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William Rhodes ~ A Visual Artist on a Mission

Updated on November 14, 2016
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I started working in the performing arts industry after attending Colgate University in 1981. My early work was as a personal manager.

William Rhodes

Visual Artist, Educator, Activist
Visual Artist, Educator, Activist

Visual Artist/Educator/Activist, William Rhodes, has taken a unique approach to developing educational programs in our communities through his Quilt and Arts programs.

As an educator, William sees how children are gratified through creating paintings, arts and crafts, that are woven onto quilts to create a tangible display of something they are being taught about in their history.

"The Quilts become a living history for the kids that they feel connected to", William says.

His Nelson Mandela International Quilt project started with his students in the San Francisco elementary school system, and became an exchange program with students in South Africa where children painted and sewed images of Nelson Mandela onto quilts.

The experience reaffirmed William's belief that when you create something with your hands, it elevates your passion when learning about people and events that make up your history.

That Nelson Mandela International Quilt Project began a student exchange program for kids in the San Francisco and South Africa elementary schools that are ongoing. And the exhibit has been made available to Museums, Community Centers, and schools in both the United States and in Africa.

A Visual Artist on a mission now to raise awareness about the cultural experiences in this country that lead people to become homeless is an exploration William has begun with a series of interviews with those who are displaced from their homes.

This article is not an attempt to over simplify the crisis in this country of homelessness, or to simply place the blame on gentrification. There are many layers to this issue on a social economic level, that includes, unemployment, mental health, our penal system, etc.

We are looking specifically at the homeless/gentrification cause in effect as many of the people William Rhodes interviewed have found themselves - many of them for the first time after years of raising a family, or serving their country - homeless.

Gentrification, the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated neighborhoods or in neighborhoods with low property values, by corporations and upper income families and individuals, raising property values but often displacing low income families and small businesses.

One of the alarming by-products of gentrification is homelessness as the Middle Class are pushed more and more into poverty. This is at the very heart of the Out Migration series, where former Corporate Workers, Ex-Soldiers, well educated people in the African American and minority community, now find themselves losing their homes.

According to a 2015 census, the San Francisco Bay area's number of people living below the poverty line was nearly one million at over 800,000 people. The unemployment rate for African Americans in the Bay area is 3 times that of the national average.

Los Angeles is now the number one city in America dealing with homelessness where an alarming number of the city's residents are now living on the streets. African Americans make up approximately half of the Los Angeles County homeless population - disproportionately high compared to the percentage of African Americans in the county overall (about 9 percent).

One of the most popular urban neighborhoods in the South is the Fourth Ward, now known as the Old Fourth Ward. Fourth Ward was home of Dr. Martin Luther King, the epicenter for the Civil Rights Movement, and was once an elegant black neighborhood. Today, Old Fourth Ward is less than 50 percent black and pieces if it’s black history lie in its shadows.

For most of the 20th century, Atlanta was known for its public housing. The very housing projects that were built to aid low income communities have since been demolished. Herndon homes off Northside Drive, was demolished in 2010 and close to 250 families were relocated.

The demographics of Atlanta have changed drastically in the last five years. According to Creative Loafing, Atlanta was named one of the top 10 cities where gentrification is growing the fastest in 2015. The last census showed a 12% dip in the black population in Atlanta.

Much of the change to the look of Old Fourth Ward was orchestrated by Gravel and The Atlanta Belt Line Redevelopment Plan. Adopted in 2005, the municipal revitalize the older in-town neighborhoods and make them attractive to people seeking a more urban setting.

In addition to the Beltline, Ponce City Market was a $180 million project that took six years to come to fruition.

The majority of these changes are not bad for the community, which suggests that gentrification isn’t all bad. In the end, change is inevitable and Old Fourth Ward is one of Atlanta’s most desirable neighborhoods.

However, when you have people criticizing the people who lived there previously for not being able to do things, such as art on the beltline or funding something like Ponce City Market, that require resources, kick them out and then call it an "urban Renaissance" it seems bad.

Gentrification has become, for many African Americans, the newest installment of the African Diaspora in every major city across America. As part of the neighborhood revitalization process, maybe we should look at the questions. What kinds of neighborhoods we want to create? How do we preserve and expand affordable housing? How do we improve neighborhood while including the existing residents?

