“Lucifer’s right behind you,” Roger Williamson’s voice lilted, nodding in my direction.
Odd. If anyone else said that to me I’d probably run. Maybe it was the wine. Maybe it was Williamson’s English accent. Who knows? All I could recognize in that moment was that I’d been invited into a special place where magic happens and things transform in Williamson’s mind from imagination into creation.
“Did you have a live model for that?” I asked, admiring Lucifer’s curves.
“Yeah, right…” Williamson scoffed.
“I’d have quite a job getting women down here to take off all their clothes,” he laughed.
An artist’s studio is sacred space. For Williamson, a Renaissance man – painter, author, musician, husband, father, grandfather and owner of Magus Books and Herbs — this concept takes on a whole new meaning. His work as a fine artist redefines what we think we know about mythology, digging deeper into the subconscious. With his paintbrush Williamson breaks rules and turns assumptions inside out.
In his basement studio Lucifer stands nude, as an everyday looking woman, with sculpted features delicately asymmetrical — giving an oddly realistic appearance. His paintings of women are eerie with life, appearing as human souls captured on canvas. Other females among his domain include the Lady of the Lake, Sirens, Medusa and Helen of Sparta. Another painting, called Vampire, haunts of a woman you’d meet in any bar on a given night — long, brownish red hair and a seductive glance. Her mouth is closed, smiling slightly. There’s something she knows that you don’t.
“He’s about to put on his youth and re-enter the world,” Williamson says, pointing out the finer details of the mask in Merlin’s hands. “I didn’t realize at the time of painting, but the name Merlin is actually Anglo-Saxon for hawk.”
Then there are others, such as Odysseus, Poseidon, Prometheus, Zeus and Pan. Robust with rich colors that subtly speak of the seasons and the elements, some of Williamson’s paintings are ten coats thick. Using a Pre-Raphaelite recipe formula that thins oil paints to approximately 25 percent of their original consistency, he goes over images in thin layers, again and again. The result is a dreamy depth and ethereal quality.
“If I’m looking at something or someone, I cannot draw it from that. It would be too rigid” he says, addressing my continued prodding about his aesthetic capturing of the human form. “If I’m drawing an arm, I can feel it in my own arm. It’s really a different type of artistic experience.”
Spotlights blazing, surrounded by color, the 61-year-old confesses that he loses himself when painting. Williamson goes into another world. “I don’t go into a trance, he says, “But I do experience a total sensory overload.” The smell of the customized paint concoction, he admits, is instrumental in drawing him in to the creative process even further.
His wife of almost thirty years, Suzanne, cannot help but chide about his confession, “You burn so much incense down there it’s amazing you can tell the difference,” she laughs.
“Oh sweetie, the gods were smiling on you the day we met,” he pipes back lovingly.
Separately, one would never guess the two a pair. Roger, who spends his days running an occult bookstore in Dinkytown and Suzanne, who recently retired from her longtime career with a hearing aid company. But once one prods into Williamson’s past a little more, it’s obvious their union was fate.
Williamson was born and raised in Coventry, England. Growing up in a World War II bombsite area had its challenges. Remaining post-war structures were all painted camouflage. His early education was in makeshift classrooms in a church hall; then they moved into trailers. In 1967, he was finally schooled in a brick building. “But corporal punishment happened back then,” he said. “The vicious bastards would take out all their rage on us.”
As a child Williamson remembers the only building standing in downtown Coventry — a Woolworth’s. “We’d walk out of there and everything around us looked like a lunar landscape,” he reflects. “Rubble was everywhere.” Artillery shells served as ornamental décor on fireplace mantles in people’s houses. And flooded out air raid shelters provided kids with other places to explore. “In hindsight, we had a whale of a time,” he says. “But to look at the country you’d have had no clue that the Brits won the war. Everything was so dingy and destroyed.”
During recovery, Coventry was an industrial town. Everything revolved around prospects of working in a factory. “My mom thought I should never go to school,” he remembers. “She thought it was a complete waste of time and that I’d never learn anything useful there.”
With no siblings, Williamson said that growing up it was just he and the cat. His mother taught him ceremonial magic, techniques such as astral projection and methodologies reminiscent of the Golden Dawn. Expanding creativity, he took to art and music, playing guitar, at the age of 13.
