“JESUS LOVE YOU FLY RIGHT”
“I CALL YOUR NAME JESUS”
“YOU IS ThE ONE I NEED GOD”
I first saw the signs in January when we went to Prichard for the Point in Time homeless count. I put up a few posts to find out who made the signs.
“I have seen the signs, but have never seen the person who makes them.”
“No one knows his name.”
“He is elusive. You won’t find him.”
“I don’t know who he is, but I live in Prichard and will try to help you find him. You aren’t going by yourself.” That was from artist Soynika Edwards-Bush, and she did go with me.
We started at the ruins of a house that burned down a few years ago because Soyinka heard the signmaker once lived there. All that is left is the chimney, a pair of tennis shoes, a whiskey bottle and a newspaper with the headline that says “Satan, Surveillance and the U.S. Government.” There are tents in the bushes and a small mounds of artfully arranged teddy bears, plastic flowers, faded and torn American flags and a hard hat. Nothing else.
We rode through Prichard until we found the signs. “God Best” painted on a wooden cross above a bicycle with faded red roses in the spokes. Another cross said, “JESUS WE NEED YOU CALL UP.” More and more painted plywood signs until they were nailed to almost every tree. “Yes I need you JESUS,” “TELL HIm ABouT ThinG,” “You IS ThE ONE I NEED GOD.” We were surrounded by the messages, but still no sign of the man who created them.
There was smoke rising from a barrel in a yard with signs hanging from the porch, so we stopped to ask for help from the one who lit the fire. A man walked up in shoes, jeans and arms covered in paint and “Lino” on the patch on his shirt.
“Do you know who paints the signs?”
“I do. The Lord saved me and all I want to do is make these signs and talk about Him.”
That is how we met the elusive Arthur Williams. A man who sings, dances and preaches as he talks. He is part deacon, maintenance man, hoarder, collector, fixer, inventor, artist and drinker of wine.
He has the passion of a man who has been snatched from the darkness of death because a friend pulled him out of the fire. He lost everything but his life. “I was burned pretty bad. They took skin from my leg and put it on my back.”
“I love the Lord and he loves me. He did wonders in my life and it feels good,” he says. “I started these after the fire and started putting the signs everywhere. You walk by the signs and something comes over you. It changes people. They have told me it does. My God is so good, I can’t stop.”
The signs are his prayers of love and appreciation. He listens to gospel music on the radio and paints in his front yard on any piece of wood he can find. He writes the messages in markers he gets from the Family Dollar store as God speaks them to him.
“Something comes over me. I ain’t scared to say it no more. I put them up every day. I have me a pulpit.”
Arthur hasn’t always been this way. He stopped going to church after his mama died and there was no one else to “whoop me and keep me straight.”
“I quit going to church and started breaking into houses and stealing,” he says. “I got in trouble and had to straighten up. Trouble is easy to get in and hard to get out.”
“I don’t have a license and don’t drive a car. I walk everywhere on my feet, Ikey and Mikey. I walk and sing, ‘Walk with me Lord, Walk with me. Take my hand Lord and walk with me’. I walk a little straighter when I see these signs. They are the reason I drink a little less and give a little more.”
He says not everyone likes his signs and sometimes the signs fall down and have to be put back up.
“Sometimes we fall down, just like those signs, and have to be put back up. None of us are perfect, but we all have to get back up.”
The signs are messages of hope and love in a tough neighborhood known for drugs and violence. Houses are falling in or have been torn down and drug dealers drive by in Mercedes and BMWs. Outside of Arthur’s house is a memorial a baby girl who was shot and killed there. The name Detoria is nailed to a tree and her picture is on a shelf beside a candle and the poem, “I Said a Prayer for You Today.”
“It was so sad when she was killed. I was inside. You have to watch yourself here.”
His house and yard are an art gallery, studio and storage unit . His mailbox sits on a sign that says “JESUS” and his living room is a jungle of plastic trees and flowers, mannequin heads and wigs. He picks up things as he walks and says if someone throws away something good, he “gets it and makes it better,” he says. “Everything is a treasure. I find it, fix it up, and people say ‘Wow. Where did that come from’?”
“See this broom? I attached this screwdriver to the other end. Now I can sweep or pick up trash when I walk and never bend over.”
He turns doors into tables and fixes bicycles for kids, but the messages from the Lord are always on his mind. Nailed to the tree where he works is one of his favorite signs. “WOW THE LORD HAS DONE GREAT THING FOR US AND WE ARE FILLED WITH JOY.”
“I am a maintenance man. If you need me to fix something, I have got you,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as an artist.”
He goes back to work rolling white paint onto boards laying across a grocery cart and a garbage can and sings, “I need your presence Lord, I can’t stop loving you.”
“This sign is going to say ‘My God is Amazing.’ He is amazing. We just need to call him up.”