Art and Basketball: The Wood Carvings of Lavon Williams

LaVon WIlliams was not the first in his family to become a woodcarver. His half-brother, David Wright, first exposed Williams to the craft by carving some of the toys that Williams would play with as a child, including one a Williams’ favorite toys— a replica of the Apollo. Wright was in turn inspired by their great uncle, a woodcarver who lived on a farm and would often create pastoral scenes and depictions of the animals that surrounded him.

Williams followed neither of them directly, instead forging his own path and taking on a celebratory voice. Rather than pastoral or folk scenes, Williams considers himself to be an “Urban” folk artist, using wood carving to draw from Blues and Jazz, tastes that Williams absorbed via his music-father and the multitude of clubs near his home growing up in Colorado.

Lavon Williams with one of his works.

Lavon Williams with one of his works.

Many of his works portray musicians playing piano, bass, trumpet or even the drums. Rent parties, which are parties held at someone’s home who charges an entrance fee, are also a subject of Williams’s work. Many times Williams portrays the dancing that would occur at such a party or even the brawls that could sometimes happen.

His divergent path also included a detour: basketball. Born in Lakeland, Florida in 1958, Williams moved to Colorado at age ten where he began playing basketball, exhibiting clear talent and eventually receiving the title of Mr. Basketball, a designation given to the most outstanding basketball player in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Lavon Williams, "When I Was Young I Could Fly," Painted Wood, 34" x 23" x 4", Collection of Kentucky Folk Art Center.

Lavon Williams, “When I Was Young I Could Fly,” Painted Wood, 34″ x 23″ x 4″, Collection of Kentucky Folk Art Center.

Williams played for the University of Kentucky, where he helped the team to a national championship, and afterward went on to play professionally in Italy and Japan. After his stint overseas, Williams returned to Lexington, where he still lives and works as a teaching assistant.

After years of the strict practice regiment that came with collegiate and professional basketball, the freedom of woodworking was refreshing to Williams. The craftwork involved still necessitates hard work and attention to detail. He begins by laminating several pieces of wood together, which strengthens the material as well as preventing the final piece from warping in the future.

Lavon Williams, "The Devil Is Always Trying to Close the Gate," Painted Wood, 22" x 29" x 4".

Lavon Williams, “The Devil Is Always Trying to Close the Gate,” Painted Wood, 22″ x 29″ x 4″.

He sketches his ideas on the paper first, and then transfers it onto the wood. After cutting the wood, he uses a mallet and chisel to complete the work. He also often applies found items to his pieces, using nuts and bolts for buttons on a man’s suit or wire to simulate women’s hair. The final step is painting and staining the grain of the wood (often Oak), which accentuate the figures. Though Williams began with smaller pieces, he’s scaled up over his career, and big pieces reaching much closer to life-size.

In 2001, The Kentucky Folk Art Center curated a show of 50-60 pieces of Williams’s work. The show titled “Rhythm in Relief”. The show then toured cities such as Nashville, Louisville and Lexington. Williams and his wife, Debra often pack up their SUV with his artwork and sell it at various folk art shows, Kentuck and A Day in the Country among them. He is represented by the Keny Galleries, in Columbus Ohio.


Lavon Williams, “Sweet Home, Son House,” Painted Wood, 52″ x 55″. Collection of Kentucky Folk Art Center.


Lavon Williams, “Highway 75,” Painted Wood, 60″ 30″, 2016. Collection of the Kentucky Folk Art Center.

Lavon Williams, "The Kiss," Painted Wood, 39" x 21" x 7", 2005. Collection of Kentucky Folk Art Center.

Lavon Williams, “The Kiss,” Painted Wood, 39″ x 21″ x 7″, 2005. Collection of Kentucky Folk Art Center.