Evan Williams highlights Black resilience in the face of oppression

For a new exhibit on display at Two Truths, the Columbus artist created a series of portraits based around historical mugshots of Black freedom fighters

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Portraits by Evan Williams

When Evan Williams first hit on an idea for a new series of portraits, he did something out of the ordinary: He told people about it.

“I held myself accountable by letting the cat out of the bag,” said Williams, who usually works siloed off from the public, releasing his exaggerated portraits as they’re completed. “With this one, I knew how daunting it was going to be … and I wanted to make sure I followed through. Telling other people was a means of keeping me focused and accountable."

Williams traced the concept for his new series — “The Cost of Freedom,” which is on display now at Two Truths in the Short North — back to the resurgent Black lives matter protests that swept through Columbus beginning in May 2020, a period that caused the artist to reflect on how he could best make his voice heard within the movement in ways that felt natural and true. Over time, Williams kept returning to the idea of creating a series of works centered on Civil Rights pioneers, including some household names (Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Davis, Nelson Mandela) but largely focused on those figures the artist viewed as overlooked, including James Farmer and Stokely Carmichael, among others.

“Growing up, whenever you think about Black History Month, they always talk about the same three names: Martin Luther King, Jr., and then maybe a little bit of Malcolm X and Rosa Parks,” Williams said. “I wanted to create something that captured the full depth and gravity of the movement, which was more than just three people. They’re the primary faces of the movement, but there were people who supported them, and who were there before them and after them, and I wanted to put that stark reality out there in people’s faces.”

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

Rather than capturing what could be considered a personal high point for each person, Williams opted to recreate mugshots taken of each individual, which served myriad purposes. First, it centered the idea that the fight for social justice can come at a great personal cost. Second and perhaps most importantly, Williams said the images relayed a universal resilience in the face of state violence and persecution.

“They had that resolve, and they believed in what they were fighting for,” said Williams, who spent nearly three months crafting the portraits beginning in early November. “Even in the mugshots themselves, it shows, and all I was trying to do was to translate that over, utilizing my style, to make sure that impact was felt. … They did most of the work for me. They held their resolve in that moment, and then I just captured what I saw.”

Williams said he carried the weight of this history into the project, which challenged him in many ways, down to how he could apply his signature style while maintaining the integrity of the source material. In his work, Williams adopts elements of caricature, playing with features such as hand size, which the artist described as intrinsically linked to the quality of the soul. “I give people big hands on purpose if I get the vibe from them that they’re a good person,” he told Alive in January 2021

With the mugshots, however, the hands generally weren’t visible, which led Williams to focus on aspects such as facial features and head shape, but primarily the eyes, which he described as essential to capturing “each person’s sacrifice and pain.”

“I wanted to make sure the eyes had that impact,” Williams said, "where they’re looking at you and you’re looking at them, to where you’re almost building a connection.”

It’s a connection that has deepened for the artist in the time since he first conceived of the collection, and which has intensified his desire to use his particular skill set to advance the messaging of these pioneering figures. 

“I’ve been living with [these images] since November, doing research, reading stories, and it just takes your breath away,” Williams said. “They did all of that for me to even have the ability to do this. And that sits with you. And makes you want to pay it forward.”