This is a sort of Cinderella story, if Cinderella was a 74 year-old man with a penchant for drawing fantastical landscapes, imaginary cars, trains and figures. William Hall may look like a character actor with Santa Claus on his resume, but he harbors an interior life that is far more unique than his appearance suggests. Outwardly there are no clues to imply the fullness of his imagination, nor his impressive talents, yet like the kernel of truth buried within any fable, his story reveals the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity.
William Hall was homeless for seventeen years and for most of those years he lived in his car. In Southern California, that is not an uncommon reality for the homeless, but for Hall his car was not only his shelter but his art studio as well. The hours spent behind the steering wheel were productive, and the artwork that he created during those years is now commanding international attention, sales and museum shows. And as it so often happens in fairy tales, his fortunes shifted through a fateful encounter.
In August 2015 a couple walked into The Hive Gallery in downtown Los Angeles with William Hall in tow. The husband and wife had recently moved from Wisconsin to Arcadia to start up a new business and noticed Hall living in his car on their block. In a nod to their Midwestern roots, or perhaps to their innocence, they offered him their guest bedroom. Upon discovering hundreds of wildly inventive drawings in his car, they thought they could help him by selling his artwork. That notion led them to the Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk, and in a moment of synchronicity, they met Stephen Holman. Holman is an affable and accomplished artist and educator with a studio at the cooperative gallery. His colorful work spans performance, television, animation and paintings. The good Samaritans struck up a conversation with Holman and explained their intent to assist their friend. After seeing a few examples of Hall’s work on their cell phone, Holman made arrangements to see the work in person. He not only appreciated the work but, more importantly, immediately recognized its value. Thus began a fortuitous relationship.
Holman explains, “So I went down to a clothing warehouse down in the fashion district where they were renting a space and they laid out all his stuff. I started going through it all and I realized that he basically created over the time he was homeless an entire world: really detailed landscapes, architecture, inventions, people, cars, trains, an entire alternative universe. There were no drawings of his real world around him. It was all a fantasy world, but incredibly detailed. And a lot of these were in multi panels. He would lean on the steering wheel (to make each drawing) and join 20 panels together later to make one huge landscape. He’s got it all in his head.”
Holman was so impressed that he decided to help. He found representation for Hall with a British art dealer, Henry Boxer, who represents outsider and visionary artists. These are artists who have not had formal art training and have developed their art outside of traditional avenues. Work in this genre may be naïve in the sense that the artists are not academically trained, but that isn’t to say that the work is simplistic or unsophisticated. In fact, because these artists circumvent academic debates and contemporary tropes, their work often has a power that is more immediate and universal. Hall’s wondrous drawings are a classic and compelling example of outsider/visionary art.
Over the past two years, Boxer has sold Hall’s work to many collectors, showed his work at the Outsider Art Fair in New York and coordinated his one-person exhibit this past September at the Andrew Edlin Gallery in New York City. With Hall’s work garnering increased attention, future opportunities are lining up. His life has changed profoundly in some ways, and in other ways very little. He no longer lives in his car and these days has a handful of people, most notably Holman, to help him navigate daily issues as well as long-term prospects for selling his art. What remains constant is that he continues to make art with the same urgency as before.
Hall’s work, made with colored pencils, crayons and occasionally watercolors, are complex, fastidious drawings. His line work is focused and intense, but at the same time, delicate and subtle, partly due to the limitations of his materials and partly to his innate modesty. He often works in series, as if to satisfy a compulsion, whether his subjects are cars, inventions or landscapes. The cars, in particular, are curious things. They have the dated, futuristic quality of 1950’s sci-fi inventions; all rounded and outfitted with streamlined safety features. Like all his work, they are lovingly conjured from his imagination. Rich and mysterious, Hall’s artwork usually lack people, but altogether they tell a story that is as remarkable and solitary as his life.
