Steven Troy Williams' artwork is displayed all over the South.
The 39-year-old painter, who recently received his BFA from the University of Memphis, spends most summers in Panama City, Florida, creating custom airbrush work for motorcycle enthusiasts, who pay big bucks for him to spray-paint their fuel tanks with half-naked angels, leering demons, or scenes from the open road.
And for years, he's moonlighted as a T-shirt artist, making wearable memorials, family-reunion souvenirs, and the like at mall-based kiosks in Memphis and New Orleans.
This month, Williams has also had work hanging at the P&H Café, in a show that closed last week, and at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, in a show that runs through January 21st.
"There is a division," he says of the art he creates to make a living and the art he makes to fulfill his creative urge. "It's something I struggle with a lot. Back in school, I didn't tell anyone what I do for a living, because I didn't want that to influence what I wanted to do."
Now, says Williams, "I'm embracing both sides."
According to him, the techniques he employs in each aren't that dissimilar.
"I don't really have a preference. I've drawn and painted my entire life, but I've used the airbrush for a long time as well. I want to cross them both. I've used the airbrush and the paintbrush in some of my paintings that were in the show at the P&H."
Williams' paintings at the Brooks, which hang near sculptures by Christopher Wollard in a collaborative show aptly called "Urban Primitive Works," incorporate Haitian voudou elements with New Orleans folklore and even a bit of Memphis history.
The stumpy, bandage-wrapped figures which loom in the center of Inimitable Mojo and Lisa Marie Laveaux could be a combination of the detailed creatures in self-described "lowbrow" painter Robert Williams' fantasy creations and the tiny, textile-rich Ku Klux Klan dolls that William Christenberry began making in the late 1970s.
Inimitable Mojo depicts Papa Kingi Ba, a Legba-like deity who is represented by a character that looks part Nightmare Before Christmas, part biker gang. In Lisa Marie Laveaux, an ample-bodied woman with wild Medusa locks and a hollow, alien face ethereally hovers over a rough-sketched above-ground cemetery that seems to float atop a gold wash. A tainted brown smudge -- a familiar sight to anyone who's journeyed to post-Katrina New Orleans -- sits waist-high, like a watermark left on buildings by the retreating floods.
Axe in the Attic depicts a goateed Cyclops who sits in a twig nest, axe at the ready, the phrase "Brownie here is doing one heck of a job" scrawled down the center of the canvas. Plumb Voodoo, on the other hand, resembles an ice-blue ace of spades playing card with a fiery face planted dead center. Below, real rusty pipes jut out of the piece.
"The voodoo dolls were a series I started several years ago," explains Williams. "I put 'em aside awhile ago, and then the Brooks approached me.
"It was interesting to pick [the theme] back up after the storm," adds the onetime Crescent City resident who returned to Memphis to finish his degree long before Katrina hit.
"I didn't set out to say anything about Katrina, but I have a lot of friends and family down there who live with [the hurricane's aftermath] daily. Things have been creeping into the paintings, like the axes which people on the Gulf Coast are keeping in their attics."
While the earthy, primitive nature depicted in his paintings and Wollards' sculptures perfectly complement each other, Williams says the duo worked separately, collaborating only on the dream rocket that stands in the center of the Brooks' downstairs gallery. "I did the paint job on that, which was a lot of fun," he says of the eight-foot sculpture that's been transformed into an Easter Island-like monument.
"It was pretty funny, because the museum initially saw [the sculpture] when it was still black," he recalls, explaining that before the installation, someone from the Brooks called to confirm the details of the piece. "I said, 'Oh no, it's not black. I painted it.' They seemed kinda upset, but I spent four days painting that dude!
"It's really flattering," Williams says of his invitation to show at the Brooks. The fact that he had two shows running simultaneously in Memphis, he maintains, is "pure coincidence."
"I'd booked the P&H last winter, and their waiting list is so long that it took until now for my name to come up," he says.