More on Willie’s Art

Willie French Lowery’s art reflects his heritage as a member of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina, and many of his paintings have a story behind them.

After a long and successful career as a musician, Willie French Lowery faced a challenge that threatened to rob him of the ability to play music when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Art has given him a new outlet for the creativity that has defined his life.

As he took up painting to help him relax, he explains, “I began to fall in love with doing it. I had been a musician all my life and this was another way of showing my creativity.” He began with no real direction, just applying a layer of paint

, looking at it, and then, “like it was a gift” putting down another layer. “I was seeing faces come out of the paint, as though they were saying ‘finish me’.”

“My art came as a surprise to me and to my friends. It was like God’s gift, because I really never thought about painting anything, until I started telling my wife about the past, how I used to make up toys with just my fingers. To me, they were very much alive. So I guess it branched from that, the creativity of painting is not knowing what you’re going to paint, you just jump on it and let creativity be your guide.

When his wife, the historian Malinda Maynor Lowery, took a faculty position at Harvard and they moved to Cambridge, Willie began working with a group led by local artist Kitty Pechet, whom he calls “my greatest encouragement for painting.” She said, “Just paint what you want. All I need for you to do is give me a reason why you want to paint.” What Willie wanted to do was to “build a piece of work where the layers meant something to each other.” Kitty’s encouragement led him to explore other outlets in the Cambridge arts community, which led to a fellowship from the Peabody Museum to design an exhibit around Native American music.

-Written by Nancy Schoonmaker, for Willie’s exhibit at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for the Study of the American South, February-March 2009.

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