Recently I had the opportunity to meet William Hall and ask him some questions about his art. Hall has the easy, laconic manner of many people who have grown up in Southern California and was agreeable to being interviewed. He was charming, laughed frequently and seemed to take his change of circumstances in stride. What follows are excerpts from our talk, with editing for clarity. Parentheses are mine.
Photos courtesy of William Hall
Before our conversation, William and Stephen had a short discussion about how many of his artworks have been documented and the number available to view online. Many of the drawings that he made in his car prior to 2005 were either lost or stolen. Now all of the remaining work has been scanned although only a small fraction of them have been uploaded. Hall seems delighted to have access to his work.
WILLIAM HALL: I wanted to make sure that I have prints before the originals go out. I want to see, “What did I do then? Oh!” You know what I mean? I don’t want to forget. I get into doing them. I am very prolific now, I’m doing a lot of work and I want to remember the variations and things. It helps me with the latest compositions.
LORRAINE HEITZMAN: Well, you have 550 images already!
HALL: That was before I started this new run. There are 100 more, maybe. I do quite a bit of work but there used to do more because they were smaller, 9 x 12’s. Now I’m (doing) 18 x 24’s (inches).
HEITZMAN: Do you like working larger?
HALL: Yes! I always wanted to do that. Somedays I wanted to work BIG but I was limited with the steering wheel and people coming up to the window. (When I lived in my car) It was interesting. It was a different era, but now this new stuff relates back to the old era.
HEITZMAN: Now that they’re larger, will you still make them so they piece them together?
HALL: I have done that, true. I made work that pieces together. I got into that technique. It’s quite interesting. You concentrate on one piece and you go, “Hmmm…what could be here or here or here?” And then you can concentrate on that detail instead of the overall thing. I thought I might have a problem there, but I don’t.
When Hall lived in his car he used the steering wheel as his easel and the close quarters limited the size of paper he could use. To make larger drawings, he devised a method using multiple sheets that could be assembled afterwards. He didn’t see them fully assembled until Holman put them together years later.
HEITZMAN: Some smaller landscapes look like you used different colors than the rest.
HALL: The medium seems to have changed somewhat. I’d get a group of colored pencils and then if I moved a couple of years later maybe I got a different group with different shades and pigments, They would change slightly as you progress. You just can’t help that. If I don’t color, then you have pencils, which they look okay too, using graphite. Then you would see that they would stay the same. Someday I should go back to watercolors. I think I’ll work big on that too. (Hall laughs heartily at the thought) I took to it pretty well. I hadn’t done a lot of watercolors. It turned out pretty good. I enjoyed it. But in the car it was not enjoyable. Not good. I was more prone to doing dry media.
HEITZMAN: Stephen mentioned that people in your family were artistic. Did that influence you to make art?
HALL: My grandfather, father, my father’s sister, my older brother, my Mom (were artistic). She was a poet and musician. Creative-type people. Dad was an actor plus illustrator, but he didn’t do it for a living because he had to raise a family. It’s kind tough. You have to keep up with it. It kinda let me do it at my own speed. A lot of that early work is lost. I don’t know what happened to it. I liked to look at it quite often.
HEITZMAN: You do cars and landscapes. Do you have a favorite?
HALL: I love anything. I like to do figure work. I can change over into just about anything. You can get in a rut over that sort of thing. I’ve done plant environments. I drew a whole a bunch of them, twenty or thirty of them and then I’d go back to the cars. Right now I’m still on cars. You get on kind of a rampage. I like to do a lot of that and then you get tired of that and you go onto another form.
In the early nineties, Hall’s niece died in a car accident. After that, his drawings of cars included protective devices and his concerns for safety escalated and extended to other drawings. He designed and invented gadgets to prevent accidents. His concern for safety dovetailed with the fact that his car was the only thing that kept him off the streets. Hall recalled that for three of the years when he was homeless he was without any shelter, so the car, his car, kept him safe.
Photos courtesy of William Hall
HEITZMAN: The cars, are they from your imagination? Or are they from dreams or car culture?
