Seeing familiar sights in a new way through an artist’s eyes

KNOX — Most of our readers know John R. Williams because of the stories he tells each week as the scribe for the Old Men of the Mountain. He uses a gentle wit and unpretentious wisdom to teach us a thing or two and make us smile as he writes about the OFs’ weekly breakfasts.

Williams also tells stories with his paintbrush. We can learn from them, too.

Williams paints every day. Five years ago, he had his first solo art show at the age of 71. Next Saturday Sept. 26, he’s having his second one. Like the first, it will be at his church, the Reformed Church on Route 156 in the hamlet of Knox.

Williams told us before his first show that he paints every day because he has to.

“Most of the time,” he said, “whether I am walking down the road, or driving, or just out in the backyard, it is like I am in a living painting, and would like to capture it.”

He has painted in a variety of styles and mediums. But the common thread is his personal involvement with his subjects.

His 2009 art show will feature places he has been, many of them familiar to our readers. A typed description will be mounted next to each painting, letting the viewer know what it is about.

Those who visit the exhibit will see familiar sights — like the Schoharie bridge, or Carl Slater’s tractor, or cows at the Cobleskill fair — through an artists eyes.

The girl at the Sunshine Fair is lying comfortably on her cow with the cow’s ear in her hand. “You can see the cow is a pet,” said Williams.

Williams, who has taught a popular art course in Bethlehem for more than three decades, will also display an oil painting he recently completed while teaching a plein air course; it depicts an American flag gently waving in the breeze.

Some of his paintings picture familiar faces, like 92-year-old Wally Quay Sr. on his front porch.

Several of the paintings displayed in the Knox Reformed Church document activities at the church itself. In one, kids are painting a pirate scene for the youth carnival. In another, Wally Quay Jr. and Cindy Quay are straining gravy, preparing for the annual Election Day chicken supper — a 93-year tradition. In a third, Williams’s wife, Marlene, makes an appearance. She has been in his paintings since her days as his Schoharie High School sweetheart. In this painting, she and Karen Edson are behind the craft table at the church.

Williams himself makes an appearance, standing in front of an old steam tractor at the gas-up in Gallupville.

Haunting tale

Many of the paintings come with a story, which will be displayed alongside the artwork. One such story involves Jacob Van Aernam, Revolutionary war hero, and his barn, still standing on Brandle Road, just outside of Altamont.

“As you study this painting, look closely at the barn,” says Williams’s description, “and you will see a black man waving to Jacob Van Aernam as he stands with his horse in front of the cemetery.”

The woman who commissioned the painting asked Williams to depict Van Aernam, riding his horse along Brandle Road past his barn.

“My wife and I went to the location so I could make some sketches, and take pictures of the barn,” Williams goes on. “Off in the woods, I found an old cemetery covered with weeds and looked at some of the gravestones. I uncovered one stone that had fallen down and was covered with grass and weeds. The stone was of Jacob Van Aernam.

“Then I went to take pictures of the barn and saw a figure in front of the barn, but there really was no figure there. After taking the pictures, I went to the car and told my wife there was someone there at the barn and we went home.

Back home in Knox, Williams started a full-size sketch of the painting. It was nothing like what the customer wanted.

“Jacob was off the horse; there was a cemetery much like the one in the woods, which I painted with a stone missing. Jacob was waving to a black man who was waving back,” recalls Williams. “I called the customer and asked if she would please come and look at the full-size sketch before I proceeded any further.

“When the customer looked at the sketch, she just stood there and said nothing with a rather stunned look, and I thought, ‘Uh-oh, she doesn’t like it.’

“Then she said, ‘How did you know that? Jacob had a black slave named Sam who, during an attack on his farm, saved his life.’

“I knew nothing about this, but did get the presence of a person at the barn and he was black. So the painting remained as you see it.”


John Williams’s art show at the Knox Reformed Church, on Route 156 in the hamlet of Knox, opens with a reception on Friday, Sept. 25, from 5 to 8 p.m. The show continues on Saturday, Sept. 26, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Both events are free and open to the public.

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