First published: Fall 2005
As an elderly evangelist who has spent much of his adult life as a street preacher, Prophet William J. Blackmon aims to evoke a strong response to his compelling religious paintings. And there can be no doubting the power and appeal of his visual messages: during the summer of 2000, at an exhibition of Blackmon's work, I watched as a young boy first studied one of the paintings, and then, with his brother, broke into a spontaneous jubilant song and improvised a dance in response to the image. Rarely have I experienced such an impromptu but sincere reaction to art.
A lively and commanding visionary self-taught painter, Blackmon was born in 1921 in Albion, Michigan. At the age of eight he foretold the death of a neighbour after hearing her 'death rattle.' But his inclination toward prayer did not become apparent until he enlisted in the army during the Second World War. He served with the 585th Engineers Company from 1943 to 1945, receiving several campaign ribbons and six bronze battle stars. Blackmon eventually moved to Chicago, where he opened a shoeshine stand near the Christian Hope Missionary Baptist Church. He was cured of acute chronic gastritis after the preacher said that he and anyone else in the congregation would be healed by God if they would only have faith in his divine power.