Those are the kinds of questions that could go a long way to stemming the tide of rising homelessness and displacement.

As an artist William had to find a way to communicate my frustration with these problems. William then went out in the community and talked to people about these changes. These conversations led to a series of interviews with homeless residents.

After the completion of the interviews he began to make art that reflected these conversations. From this, he created a series of works entitled; “The Out Migration Series”. These works are made from various old suitcases which are weathered and travel-worn. Upon opening the suit cases, instead of an empty shell, the inside reveals a shrine.

"Each suit case contains the personal history of the people I interviewed. I chose to interpret their stories by using materials such as; found objects, wood, paint and neon glass."

The people that were interviewed had a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. These are people that have family roots that run deep in their communities. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons they are now homeless. These residences are Mothers, Fathers, and former teachers. Some even served in the armed forces. Through their life stories William felt a strong connection to them. They became like old friends and family for him.

"I like to begin my interviews with the question: What does the concept of home mean to you?" says William. Everyone made it clear to me that home is not just a place. It can be something you carry with you wherever you go. Home is inside your heart, mind and through memory. Some of those memories were items that my interviewees kept inside of their rolling suit cases.

These suitcases were filled with photos and personal belongings. "It amazed me how spiritual and grateful these people were beyond their material despair. I wondered how you can stay positive and optimistic with no physical place to call home. Just talking to them made me aware of how much I take for granted. After my interviews I not only thought of each person as a friend but, in some ways my neighborhood Saint."

Similar to Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden; who created art works that documented the great Black migration from the South to the North; William's work illustrates an opposite transition.

The Out Migration series also asks the questions: Where do Black people go now? Who is waiting for us in this new location? How do we find value in our community? What is the new definition of a Black community?

The Interviews

The following interviewees’ names have been changed to protect their identity.

The Father

When I interviewed, John, he talked about feeling blessed to be alive and praising God. John
seemed like the classic Dad. I could hear the stability in his voice.

John is originally from Illinois. He moved to Oakland over 40 years ago. Now he lives in San
Francisco. John has been on the street for more than 5 years. He is a father, grandfather and
shoemaker. He was a married man. His wife died 24years ago. He doesn’t know where his
children live. John also referred to his kids as a little crazy. One day they just stop communicating with him.

John lost his home and business. Soon after that he had to live in his truck. He worked odd jobs
here and there to keep things going.

One day when John went to work and he came back to the parking lot where he parked his truck; it was gone. It got towed away by the city. Unfortunately, he did not earn enough money to get it back. He also had several unpaid tickets. John told me that it took a long time to get over the loss of his truck. His whole life was inside that truck. After that he began staying in shelters. But living in a shelter can be rough. It is like going to prison. It became easier for him to live on the street. John would just find a quiet place to sleep under a tree. He got a tarp and rain jacket to keep warm. He prefers to be alone without any complications from other people. John told me that he doesn’t like thinking about the future. He is just thankful for what blessings he has.

The Mother

Tina admits that she lives in a shelter and on the street. She has a lot of pride and doesn’t like to take handouts. She likes to go to the library early in the morning. She told me how she loves to read and how she can finish an entire book in one day.

All of her life Tina wanted to be a Mother. She was a good Mother. She took care of her kids and Tina used to have a pretty little house. She had a cute back yard with a garden. She had two daughters and a son. Unfortunately, her son got killed 10 years ago. He was shot 16 times. Tina told me how she got a call at night and someone told her he was killed. After that she could never answer the phone at night.

Tina showed me her son’s picture in her suitcase. She said to he, isn’t he a beautiful boy? She
carries him with her everywhere she goes. Tina shared with me a story of when her son was a
little boy and she used to take him with her to work. She worked in a restaurant and her son
wanted to help her cook. Tina’s son wanted to help his Mother do everything. He liked work more than school. Tina describes her son as always helping other people and working hard until he was taken away.

Tina said to me several times; “I know I will be with him again soon. I just keep praying and
trust in God”.

The Soldier

Man was very charismatic like a great stage performer. He could make his voice get soft or deep depending on his choice of words. He had style regardless of his current circumstances.

He explained to me that his real name is Man. It was given to him at birth by his parents. His
Father told him that they choose that name because they got tired of hearing White people
referring to Black men as boys.