HALL: I don’t even know until I get to the page that I’m working on. “What would look good here?” I don’t look back to the last one. I just start something original and I seem to be able to handle that. Always innovate with something different. Cars are everywhere. What would be safer? The theme is safety. Impact railings, bumpers around the cars… Some people have commented that they looked like they could actually work. I would hope they could function. I like the function of things so I want to make an art form out of function. Better than dysfunction! (laughs)
HEITZMAN: I love your landscapes. Do you get inspired from magazines or postcards?
HALL: (Points to his head)
HEITZMAN: Really, all from your head? They look so Western.
HALL: I’ve been around for quite a while, so I’ve had a lot of experience seeing things. So it’s all registered here and I just bring it out the way I see it with my eye to hand coordination, my technique and style. I could be influenced but I try I not to be directly influenced by other art that they have created or might look similar. I try to be original.
HEITZMAN: Has it been enjoyable having other people see and appreciate your work?
HALL: I get a kick out of that, yeah. A lot of people seem to like it. I guess it’s different. Nobody does this anymore, this type of drawing. I guess Gustave Doré did it, but that was a hundred years ago. Most people are into something different. But it’s in my genetics. My grandfather’s brother (Percy Hall) was an engraver. He did the first Aunt Jemima on the package. (My family) are all from the UK. They were in Virginia…one of the first families in Virginia. Long time ago. Lord Byron is related. That’s why mother has the ability to write poetry. I just happened to know all along, (that I wanted to make art). Everybody was into it, so I said, “Ok, I’ll do it too, then.” But you don’t always have the time to do this kind of work. But I’m used to it.
HEITZMAN: How long does it take to do your work?
HALL: Twelve days, maybe a little more. The little ones will take about, some are pretty fast, they’ll take twelve days. There’s the preliminary work, the overlay of the original design, that’s about 3. A lot of little stuff. And then I improvise while I am drawing. You know R&R and I have to come back and figure that out. That’s time consuming. I make changes in the preliminary drawings and now I know what I’m going to do. I know what the color will be. But sometime I make mistakes.
HEITZMAN: I admire your ability to concentrate.
HALL: Well, you gotta train yourself on that one. You can’t let a lot of extraneous distractions bother you.
HEITZMAN: Now that you are in galleries, you probably have more distractions than ever!
HALL: It’s a lot of fun. I’d rather do this than anything else. Glad I stuck with it for many years.
HEITZMAN: Did you ever think that you would be selling them?
HALL: No! You just do them and see what happens. I used to think I’d make a book someday. It’s good to have a book A book of your work… a nice thick thing. It makes you feel good, (laughs).
HEITZMAN: Is there anything you miss about living outside?
HALL: It’s much better working inside. There are a lot of distractions. Picture yourself sitting behind a steering wheel, facing a chain link fence by a park. You know, there’s people walking by all the time, interrupting you. “Hi, how are you?” (He mimics waving to people and responding with fake enthusiasm, “Oh, Hi!” You have to explain what the heck you’re doing. Cops will stop by. I got a good rapport with them. They’d be like, “Well, you got anything else?” They’re good people. They are people. “This is so different” they would say “seeing you, rather than going out picking someone up.” I didn’t give them a hard time. And they’d be interested about what the art was.
Nowadays, many people are interested in William Hall’s art. His newfound success put a roof over his head and his days of anonymity are over. He strikes me as a man who is comfortable with himself wherever he is, someone who finds pleasure in his own company and in the interior world he has created. His outsider status is now firmly established and he already has two upcoming shows next year. In January 2018 he will be featured in the Outsider Art Fair again and in a group show at the American Folk Art Museum beside the work of Henry Darger and Adolf Wölfli. Quite a storybook ending. Of course he won’t be attending either because he doesn’t like to fly. Most likely he will be at home. Alone. Drawing.
Lorraine Heitzman is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. She has written about the local arts community for ArtCricketLA and Armseye Magazine and is currently a regular contributor to Art and Cake. In addition to exhibiting her art, Lorraine has her own blog, countingknuckles.com, and her art can be seen on her website lorraineheitzman.com