The Colorful Apocalypse
In July of 1989, the South Carolina painter William Thomas Thompson, who was not yet a painter, went to Hawaii to receive treatment for a mysterious and paralyzing nerve disorder. He was traveling with Janette, his childhood church sweetheart at Gum Springs Pentecostal Holiness in Greenville County, his wife of thirty-five years.
Thompson was 54 years old. He wore suits with a cross sometimes pinned to his lapel. He had never thought of painting. He had no interest in art — a frivolous endeavor at best, ungodly at worst; it did not exist in his business- and church-oriented life. If he thought of art at all, he understood it to be a product of the lost, the questioning. Good evangelical Christians are secure in the Lord, emptied of questions.
Janette had always been the creative one. She sold wedding supplies, arranged flowers. She liked Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth. She liked pretty things, images of comfort and joy. Flowers and charming figurative scenes were nice but Christian art was the best — baby Jesus in the manger; wounded Jesus on the cross. She didn’t remember who the painters were (Rembrandt, say, or Georges de la Tour); it wasn’t about that. It was the subject matter: The Lord, the King of Kings, the Savior. She wanted His face in every room.
Until 1988, until the bankruptcy that took almost everything they owned, the couple had run Thompson Import Floral Company, a silk flower and artificial decorations business once worth well over a million dollars. By the time of their arrival in Hawaii, they had lost their massive, opulent Tudor home (“The New Edinburgh”), approximately a hundred acres of land, all property and assets related to the failed business, and most of their savings for legal costs to fight what Thompson still believes to be a demonic conspiracy of the Masons within the American legal system.
They were both from farming families and children — like Howard Finster, like my grandparents — of the poor South. They had started in business in the late 50s with money saved while Thompson was in the military, in the Army Signal corps, stationed in Fort Devens, Massachusetts. They had built Thompson Import Floral up over the years from their first five-and-dime on the edge of the “colored part of town” in Greenville, South Carolina — had worked six days a week, morning to night, and, somehow, become rich, “blessed by God.” And then everything, even hope, disappeared.
In Hawaii the Thompsons were staying for free at the University of Nations, a missionary organization that “trains preachers and sends them all over the world” — an action the couple had financially supported for years, until they could no longer do so. This stop over in the islands came after tying up loose ends in Hong Kong, where they had, with scant knowledge of international trade laws, opened an office, which precipitated, according to Thompson, their financial tragedy.
Here on little money and credit, they sought whatever free medical treatment they could get for Thompson at the veterans’ hospital. Because during the bankruptcy Thompson had started having trouble holding plates and cups, then he began falling down, crashing heavily into things, walls and furniture. It was like the world started moving under his feet, pitching him to and fro. Finally, one day in the midst of the legal proceedings, the calls to lawyers, the trips to court, the filing of papers he didn’t understand, he couldn’t move his legs. They were two logs on the mattress in front of him. And his hands curled like hawk’s claws and shook if he raised his arm.
So much of this time is a blur, though, he will later tell me, a pain to remember, but what happened next, the beginning of the outsider art narrative, is still very clear to him.
He needed a wheelchair to get around the islands, see the sights, go to the hospital and to church. So one day near the end of the trip, just to get out, to breathe the warm light and clear his head, Janette folded up the chair and put it in the trunk of a car. Thompson recalls that there were four of them from the University of Nations-he, Janette, and another couple with their faces erased by time (“I can’t remember their names”).
It turned into a tour around the island, in the fruit-smelling sunshine and the wet heat. They drove on the coastal road — mountains, the moving shadows of bamboo and tall palms; tropical humidity without the breeze like a sun-drenched fog, like breathing through wet cotton.
They wanted to pray, to worship. The driver suggested they stop at a “humble, little” church in a valley near the coast: several posts and a wood-framed roof, no walls to keep out the day. Under the ply-board ceiling, the congregation was animate — mostly islanders, sweating, waving their hands, praising.
On stage the preacher, one of the few Caucasians, was “like a Hell’s Angel,” heavy and coarse and tattooed, newly converted and “so happy in the Lord,” happy to be there, alive, testifying. But he hadn’t worked the kinks out of his sermon: he was cursing, and stumbling over his words, and he didn’t know his scripture either, not exactly a Bible scholar.
Thompson sat in his wheelchair at the end of a row of foldout chairs. Birds chirped. Car engines hummed on a nearby road. He half-listened, then listened, then daydreamed and prayed, then listened again, thinking about his own life, his ruined body, his loose, worthless limbs and bent hands, his anger, the unbearable pressure of his sorrow. (“Some people just blow their brains out,” he will later say when we discuss depression. “Some people just put an end to it.”)
Half an hour into the rough sermon, without warning, without a tremor of prelude, as the born-again biker praised God in a shout, the church disappeared. Just went away. A roaring filled Thompson’s ears. He was suddenly floating “as if in space.” He saw fire, a wall of it — bright, rushing flames devouring everything, destroying everything, like an orange flood rolling over him. He disappeared within it — there was no resisting; that would have been like throwing your hands up in front of a mushroom cloud. He saw then, he says, all of Revelation — the horseman of the apocalypse, the woman on the moon, “that old dragon Satan,” and finally the new Jerusalem and the coming of the Lord…
Moments later, when he came to and looked around, it surprised him to find the church, the people, intact.
How long had he been gone?
How long had he been floating above the world?
Janette was beside him, as before, listening. Same old Janette — heavy, reserved, practical, soft-spoken. Solid as ever, after all this loss, after all these years.
The preacher went on testifying, mixing the gospel with his childhood, back before the first tattoo, offering up a tragic autobiography of shame and deceit, all the ways we are mortal and broken.
Thin clouds inched in from the Pacific.
The congregation waved their hands.
Someone shouted amen.
Only once before had something like this happened. It was in Houston, in the mid-1980s. He was on a business trip. He wasn’t crippled yet. It was so strange. It was like he started dreaming while he was driving on the interstate. Acceleration, movement, a drifting in his thoughts, you know how it is, you’re driving and you’re driving… and then time slowed, as if in a movie, and there was a squealing, the first sounds of metal touching metal, and then everything shifting into fast motion, hyper-time — the blunt force of halting; that awful crunching, as loud as a bomb; the hood folding like a piece of paper; liquid something raining all about the car, hot when it touched him. He thought he was going to die, was dying.
But then there wasn’t… anything: No crash; usual traffic, usual sounds, usual sky; he was fine, driving along, radio on the Christian station.
Perhaps he thought of this the night after the church service.
What was real?
He kept seeing the colors, his revelation, as he calls it, our complete annihilation — then the church again, the preacher, blue sky; here came the breeze.
He had a hard time sleeping. He couldn’t tell Janette about what he had seen, about what had happened — it did happen; he has never doubted that — because he’d been so down lately — the illness, the business, the trouble sleeping. She was already worrying about him. He was angry all the time, behaving strangely. He threatened to sue judges, lawyers, to file injunctions. Later he would threaten to sue his own family “for abuse.” He was raving and raging. He felt “loosed from everything.” There was constant talk among family and friends about how he was holding up. Tragedy upon tragedy. Who can take it? “Some people just blow their brains out, you know.”
He still can’t say why. It’s one of those things that won’t fit, quite, within language as we have it. But he had to paint it, the vision. He “burned,” he says, with a need to paint a picture, to hold still these thoughts and images, the experience, the feelings he thinks were of God, which perhaps were God.
One morning, three days after the church service and the vision — three long days of not knowing what to do, of rolling around his room in the wheelchair — he got someone to drive him to an art supply store, where he fearfully asked a clerk, a young island woman, about what one needed to paint a picture.
The clerk looked at him — one of the Christian tourists, a well-dressed, near-elderly man in a wheelchair with a gray fifties pompadour and giant glasses enlarging his blue eyes. “Brushes,” she said. “And” — I imagine a pause here — “and paint.”
Half an hour later, he rolled his wheelchair over to a picnic table in the sunshine outside of the store. A woman came by, like an angel, he says, to help him set everything up. He was finally ready to try to paint the vision. He had trouble holding a brush, his body so palsy-stricken that it swung in his hand like the needle on a liar’s polygraph. He looked at the blank canvas. He looked and he looked and he looked. He says: “I felt afraid for my very life.”
Greg Bottoms is the author of six books, including the memoir Angelhead (U. of Chicago Press), the recent essay collection Spiritual American Trash: Portraits from the Margins of Art and Faith (Counterpoint Press), and Pitiful Criminals (Counterpoint Press), a graphic collection of memoirs and stories, with drawings by artist W. David Powell. He teaches creative writing at the University of Vermont, where he is Professor of English.