From pencil holders to comics—Intuit brings the fantastical work of Charles Williams to Chicago

November 19, 2021

From pencil holders to comics—Intuit brings the fantastical work of Charles Williams to Chicago

Photograph of a pencil holder sculpture with various colored pencils and other objects stuck inside
Charles Williams (American, 1942-1998). Untitled (Pencil Holder), 1997. Mixed media, 18 x 19 x 15 in. Collection of Shane Akeroyd.

Press preview: December 9, 2021, 4–5 p.m.
Exhibition on view: December 10, 2021–April 24, 2022
Opening reception: December 10, 2021, 5–8 p.m.

November 19, 2021—CHICAGO—The Life and Death of Charles Williams, an exhibition featuring a breadth of work ranging from sculptures to comics by the late artist Charles Williams, stretches across two galleries of Intuit and opens to the public on Friday, December 10. The exhibition is curated by Phillip March Jones, who will present opening remarks at the show’s opening reception.

Born in Blue Diamond, Ky., in 1942, Charles Williams taught himself to draw as a child by copying comic book figures like Superman, Dick Tracy and Captain Marvel. He moved with his mother and great uncle to the south side of Chicago, where he attended James Wadsworth Elementary School. He continued his education until high school, when he left Chicago with his uncle to return to Kentucky. In the early 1960s, Williams enrolled at the Breckinridge Job Corps Center in Morganfield, Ky., where he sharpened his writing skills, made photographs and created his first comic for the Breckinridge Bugle titled JC of the Job Corps. The comic followed the adventures of teens enrolled in the program, addressing immediate problems of finding a job, voting rights and economic opportunity. In 1967, Williams graduated from the Job Corps program “with flying colors” but was unable to find the kind of employment he wanted and accepted a job in the cleaning services of the IBM corporation in Lexington, Ky.

While working as a full-time janitor, Williams further developed his artistic practice. He continued to create comic narratives, including a mini-series about aliens visiting Earth titled Cosmic Giggles. In the series, the aliens observe racism, disease, economic inequality and pollution, among other earthly problems, and decide to leave our planet. Around this time, Williams began to embellish his house and yard by painting trees and cutouts of Mighty Mouse, Batman and others. He also built sculptures and pencil holders from materials he found at IBM, including discarded writing utensils and melted plastics. He described his pencil holders: “Plastic melts off the machine and it takes certain forms when it hits the floor. It becomes solid with weird shapes. I put them on a stand and paint it, keep it in its unique weird stage, and some of them forms looks like an animal’s brain. Makes you think of a brain.”

Williams made assemblages, drawings, furniture and other works of art in various media until his untimely death in 1998, the result of AIDS-related complications and starvation. In death, he became a catalyst for the kind of change for which he advocated in his comics, drawings and sculptures.

“Intuit is excited to partner with Phillip March Jones to bring an artist new to the museum to the fore with an exhibition that explores the range of subject matters and materials with which Williams worked,” said Debra Kerr, president and CEO at Intuit. “He created a complex and expansive body of work, expressing significant themes still relevant in today’s discourse.”

The Life and Death of Charles Williams—curated by Phillip March Jones with contributions by Paul Arnett, Daniel Fuller, FREAKO, Y. Malik Jalal, Frank X. Walker and Melissa Watt—is the first major solo exhibition of Charles Williams’ oeuvre, initially appearing at the Atlanta Contemporary in 2020. The accompanying publication, Cosmic Giggles by Charles Williams, will be available in the Intuit Store during the exhibition, concluding on Sunday, April 24, 2022.


Phillip March Jones is a curator, artist and writer based in New York City. In 2009, Jones founded Institute 193, a nonprofit contemporary art space and publisher in Lexington, Ky. He later served as the inaugural director of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation (Atlanta), director of the Galerie Christian Berst (New York/Paris) and Andrew Edlin Gallery (New York). In 2020, Jones founded MARCH, a public benefit corporation and gallery dedicated to amplifying the voices of under-recognized artists in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood. His photographs and writings have been published by the Jargon Society, Yale University Press, Vanderbilt University Press, Dust-to-Digital, Poem 88 and Parker Gallery, among others.


Founded in 1991, Intuit is a premier museum of outsider and self-taught art, defined as work created by artists who faced marginalization, overcame personal odds to make their artwork, or who did not, or sometimes could not, follow a traditional path of art making, often using materials at hand to realize their artistic vision. By presenting a diversity of artistic voices, Intuit builds a bridge from art to audiences. The museum’s mission—to celebrate the power of outsider art—is grounded in the ethos that powerful art can be found in unexpected places and made by unexpected creators.

Intuit is open 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday and by appointment on Tuesday and Wednesday. For more information, please visit Plan Your Visit.