On the street with Billy Walsh: Homeless Greensboro artist overcomes obstacles through art
On any given morning in Greensboro, you might catch William “Billy” Henry Walsh, Jr. enjoying a cup of coffee, and in-depth conversation with local shoppers or any of the staff that has come to know him as the resident artist at Deep Roots Market. When Bill showed me his “masterpieces,” as he likes to call them, one Sunday, it was the perfect opportunity to learn more about his expressive and colorful acrylic-painted canvases and his talent as a classical trumpet player.
Walsh, a native of Philadelphia, said the city had always been the landscape he paints most as an artist. He said one of the first times he became fascinated with art was when he was 10 years old and his mother, who was also an artist, took him to a museum. While looking at drawing of Isadora Duncan by Auguste Rodin, he told his mother that he could draw better and she replied: “Why don’t you?”
Walsh attended the Kansas City Art Institute and studied under Lester Goldman and Hal Parker. Then he went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He said he loved history and read all the greats with his favorites being Henry James, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, and Edward Gibbon. European history was what got him into art, and he especially loved the modern era brought on by Picasso.
Walsh began making a living with art in 1971 and used to sell watercolor paintings of his lover who posed as his model. He said he grew up and met his sweetheart, Patti Ann in 1974, who “was one of the dearest creatures God ever made.” They lived together for 8 years although they were like “two ships in the night,” with her working days and him playing trumpet at night and painting houses during the day.
Walsh said he had great mentors along the way, such as David Mills, a graduate of Cambridge and a scientist at Temple University, who was a good friend that introduced him to classical music. He began helping Walsh play in classy places and weddings. Walsh said he had been a “hip artist,” so he cut his hair and started to dress in fine European suits with ties and cuff links to play trumpet in clubs, five-star restaurants and Italian kitchens across Philadelphia. He said he knew everyone, and played with the best musicians in Philadelphia including Patty Labelle and musicians who worked with Miles Davis over a period of 35 years, and he said they inspired him. He said he was working his “tail off five to six days a week, and the money was good, and the music was good.”
He was a self-taught musician beyond having music teachers in school and was proud to get to study music theory with Dennis Sandole, who taught John Coltrane. Walsh said he lived in Philadelphia for many years “with punks and drugs.” It was in the 1980s when he met his wife, Margaret. He said she worked as a schoolteacher and a receptionist. When she died of cancer eight years later, it was a dreadful time for him.
A short time after that, he had a sold-out show in a three-story national chain bookstore and had sold 32 paintings. Walsh said he took that money and moved by invitation from some of the people who purchased his paintings to the West Philadelphia suburbs. He said he tried hard to sustain $1,100 a month rent on a musician and artist’s inconsistent income, but he couldn’t do it. He left the suburbs in 2004 and became homeless and broke for 60 days and nights as he walked back into Philadelphia. He said, “the streets of Philadelphia were poison.”
While walking through gangs’ territory, he knew he couldn’t show any fear. One night, he said, after standing up to one gang member, he was “accepted and had license” to walk through their territory, especially after they heard him play his trumpet. After the eighth time of being robbed in his sleep, he left Philadelphia. He said he wasn’t a brawler and wasn’t afraid to defend himself, but felt his days there were numbered.
Walsh said that in late summer of 2010, he began walking from Pennsylvania and that a hurricane led him to Greensboro. He had walked first to Fredericksburg, Virginia, and was on his way to a music store in Richmond (to get valve oil for his trumpet) when he met Scotty Rogers, who drove him to Richmond and gave him $50. When he arrived in Greensboro on Sept. 1, 2010, all he wanted to do was rest. He had a planned to go to Mobile, Alabama, and play the festivals, but when he walked in on Randleman Road and asked a policeman where he could find a shelter, he decided to stay in Greensboro after the Weaver House gave him a two-month stay in their shelter. He said he remembered artist William Mangum, who still comes for the Wednesday morning breakfasts, telling him “that’s a good drawing.” When Walsh ventured into Fisher Park and discovered all the single-story houses, he began painting again. Then he helped with cooking, cleaning and setting up for 150 homeless guests every week at United Grace Methodist Church. He said he ended up selling 60 paintings within three months. Walsh was then able to get his first apartment, but couldn’t keep it as an artist because he couldn’t make enough money to sustain his rent and became homeless again.
“If an artist is complaining about their life’s circumstances, I would say to them that they are not unique to go through things,” Walsh said. “You have to have the will and suffer the consequences. If people really like what you do and give you money for it and it inspires you, it’s up to you to know if you have the strength to do it. One reason I have been successful in surviving is because I keep going.”
Grace United Methodist Church’s “Arise Breakfasts” on Tuesday mornings is how Walsh became a member of the church. He said that Pastor Morris Brown was there for 12 years and now, Pastor Dan Martin; “a very fine man,” treats him with respect. Walsh said he stayed in their shelter for two winters and was grateful for their generosity and love. He said he has learned how to sustain himself, but if he had the right job in house painting, he’d work in a minute.
“Greensboro has given me the most peace of mind that I have had in my entire life,” he said. “I found peace in Jesus here. I keep my bible by my side. Art is very important. Art is a reflection of God’s world. You live your gifts. I have gifts, and I share them. I am so inspired by someone who works hard, I work hard, and I can’t blame anybody but myself if I don’t make it.”
Walsh said that aside from his two marriages, he “has lived underground as a homeless artist for 52 years.” Today, he said he gets up at 6 a.m. and walks to Hardee’s to get two cups of coffee; then he’ll go to Weaver House for lunch, and attend First Presbyterian Church’s “Hot Dish & Hope” dinner for the homeless at 6 p.m. He said he mostly does art all day and takes breaks to play his trumpet.
“This guy amazes me and the first day he began talking about his life,” said Doug Branscom, a cashier at Deep Roots Market. “I wanted to know his story and day by day; I learn more about his amazing life.” Branscom has adopted him as his brother in memory of his own brother who died. He buys his acrylic paints and takes him out to eat on his birthday and listens to his stories, just like a real brother.
Walsh said the mayor of Philadelphia back then once said, “Billy Walsh is a national treasure and Philadelphia’s best-kept secret.” Now, he is a precious hidden gem in Greensboro.
TERRY RADER is a freelance writer, poet, singer/songwriter, wellness herbalist, flower essences practitioner and owner of Paws n’ Peace o’ Mind cat/dog/housesitting.
Resident Artist times vary in mornings at Deep Roots Market, 600 N. Eugene St. in Greensboro, (336)292-9216, Gallery at Martin’s Frame & Art, 251 N. Greene St., Greensboro, (336)274-2426