Georgia museum presents largest survey of works by African American outsider artist
An African American outsider artist kidnapped into a life at sea is the center of a new, landmark exhibition at the South’s oldest public art museum.
The Art of William O. Golding: Hard Knocks, Hardships, and Lots of Experience on view through August 28, 2022, at the Jepson Center for the Arts, part of Telfair Museums, in the heart of Savannah, Georgia’s historic district. Golding, the African American son of a Reconstruction Georgia lawmaker, was tricked aboard a sailing vessel as a youth while playing on Savannah’s riverfront in the 1880s. He spent nearly 50 years circling the globe on a variety of sailing and steam ships before returning to the U.S. Marine Hospital in Savannah, where he spent his final years illustrating his experiences from memory in fantastical, detailed scenes of the ports he claimed to have visited throughout his life, from China to the horn of South America. This original exhibition, the largest ever presented of Golding’s work and organized by Telfair curator Harry DeLorme, brings together more than 70 of his drawings for the first time.
“Golding’s story is both an exciting and poignant seagoing tale,” DeLorme said. “His life intersected with major events in world history, and he left his mark in drawings that are chock full of creative invention, personal symbolism, and sailor’s lore. His work reflects his pride of service as a Black seaman in the U.S. Navy during times of war, and he deserves a much larger place in the history of American art.”
Golding’s drawings are held in major collections throughout the United States, including at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the American Folk Art Museum in New York, the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, and the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta. In its permanent collection, Telfair holds 23—almost one-fifth—of the 130 drawings he is thought to have produced in his lifetime.
Golding claimed to have worked aboard “all kinds of ships, from a whaler to a man o’ war,” and his subjects include whalers and warships, as well as merchant vessels and luxury steam yachts of his day, and famous earlier ships from the Age of Sail. His work is idiosyncratic and full of detail, particularly his port scenes filled with waterfront bars and sailors’ boarding houses, churches, civic buildings, and tiny, expressive human figures. His work combines sailors’ lore, fact, fantasy, and personal symbols, including a distinctive sun that resembles a compass rose.
Although Golding had no formal training, late in his life he worked with the materials he had at hand: pencils, crayons, and paper from local dimestores provided by an artist named Margaret Stiles, who volunteered at the U.S. marine hospital and helped the artist sell his work.
Golding never attracted the attention paid to a few other artists of the African American south active in the 1930s and ‘40s, such as Bill Traylor and William Edmondson. Largely forgotten for decades after his death in 1943, Golding’s work was covered in a national art magazine, Art in America, in 1970 and appeared in several exhibitions and folk art survey books. His work is still little known and long overdue for reassessment, both for aesthetic and historical reasons.
The Art of William O. Golding: Hard Knocks, Hardships, and Lots of Experience is funded by a special grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and accompanied by a substantial catalogue, with new research that has yielded surprising details about the artist’s life and work. The Jepson Center is open daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information, visit telfair.org.
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About Telfair Museums
About Telfair Museums: Opened in 1886, Telfair Museums is the oldest public art museum in the South and features a world-class art collection in the heart of Savannah’s National Historic Landmark District. The museum encompasses three sites: the Jepson Center for the Arts, the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters, and the Telfair Academy. For more information visit telfair.org.