Man was born in Arkansas and then he moved here in 1958. He went to high school in the city.
After high school he joined the service and served in Vietnam. He worked as a Military police
and made the rank of Sargent.

Man told me in a deep voice that his life got harder after the war. He explained that he lost his
wife and family once he came back to the USA. He felt like his life has been like a war and
sometimes he doesn’t know if he would ever win.

Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it

— Edmund Burke

Quilt project teaches about Nelson Mandela

The Nelson Mandela International Quilt Project

I communicate my stories of the world through my visual language.

— William Rhodes
A close up of the Carved Mermaid, a actual cabinet and mirror pieces are unique.
A close up of the Carved Mermaid, a actual cabinet and mirror pieces are unique.

William Rhodes' Hand Crafted Pieces

All of William's art pieces are handcrafted originals from wood finished dresser drawers, to full sized Armoires, and mirrored center pieces, and paintings.

Unique Cabinet

"Mermaid Cabinet"; Carved wood, paint
"Mermaid Cabinet"; Carved wood, paint

William and his Hand Crafted Works of Art

"African Throne"; Carved wood and paint; 30in x24in x 17in. Carved Wood Chair (Three Quarter View)
"African Throne"; Carved wood and paint; 30in x24in x 17in. Carved Wood Chair (Three Quarter View)
"Been Around the World"; Carved wood, mirror,glass and gold leaf; 33in x 33in x 10in.
"Been Around the World"; Carved wood, mirror,glass and gold leaf; 33in x 33in x 10in.
 "Dance of Innovation"; Carved wood, mirror,glass and gold leaf; 60in x 32in x 5in.
"Dance of Innovation"; Carved wood, mirror,glass and gold leaf; 60in x 32in x 5in.
"Dance of Innovation"; Detail
"Dance of Innovation"; Detail
"GOD"; Carved Wood, Mirror, Glass and Gold leaf; 20in x 10in x 7in.
"GOD"; Carved Wood, Mirror, Glass and Gold leaf; 20in x 10in x 7in.
Neptune in Pisces; Paint, bronze powder and gold leaf on canvas; 6ft x 5ftx 2in.
Neptune in Pisces; Paint, bronze powder and gold leaf on canvas; 6ft x 5ftx 2in.
"African Mask"; Plastic forks, spoons, knives and paint; 12.5in x 9in x 9in.
"African Mask"; Plastic forks, spoons, knives and paint; 12.5in x 9in x 9in.
"Chiwara"; Carved wood, mirror, glass, paint and gold leaf; 3.5ft x 1.5ft x 4in.
"Chiwara"; Carved wood, mirror, glass, paint and gold leaf; 3.5ft x 1.5ft x 4in.
"Lion Head"; Plastic forks, spoons, knives, paint and mirror; 21in x 11in x 8in.
"Lion Head"; Plastic forks, spoons, knives, paint and mirror; 21in x 11in x 8in.
Hailing from Baltimore, William's Asian influences in his work is a result of having lived in San Francisco for so many years.
Hailing from Baltimore, William's Asian influences in his work is a result of having lived in San Francisco for so many years.
William showing some of his hand crafted Masks and wall pieces.
William showing some of his hand crafted Masks and wall pieces.
William had the honor of exhibiting his art for the Martin Luther King Center 2016 Salute to Greatness Art Auction.
William had the honor of exhibiting his art for the Martin Luther King Center 2016 Salute to Greatness Art Auction.
William at home surrounded by his work.
William at home surrounded by his work.

More About William ~ Man/Artist/Activist

William Rhodes is on a mission for illumination.
William Rhodes is on a mission for illumination.


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    • profile image

      William Rhodes 20 months ago

      Thank you all for your wonderful comments and support.

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      Delrene Thompson 21 months ago

      I had the pleasure of meeting William Rhodes while he lived in Baltimore. I was very impressed by his work and continued to follow him throughout his move to San Francisco. His work is very unique and inspiring because it consists of many different forms that helps create an interest in the art form to people that never shared an interest in art before. Keep inspiring others.

