“Deep Sea: Drawings by William O. Golding” to Open at the Morris Museum of Art

“Deep Sea: Drawings by William O. Golding”, an exhibition of twenty-nine remarkable maritime drawings by self-taught African-American artist William O. Golding (1874–1943), opens to the public December 12, at the Morris Museum of Art. Shanghaied from the Savannah waterfront when he was eight years old, William O. Golding chronicled his travels world-wide through drawings that he created near the end of his life while a patient at the U.S. Marine Hospital in Savannah. Between 1932 and 1939, he executed approximately sixty drawings, literally drawn from his memories of the ships on which he sailed and the ports he visited around the globe.

“Golding’s is a remarkable story of a remarkable life, most of which was spent as a merchant seaman at the very end of the Age of Sail. He traveled the world at a time when most Americans spent their entire lives within fifty miles of their place of birth, and he had the innate ability to share, with stylistic verve and wit, a life’s experience that was so rare and unusual as to be, for all practical purposes, unique,” said Kevin Grogan, director of the Morris Museum of Art.

“Deep Sea: Drawings by William O. Golding” remains on display through March 14, 2010.

William O. Golding was likely born on January 15, 1874, but his future was determined on July 15, 1882. In a letter he wrote in 1932 to Margaret Stiles, the recreation director at the U.S. Marine Hospital in Savannah, Georgia, and a member of the Savannah Art Club, he recalled the day that he and his cousin were strolling along the wharf in Savannah. According to Golding, the two boys passed the ship Wandering Jew and overheard Captain William Potter ask his wife, Polly, to select one of the boys. She chose Golding, who was invited aboard; by the time he wanted to leave, the ship was already out at sea. He did not see his home again until a brief visit in 1904.

When he was in his fifties, Golding, whose nickname was “Deep Sea”, returned permanently to Savannah , when his declining health forced him to remain on land. During the 1930s he was a patient intermittently at the U.S. Marine Hospital, where he received treatment for a chronic lung condition. (The hospital, which accepted seamen, veterans, and government employees, recorded his birth date as January 15, 1874.) During his time at the hospital, Golding was befriended by Miss Margaret Stiles, the facility’s recreation director. She encouraged him to draw and supplied the necessary paper, pencils, and crayons that he used to create the works of art inspired by his peripatetic life. Stiles bought some of his finished drawings and arranged for the sale of others.

There are few details known of the forty-nine years that Golding spent at sea beyond those provided by the drawings themselves. By his own account, he sailed the Seven Seas on a variety of vessels—merchant ships, whalers, and yachts. His duties aboard ship and the length of time he was associated with each vessel remain unknown. When he was fifty-nine, Golding stated in a letter to his patron, Miss Stiles, that he still sailed in his dreams—he wrote, “now [I] only goes to sea in my sleep…”—and met his cronies (“other old shell backs”) to swap yarns.

Golding executed all his drawings from memory. His sometimes fanciful drawings of ships are meticulously detailed, and they often include specific information regarding captains or ports of origin. Port cities often appear similar at first glance, but careful observation reveals that Golding included distinctive topographical characteristics of the land and architectural details of the cities themselves. Certain stylistic elements—including flags, buoys, lighthouses, smaller vessels, people, animals, and a sun with triangularly pointed rays beckoning from behind a cloud—appear frequently in Golding ‘ s work. As he diligently recorded his life in his drawings, he seems to have recalled only the happiest of times. The weather is always favorable, and the people, animals, and vessels are busy, robust, and productive.

Golding stated that he had traveled the world, including visits to Africa, Asia, Australia, Central and South America, and Europe. He was adamant about drawing only the places and vessels that he knew personally and refused to draw Bali or Hawaii, since he had not seen either place.

Copying a technique found in marine prints, he carefully colored in a frame and a nameplate (sometimes complete with drawn screw heads) at the bottom center of the work.

Information concerning Golding’ s final years is also scarce. He is listed as a resident of Savannah with his wife, Josephine, in the 1940 city directory. He died there on August 25, 1943.

Although it is not known now how Stiles exhibited Golding’ s drawings, several exhibitions of his work were mounted after his death. His drawings were included in the landmark exhibition “Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art, 1770-1976”, which traveled from the Atlanta History Center to the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah to the Columbus (Georgia) Museum. In 2000, the Telfair Museum of Art organized a retrospective exhibition, “Hard Knocks, Hardship, and a Lot of Experience: The Maritime Art of William O. Golding”, and the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta exhibited his work the following year in Maritime Memories. Golding’ s work is found in the permanent collections of the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens and the Morris Museum of Art, which holds thirty of his drawings—nearly half his total output.

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