should be back in that neighborhood. It would be so much cooler, though, wouldn’t it, if he disappears forever, leaving nothing but a few random samples of his art behind…

0 thoughts on “J. Williamson

  1. golly!
    well good for you mr. eyez! sounds like a great find.
    one day, if you ever come across anything “lady met” you must tell me immediately.
    i once had a lady met doll; she went the way of …well she went away.
    i look, and look but cannot find her.
    ask mr. met if he knows where she is…

      1. Re: golly!
        yes, she is lost to history. how quickly we are apt to forget….
        she was my favorite doll in the world. she was a cotton/poly blend, litho-ed and sewn together probably by the japanese; her head the size of mr. met, but with met-orange hair, done in a flip ala jane-his-wife-jetson, she wore a little stirped mini (or maybe it was mets-blue?)…anyway i loved ehr. but she was relegated to the basement nonetheless. when my parents were moving from their house and we came to collect our childhood stuff, i asked where lady met went: my mother had thrown her out years before – she had mildewed. mildew washes out, i sulked. i search for her still, in flea markets, on ebay, on fan sites – even contacted the mets. but did not have time to pursue it lie a true fanatic, (as seen below, a pixie of a pixiehead at age 8, in camp, wearing a faded mets tee, the mets-blue sleeves washed away to purple…)

        if you ever find her, please mr. eyez, please…do a girl a favor and let me know!

        1. Re: golly!
          what a poignant story… and a cute pixie-pic!
          (why is it always the moms who throw away the old comics and toys? actually, my dad did it once, to my old comics…)

  2. It would be so much cooler, though, wouldn’t it, if he disappears forever, leaving nothing but a few random samples of his art behind…
    I’ve had that guilty thought so many times about some artists…

      1. Heavens no! Usually, like with your…”opportunity”…some weird local artist whose stuff is so freaktacularly freaktacular that you kinda wish they would go homeless, alcoholic, and crazy and then their work gets discovered and you have a bunch of stuff you bought for sixty bucks total…

  3. Good stuff! Thanks for posting it.
    I too fell in love with the work of Rousseau on a high school field trip to NY (from DC). Mad props to Henri!

    1. ha! i wonder if we were there at MoMA at the same time, standing mouths agape in front of “The Sleeping Gypsy”!
      btw, as i feared/hoped, Tomlinson was nowhere to be found when i went back to his spot last Friday…

    1. Hey Frederic, No, I haven’t run across Williamson or his work since that day back in 2006… Let me know if you track him down.

      And thanks for your interest in Titans of Finance! (FYI, it’s also available—in color!—for the iPad and other tablet devices…)


  4. Right on! I have sat in a room of Williamson’s for years now. He used to be around Chelsea a number of years ago and would move his table regularly. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen him. He always had a big Slurpee type of cup that he’d fill with booze, so my guess is that he was an alcoholic. I struck up conversations with him from time to time and the last I saw him he said somebody had discovered his work and was going to be exhibiting it in a gallery. And then poof he disappeared. He told me that he lived on the UWS and my guess was in one of the old SROs that still existed then. I’ve kept my eye out for him but haven’t had any luck in spotting him. I wondered if the crackdown on unlicensed street vendors was his demise? Another victim of neoliberalism. He’s like a living breathing Toynbee Tile, a NYC street mystery that needs solving.

    1. Thanks, Greg, for more info about our very own NYC Rousseau. Hope he’s doing well, wherever he is (especially with this polar vortex shit hitting the streets every other day).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *