My mother was a Kentucky country girl who went to Cincinnati at 16 to look for work. She got a job as a barmaid and eventually became an alcoholic who did not mind a street fight, so the police took me away from her when I was 10. After my father disappeared she married a black blues pianist and Korean War veteran, and I was allowed to visit occasionally.
Their neighbourhood was a ghetto and violent – there were dealers and pimps on every corner. I remember once, when I was 11, being taken to a bar that no white person, at that time of widespread segregation, would have dared enter – dressed by my mother in bell bottoms and a silk shirt. Everyone was dancing to Soul Train, jumping around and cheering me on. Eventually, my black sister became a drug dealer while I went to engineering college in the suburbs. We would often laugh at the absurdity of it.
Like children often do, I rebelled against my environment – in my case excelling at school and never touching drugs or alcohol. It worried my mother. I also had a fascination with specific number patterns and the act of drawing. It was a natural calm space, away from the chaos around me.
My biological father, Bob Nicholson, was what was then called a ‘box man’, a safecracker. Pulling his first amateur burglary in Ohio in the early 1930s as a teenager, he is recorded to have crossed paths with former Dillinger Gang associates and other notorious gangsters of that era. Escaping in 1937 from Mansfield Reformatory (the place portrayed in The Shawshank Redemption), he was recaptured in 1941 and did federal time at Leavenworth alongside the Holden-Keating Gang and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly.
He was released in the 1950s and pulled a few major heists over the following 20 years, many of which are still unsolved today. Growing up I was ashamed of my father’s exploits but I have come to love and respect him, as well as my mother. My father had a code of ethics that would make a lot of politicians today look like real crooks. While he might hold up a bank, he would go out of his way to not take from individuals, planning each heist carefully to avoid violence. My mother might fight in bars but then she would save the life of an alcoholic by dragging them out of the snow and letting them sleep it off in her hallway. I have learned from my parents and I do not make quick or easy art.
I am not anyone’s ‘outsider’ artist. I am simply doing my own thing which, on occasion, has some relevance to contemporary art. As a result of my family and natural inclination, I retreated into my numbers and the dates which I began secretly, perversely hiding at an early age. I have enjoyed letting others wonder what the good boy was really up to. For me, good art is fun and has a sense of mystery about it. And you get to keep the cash.
These stories of my parents and my early years stand behind the grids and numbers in my artwork, where the subtle connections, codes and meanings are so complex that it would take an advanced artificial intelligence to figure it out. I thank God that I have been able to turn to my art – I am a survivor both in my life and my work. I think my parents would be proud of me, and find it funny to see their DNA in my work. That is more satisfying than any critical success.
Artist George Widener lives and works in Waynesville, North Carolina, USA