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LaVon Williams: From UK NCAA title team
to folk artist renown, he finds his true calling

LaVon Williams exhibit at the Kentucky Folk Art Center. (Photo from Folk Art Center)


By Judy Clabes
KyForward editor


Skill with a round ball was the ticket to a college education for LaVon Williams, as it was for many young black men in the 1970s. He was good at it, no doubt. An All-American basketball star at Manual High School in Denver, he was recruited to Joe B. Hall’s University of Kentucky team that became NCAA champions in 1978.


He made life-long friends with some of the storied names in Kentucky basketball – Kyle Macy, Rick Robey, Jack Givens, Freddy Cowans. He loved the game. He earned a sociology degree. He played pro ball in Italy and Japan before returning to make Lexington his home.


Yet, these days, in quiet, retrospective moments, he wonders what he might have done if he had known . . .if someone had suggested art or offered a scholarship to an Art Institute, if times and opportunities had been different.


LaVon Williams. (Photo by Judy Clabes)

LaVon Williams has discovered what was always there, waiting to be freed – his real calling. He is an artist. By definition, a folk artist, self-taught and natural, having an innate, undeniable talent expressing itself in wood.


He paints, too – and really loves to paint. But it’s in wood, in the slow chip, chip, chipping away of slivers and chunks from which emerges incredible, extraordinary images, that he has distinguished himself.


A few years back, a traveling exhibit of his work assembled from private and public collections all around the country by the Kentucky Folks Art Center in Morehead turned into an exhibit of more than 60 works created over a period of 25 years. The Center now owns and permanently displays many of his pieces.


“At a time of transition for folk art in Kentucky, LaVon Williams’ work stands as a signpost for a younger generation of artists and collectors that practically screams, ‘Turn Here!'” says Matt Collinsworth, director of the Kentucky Folk Art Center. “LaVon, while entirely self-taught, is taking us someplace new; his work tells us that folk art need not grow only in a self-imposed and self-contained cultural vacuum. Through LaVon, we find that folk art in Kentucky has finally and thoroughly broken the decades’ long public assignation as only rural and primitive.”


LaVon Williams’ wood sculptures are an exploration of personal and cultural identity. He connected to the medium by heritage and choice. An uncle taught his older brother, Dave, who in turn taught LaVon. But LaVon chose his own way – he uses a mallet and only three chisels, all carpenter tools. He starts with a rough line drawing on paper. Notebooks full of paper. He “draws a lot” every day. He has been drawing all his life, he says, “always drawing.” The drawing is then transferred to a block of wood – and the real artistry begins.


It may become a flat piece to be hung on the wall or a free-standing piece, carved in detail front and back, anchored upright on flat rectangular oak bases.


An example of Williams' artwork. (Photo by Judy Clabes)

Like its maker, the art is multi-dimensional in every way. Son, father, husband, teacher, athlete, human-being, American, African-American, the artist tells stories that resonate with meaning and imagination. Signature large hands and feet, repetitive elements – all ultimately colorful and engaging.


His art comes alive in his studio, a nondescript house on Jefferson Street in Lexington, tucked away in a transitional neighborhood sprinkled with commercial sites and storefront churches. A popular new local brewery can be seen from the front porch. There, after work at Morton Middle School with special needs students, he spends evenings and weekends, keeping the wood dust to himself and immersing himself in a connection to the art. It was there he and his bride Debra, a teacher, first lived and started their family.


How long ago was that? “Forever” ago he says, showing a bashful smile and explaining he doesn’t want to talk “numbers,” lest he get it wrong and land in trouble. He adds with pride in his voice, however, that their oldest daughter, 30, is a social worker in Lexington and their youngest, 20, is a “budding Rhodes scholar” at Brown University.


But the “forever” has a sweet ring to it, coming from a hulk of a man, who still has the big hands of a basketball player – and the deep soul of an artist.


In his studio filled with wood waiting to become things of beauty and hundreds of pieces in various stages of completion, he acknowledges that all of it “is for sale,” though none has been made to sell. He enjoys the art – and having it around. “I’m comfortable with it,” he says.


The comfort factor matters for a shy, introspective guy, still reeling from his older brother’s death, surrounded by his brother’s art and memories of his brother’s teaching. He grew up in a family whose love of art permeated the growing-up – a teacher-father who loved jazz and literature, a nurse-mom, now 83, who is a storyteller (today she tells stories at the library in Denver; LaVon remembers her storytelling filling the evenings when there was no TV in their home); sisters who are dancers and actresses – and a young niece who is making the rounds of NYC clubs as a jazz singer, headed for fame.


Alone in his workplace his artistry emerges, chip by chip. In the company only of his wood and his thoughts, he is preparing pieces for the upcoming Kentucky Crafted: The Market, March 1 – 3 at the Lexington Convention Center.


He finally found his place, after a so-journ with basketball and success as an athlete. It was there, waiting to be found. In the discovery, LaVon Williams has also found joy and comfort – and solace. Art, he now knows, is what he was made for.


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