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      Abby Nixon 21 months ago

      Compelling stories in your interviews. I know all of them and I see all of me. As far as artistic approach, my teacher from grammar school scolded me for drawing and not paying attention. The next day she asked me to remain in class at lunch and after showing my art to her girlfriends the night before who praised my abilities; she offered to get me a scholarship to the Chicago Art Institute.

      It opened a new world to me, not that my world was bad but it triggered options beyond the mundane that I had to carry for many years surrounding homelessness especially in San Francisco where I seen the abundance of the dismantling African-American families, communities, self-worth. It was as if they didn't exist except for the occasional choir performances of Glide Memorial.

      Your approach is your strength and is symbolic through the creation of quilts. Through many pieces makes one providing comfort and warmth. A course, I see greater challenges which require multiple approaches because your interviewees are becoming the common hidden face everywhere in the US.

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      Cedric Harris 21 months ago

      A blend of artistic textures using photographs and sculptures with other three dimensional objects focused on a soulful context is so very moving and shows gratitude for our journeys and life experiences ... Thank you!

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      Michael Ross 21 months ago

      This is truly inspiring.

      The creative vision shown here reminds us that we can make a place for

      art in every aspect of our lives and our communities at all times.

      Well done William Rhodes! Much continued success to you.

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      Harrison Love 21 months ago

      I have had the pleasure of seeing William Rhodes work in many series over the past three years. Rhodes' work has brought vitality to the suffering art scene of Northern California during a tough time when artists were being displaced by rising rent and the high cost of living.

      William Rhodes is a true American artist tackling issues of racial inequality and the separation of the informed and fearful from the powerful and inept.

      Thank you William for remaining a steadfast pilar of our artistic society!

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      Melonie 21 months ago


      Well deserved. I truly love the depth of your work and your courage to take on various social justice conversations in your work. I love that you keep Africa, African American and blackness present in much of your work.

      You are a true craftsman, artist and educator.

      Wonderful article!

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      Kwalin 21 months ago

      Peace Brother Rhodes. Thanks for sharing your write-up. The stories are felt, and your Out-Migration pieces capture the essence of the epidemic of Black displacement and homelessness. Your vision and creative works are greatly appreciated.

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      Nobantu Ankoanda 21 months ago

      Amazing Art. Amazing Stories of the Homeless. We just never know what these people have been through. Thank you for taking the time to interview them. When you come back to Atlanta I would like to introduce you to a brother from the African Continent who was homeless for many years and self taught himselft film making skills and produced a documentary on the homeless people in Atlanta called Food, Shelter, and Clothing.

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      Joseph J. Soulamon 21 months ago

      Very informative and well written article Robert. You managed to capture William in a light I was unaware of and as a result, I have come to respect him and his work even more.

      We need more socially active, enlightened and involved artists that not only have the ability to reflect the greater community in their work but also engage the very people who make up "the easily forgotten" in our society.

      Keep up the good work William and thank you for your powerful words Robert.

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      Joan A. Wright 21 months ago

      Hope is like the sun, which, as we journey toward it, casts the shadow of our burden behind us.

      Samuel Smiles

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      Mark Harris 21 months ago

      Great article and great work on bringing the quilt project to life! Giving children the experience of creating something in collaboration with other children from a different part of the world is something they will never forget.

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      William Rhodes 21 months ago

      Wow Robert, this article is wonderful! Thanks so much for taking the time to write about my artist projects and visions.

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      m_kirk 21 months ago


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      Virginia Jourdan 21 months ago

      Awesome work and very inspiring! Congratulations on such an excellent work.

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      Christopher Kojzar 21 months ago

      I never realized the scope of your work. The visual art is so intriguing. And the project digs deep into the cracks of our society. Keep researching

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      CA Guest 21 months ago

      Inspiring. This artist's focus on social justice and commitment to listening to the voices of the easily-forgotten persons in our society emphasizes the importance of art in American culture. Kudos to Mr. Rhodes for being brave and skilled enough to highlight the experiences of those who don't have a voice. I've followed his art and community projects; I support your work!

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      Cheryl Matta 21 months ago

      Kudos to the young man for his heart, insight, and reminder of a whole segment of society. The article author's writing informative, clear cut, heartbreaking and makes visual easy for the reader to obtain well written. Again kudos to William Rhodes and the work he is doing. Thank You

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      Peng Hong 21 months ago