by Len Lear
“I hit midlife and realized that 9 to 5 is not for everybody. I felt something was missing. All my life I was drawing people, and they’d say, ‘This is great!’ I even sold a few paintings but never thought art was something that could pay the bills. It was just a hobby. Fear of the unknown kept me from pursuing it full-time. I always had an excuse. ‘If I paint for a living, what would I do to relax?’ It would be work, not fun. I never thought it could possibly be work and fun at the same time.
“But now I get up at 4 or 5 a.m. to paint. Then I come here and paint and then go home and paint. I’ll go to sleep in my studio and wake up and paint. Or I may even get up at 2 a.m. and paint and then go back to sleep.”
When Shannon Williams, 41, is not painting, you can find him at The Spice Rack, 8428 Germantown Ave., which is owned by family members. (It had opened in May, 2017, across the street at 8431 Germantown Ave., but last November, they moved into the more spacious location at 8428, which had last housed a travel agency.)
Williams was brought to our attention by a reader who saw his work in a show May 17 to 19 at the Ambler Art Center, where he was awarded a major prize. “A woman from the Ambler Art Center had come here asking for a donation from the store,” he said. “When she saw my paintings on the walls and found out I was an artist, she suggested that I enter their show, so I did.”
Williams had a long road to travel before getting serious about his art. He grew up in Washington, D.C., but at age 15 was sent to Andover, Massachusetts, to be with relatives because “Washington was too dangerous at that time.” After high school, he started working as a dishwasher in a restaurant, then became a prep cook, then on the fry station, then on the grille, then sauté and then kitchen manager in a different restaurant in New Hampshire, just across the state line. Williams spent eight years working in the restaurant business but left it because “the money is bad, the hours are bad, and there are no ‘attaboys.’”
Williams then became a general laborer, doing road work with a big contracting firm, then a pipe layer, then a pipe foreman and then a superintendent. More than 13 years overall in construction. At that point he was divorced after 14 years of marriage with a son who is now 13. “I was 6 feet tall, 265 pounds then, three years ago. Now I’m 200 pounds. That’s from a change in my diet. Very little red meat. Eighty percent of what I eat now is fruits and vegetables.”
Three years ago, Williams got a job building educational, high-end playgrounds around the country out of New Hampshire wood. After one and a half years of that, he moved to Greensboro, NC, because his mom and brother were there. That’s when he started painting again, but when he came to Philadelphia (he now lives in Chestnut Hill) one and a half years ago, he got the injection of enthusiasm he really needed.
He met Voltaire Blain, a native of Haiti and owner of Style by Blain, 8433 Germantown Ave., who was so impressed with his work that he commissioned Williams to do a painting for his shoe store.
“He wanted a peacock,” said Williams, “but I have an infatuation with rhinos. So for Voltaire, I painted a rhino holding a cigar.”
The whimsical piece that makes shoe customers smile has become quite the conversation piece.
“I love his work,” said Voltaire. “People are always commenting about the rhino. I have commissioned Williams to create two more paintings for the shoe store – a peacock holding a cocktail (Scotch) and a rottweiler holding a shoe that I designed.”
“The rhino was my first oil painting,” said Williams, who had previously worked in acrylics. “Oil is a medium kids are steered away from. It is time-consuming. Kids don’t have the patience. Kids are given pastels, water paint and acrylics. Oil is considered like punishment for a child … I wasn’t as adamant about painting then as now. Voltaire woke me up.”
The self-taught artist donated a spectacular painting of dancers to the Black & White Gala last year and has sold some paintings that were hanging on the walls at Spice Rack.
“In the past I did not want to tell people I was a painter,” he said. “I didn’t want to expose myself. I was never taught to embrace my art. I’m not competitive. I get down on myself. My brother still has a drawing I did when I was in 6th grade and he was in 11th, and he still cannot believe I did it.
“I have a photographic memory. I never use photo references when I paint. Trying to recreate photos in painting drives me insane. I always think some detail is not right. It’s much better for me to draw things from memory. I cannot do still life. I would obsess over the picture and mess it up. I have painted deceased people from photos, and they are good but not great. Every artist struggles with ‘I’m done.’ You overdo it, redo it. Think too much. Most of my paintings have paintings under them that I redid.”
Regarding the Spice Rack, which is open seven days a week, Williams said, “We support other small businesses. We go to visit the vendors and check out their products. At least 70 percent of the products we carry are made locally. For example, a West Philly lady makes the granola and brings it here. The peanut butter guy in Souderton makes it and brings it here. Being made locally makes a big difference.”
For more information, visit PhillySpiceRack.com or call 215-274-0100.