His father insisted on schooling, enrolling Roger in art classes — an effort to give him some direction in which to focus his energy. “Six weeks after he started dropping me off at the front door of the school, my father got a letter from administration asking where I was,” Williamson laughed. “I was going in the front door, walking through the garden and hanging out in the back all day.”
Williamson got into some minor mischief, mainly because he wanted out of Coventry so desperately. He left home at the age of 15, only to be returned there by the police in a thwarted effort to get to France and become a street musician. It took a few tries before he finally made it.
He committed to a life of rock and roll in London‘s Southside. Old Victorian homes that had been abandoned during the war became hotbeds of the music scene, hosting live music and disc jockey’s spinning vinyl — the vibrancy of the colors and the lifestyle of the late 60s and 70s in contrast to the dreary post war existence of his youth.
“Playing rock & roll was my teenage revolt,” he reflects. “I never thought I had to do anything else. I loved the lifestyle and every bloody thing about it.”
Then the unthinkable happened. After almost two decades of playing music, he woke up one morning and realized he was bored. But unemployment in England was huge at the time. He lived in his car and took on odd jobs and began dreaming of moving to the United States.
Having been brought up in a magical tradition, he realized amid his revolt as a rock and roll rebel that he’d disconnected from his spiritual training and discipline. “But it was a part of my fiber,” he says. Going back to what he was taught – the visualization, projection and discipline – proved key to his personal and professional transformation.
Culturally, no one was interested in hiring a former musician. It was too risky. So, he enrolled in an electronics course as part of a program established to rehabilitate people’s careers. In the last few weeks of enrollment, he was asked to interview for a job with a hearing aid company. The proposition, which initially sounded quite boring, piqued his interest when they shared that the job would require he come to the U.S. for three months. His tenure as a musician, on the part of the American company, was seen as “perseverance” not a liability.
A few weeks later he showed up on Suzanne’s doorstep in Plymouth, MN as one of the English co-workers slotted to rent an apartment from her. A single mother, still in the throes of divorce, Suzanne wasn’t interested in romance. And neither was Roger. The two became friends and six years later got married. Prior to becoming man and wife, Williamson changed companies and also worked in Australia.
While Williamson was still working full time, he started Magus as a mail order occult book company out of his basement. The author of several books including “The Sun at Night”, “Lucifer Diaries”, “The Black Book of the Jackal” and “Tarot of the Morning Star”, he was merely trying to find a different way to promote his works.
The mail order business grew to a point of needing space outside the home and a spot close to the University of Minnesota seemed promising. Since the store opened in 1992 it has continued to flourish and expand.
In the same way that he needed to move from basement to retail space, his painting also grew out of a need. Unable to find artwork that was appropriate for one of his books, he decided to just create it himself.
Painting re-entered his life as a major creative force in interpreting Tarot cards with symbols and pictures that he felt more befitting of their meaning. What started with a small series grew into a full series of the Major Arcana of the Tarot, which Williamson explains supports the archetypal cycle of the hero.
“In most decks the Universe card has one figure on it, which doesn’t make sense to me,” he explains. “In reality, the universe has a lot of opposition and interplay of energy. I thought it would be more like a couple skating together, where one is supporting the other.”
He finished with the paintings and released the Major Arcana cards with a book in 2007. Since that time, painting has continued to be a source of inspiration and release for Williamson. He shows his works infrequently, preferring the creation versus handling the business end of his artistic endeavors.
In looking towards the future, Williamson says, “We can become so obsessed at times with where we’ve been and where we’re going that we miss the journey.”
“I’ve always done what I’ve wanted to do and I feel content about that” he says.
“I suppose it’s pretty selfish when you think about it, he paused. “But really we all do what we want to do at the end of the day. It’s best to enjoy it.”
A display of original paintings by Roger Williamson will be making a rare public appearance at Espresso Royale (1229 Hennepin Ave.). The show titled “Abducted by Dreams” begins Saturday, Feb. 13 with an opening reception from 7 to 11:30 p.m.
For more information call 612-333-8882.