City loses grass-roots artist, mentor Joe Williams

This Just In...

January 07, 2000|By Dan Rodricks

THIS IS the story I never got to -- Joe Williams, visionary artist, sculptor, eccentric, musician, poet, stagehand, disc jockey, cabinetmaker, mentor, teacher, social worker without portfolio, lover, friend, sailor, restorer of antiques, dreamer, spiritualist, follower of the Tao, aficionado of the Lindbergh kidnapping, gadget collector, once and forever carnival man. I was supposed to visit him last month, to learn more about his efforts to teach at-risk, inner-city kids how to refinish furniture and make cabinets. I didn't get there in time.

"Things happen when they are supposed to happen. . . and that's coming from a mother's heart."

Millie O'Dea said that yesterday as she began to speak, over the phone from her house in Greenbelt, of her 43-year-old son's death. Joe Williams took his life last week at his home and studio on East Baltimore Street, near the Shot Tower, and you can find scattered throughout Baltimore, particularly between Fells Point and Sandtown-Winchester, people who are deeply shocked and heartbroken.

I have a feeling Baltimore has lost a grass-roots hero. Here was a man of diverse talents and interests, inspired to help young people even as he struggled to build his own business. His Atelier Project was Joe's company -- cabinetmaking, woodworking, restoration -- but it was also his experiment. He opened the place to apprentices several years ago. Teach young people a craft, he believed, and they would never want for work again.

"He was a young man who had visions," said his mother. "His vision was in his art, but more so his vision was in people."

"He said he saw the craftsman in me," said Corell McQueen, a 17-year-old who'd dropped out of Northwestern High School and seemed to have lost his way until he walked into the Atelier Project last summer. "Joe trained me. He was a good teacher. I was just with him the other day."

McQueen, at home in Northwest Baltimore, hasn't found another job yet. He'd like to be a carpenter.

"I'm a carpenter, and Joe was showing me cabinetry," said Albert Edelenbos, who was with his friend the night before he died. "I met him at Parker's [Tavern, Eastern Avenue] when he was remodeling and doing the mural there, and we developed a strong friendship. . . . Things were just picking up for his business. He was making a big push with a lot of big contracts. He was close to pushing over the top."

J. Williams -- his signature as an artist -- made or restored some of the fine woodwork in Weber's of Boston Street, Kooper's Tavern of Thames Street, and Simon's Pub of Fairmount Avenue.

When a parishioner gave a metal processional cross from Ethiopia to St. Vincent de Paul Church on Front Street, Joe enthusiastically agreed to make the staff for it. "He did research," said the Rev. Richard Lawrence, the pastor. "He found out which wood is native to Ethiopia and imported it. He [shaped] the wood with a broken bottle instead of a modern lathe, because that's the traditional way of doing it. That's how it would have been made by an Ethiopian craftsman."

Lawrence used the staff and cross at Joe's funeral the other day.

"He built a bookcase for our Maine home," said Sharon Bondroff, a former Fells Pointer who last year moved north with Steve Bunker, legendary trader in nautical antiques. "Bunker and I used to joke about [Joe's] need to put his personal touch on the things he made, some kind of geegaw or curlicue, even when he had strict orders to do something a certain way. It was the artist in him."

Joe Williams painted a series of Dr. Seuss-inspired murals in the second-floor unit at Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital.

"He was always sketching something," said Brent Schwab, a boyhood friend who ran off and joined the carnival with Joe when they were teen-agers in Prince George's County. "We did it for seven years, working as carnies, setting up rides. We'd winter in Florida, live in trailers."

Joe Williams' biography, posted on a Web site for the Atelier Project, mentions a "Kerouac-like lifestyle that left him well-experienced in both life and all-controlling hedonism by his early 20s."

He developed interests in an array of subjects, including carpentry and sound engineering. For a while he was a disc jockey. He helped promote bands. He painted and created abstract sculptures, read regularly from the Tao and shared its wisdom with friends. He had a shop in Canton, then the larger studio on East Baltimore Street. "And he lived on Oreos and chocolate milk, my friend," says Schwab.

"He was the most talented person I'd ever met," said Keli Lopes, a writer and graphic artist who designed the Web site for Atelier. "He wrote songs. He played the guitar. He played an outstanding flute. He was a self-taught artist, a true visionary."

And he lived with The Beast.

"He used to talk about `The Beast,' " Lopes said. "It was present when he was drinking, but I think The Beast was present when he wasn't drinking, too. He was always battling alcohol."

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