Arthur J. Williams leaves counterfeiting for life of an artist

Lying on his back five floors up supported by scaffolding painting a ceiling, Arthur J. Williams couldn’t help thinking back to Michelangelo. Legend has it portions of the Sistine Chapel were painted in the same fashion.

Michelangelo is one of Williams favorite artists. As a sculptor, much of what the Italian master learned about painting, he learned on the job while producing the famed ceiling. Williams learned about Michelangelo in prison reading the “The Agony and the Ecstasy.”

“That book brought me to painting,” Williams told me.

It was one of many biographies Williams consumed while serving the better part of seven years in federal prison for counterfeiting.

Williams’ “Sistine Chapel” – so to speak – was reproducing the supposedly unforgeable 1996 U.S. $100 bill. That story has been told before.

As has how his father – who abandoned Arthur, his mother, his brother and his sister while they were young – joined in on the counterfeiting enterprise, only to be arrested for it himself, dying of a heart attack in jail on the day Arthur was released on an previous sentence.

As has how he did time with his son – the two were actually cellmates – who picked up the vocation after seeing his father do it.

Coincidentally, the ceiling Williams’ found himself painting was in a former bank.

“Me and Ben Franklin, we have a strange relationship,” Williams said of his past life counterfeiting and his current life as an artist, best known for his “money art,” contemporary, Pop Art-style interpretations of celebrity portraits infused with symbols and imagery from American currency.

As artist backstories go – and there are some doozies – Arthur J. Williams’ may top them all for Hollywood-worthy drama and plot twists.

That’s how he, his wife and his two young children ended up in L.A. He moved there in 2020, mid-pandemic, looking to network and make contacts for the movie being produced about his improbable rise from the projects in Chicago, in and out of jail and prison, to having his artwork collected by celebrities, most notably Arnold Schwarzenegger.

From Chicago to Texas

Arthur J. Williams artwork.
Arthur J. Williams artwork.

Williams remembers beginning to read about the virus which became known as COVID-19 in the fall of 2019. He had personal experience with something similar from his time behind bars. An outbreak of swine flu at the prison he was serving time in resulted in a quarantine there and three months spent recovering after catching it himself.

He had a bad feeling about what he knew would eventually show up in the U.S. and Chicago. Despite making progress with his art career in a gallery at 33rd and Morgan he built himself, Williams needed to get his family out of town.

To do so, he loaded up a luxury 30-foot RV he traded paintings for, unloaded the Porsche 911 he had traded paintings for, sold his BMW and his wife’s Mercedes and bought a used Volvo cash – Williams doesn’t own credit cards. March 13th, 2020 – Friday the 13th – on the eve of Chicago being locked down, the artist was driving around town loading up on last minute supplies. Noticing state troopers and firetrucks being placed at each highway exit, he recognized the time to leave was immediate, he and his family couldn’t wait for their planned Monday departure.

He fled to a 100-acre ranch in Texas owned by friend.

He was connected to a job painting a mural at a bowling alley in Mt. Pleasant, a remarkable coincidence.

“That’s where I caught my first case,” Williams said, chuckling at the irony. “I was driving from Texarkana to Dallas with some money and I got pulled over by state troopers in Mt. Pleasant.” 

Williams initially balked at the project, not being a muralist, but the unknown of artmaking has always appealed to him.

“Just as how I experimented with money – in order for me to make a perfect bill, I failed a lot. It took countless plates being destroyed, countless paper processes being destroyed in order to find that perfect balance. Constant experiment. Different colors. Different inks. I transferred that whole process over to art which can be maddening,” Williams said. “With money, the vision is to create the perfect bill, whereas art is imperfect, art moves. I’ve worked on a piece of art and all of a sudden it takes on a life of its own, it comes alive and takes a part of my energy (and does) something that I had no clue was going to happen. That’s the fun part of art for me, the mystery of it.”

Plus, he needed the money.

The bowling alley belonged to the wealthy owner of a company which supplies casinos with slot machines and the massive mural project – 70 x 37 feet – sustained his family while they lived in the RV at a nearby KOA campground.

From Texas to Chicago

'1886,' Arthur J. Williams' first painting.
‘1886,’ Arthur J. Williams’ first painting.

The Williams’ stayed in Texas until July when they needed to return to Chicago to handle family business and spread out after living for months in the RV.

Fortune found the artist with the ceiling commission at the old Berwyn National Bank building which had been purchased by Chicago White Sox Hall of Famer Frank Thomas and turned into a restaurant. The three-week project brought a financial windfall allowing Williams to take the next step of his journey.

From Chicago to L.A.

In a rented Suburban, Williams drove his family to Los Angeles at the end of August 2020. He arrived to learn the place he lined up to live in had fallen through. In an anecdote that would be impossible believe were it to occur to anyone else, a friend hooked Williams up with accommodations at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows in Santa Monica for three weeks. Covid had left the hotel empty and to make the arrangement even better for the artists, wildfires throughout California allowed him to crash at the five-star property for $8 a night under a provision for displaced and unhoused families.

You can’t make this stuff up.

With cash from the ceiling project, Williams rented a mansion in the Hollywood Hills to serve as both house and gallery for private showings. After two months of burning through his savings on rent and living expenses in southern California selling next to nothing, Williams began feeling the pressure.

This was still Fall of 2020 and people were hesitant to venture out. Lacking an established online presence with which to sell his work, sell his work, Williams needed to get lucky.

Luck arrived with a brief two-week window at end of November during which L.A. was allowed to reopen. He quickly put a show together at a public space he again found through friends in Studio City. The show circuitously led a super-rich commercial real estate developer/art collector to show up at Williams’ house to look at paintings. While he didn’t buy anything, he was impressed enough with what he saw to offer Williams a deal on unoccupied prime retail space he owned in Beverly Hills for Williams to fill with art until a new tenant could be found.  

What started as a one month tryout became a 10 month residency through fall 2021.

“It was the most unbelievable 10 months of my life. It made me grow as an artist. I started understanding the art world on a whole different perspective,” Williams said. “I had to fill it though and that became a problem because I’m only one man, I’ve only had an assistant a couple times. Here I am trying to keep up with this gallery in the center of Beverly Hills, that made me paint like I never painted in my life. I painted 36 hours straight one time. It was insane, but the magic I created there – I used to say, ‘God came down and visited me’ because I could feel a presence in that place.”

The grind paid off. Williams was able to bank enough money to give up the space, move to St. George, Utah where he lives now, and produce and sell artwork at a more sustainable pace.

While he estimates selling well over $2 million in artwork over the past four years, his goal has always been to find representation with one of the top Beverly Hills galleries. He is now in discussions to do just that with Bella Haykoff Gallery.

In-progress Arthur J. Williams new painting featuring 'Top Cat' cartoon character.
In-progress Arthur J. Williams new painting featuring ‘Top Cat’ cartoon character.

“I didn’t know I was going to be an artist for a living, I thought I’d be a writer,” Williams said. He spent five years of his seven year prison sentence authoring a book titled “Cain’s Dagger.” “But writing that book (helped my art making). As a writer, you actually get to see what you’re writing. Something in my brain, it’s like I see this screen and as I’m writing I can see these pictures moving and then I could describe it. So, when I started getting into professional painting, I use it same thing where I create a story in my mind that I can visualize and then I pick parts of it that I want to paint. Writing taught me how to do that.”

The stories Williams creates in his mind struggle to compete with the stories he’s lived in real life, being quick to remind that his, “story isn’t over yet, (it’s) still going on.”

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