It will be painfully obvious that the star of the show opening at Nelson Fine Art Center Friday night won’t be present to bask in his accolades. But anybody who knew Bill Counts can tell you “The October Game: The Art of Bill Counts” probably wouldn’t be happening if the artist had anything to say about it. And if the show had somehow happened, Counts would’ve been too busy with his trademark pacing and frenetic gesturing punctuated with self-effacing asides to do much basking.
“I tried to get Bill to do a show for years,” gallery owner Dick Nelson said. “He always put me off. He just wasn’t comfortable with the idea of promoting himself.”
That was the essence of Counts, who died in April, two months shy of his 56th birthday. The show is his family and friends’ way of giving him a proper send-off and the public recognition he resisted with every fiber of his wiry being. Counts’ unwillingness to acknowledge his enormous talent — much less promote himself — is probably the reason East Tennessee was able to hold on to him his whole life. Friends say he had the talent to make it anywhere at anything he tried.
The exhibit gets its name from the late artist’s yearly exercise of creating a seasonal picture on each of October’s days and posting it online. The October Game, which Counts created in 2006, gets its name from a wonderfully disturbing 1948 Ray Bradbury pulp-fiction short story that haunted Counts’ childhood.
“Bill was an authentic artistic genius who was never satisfied with anything he created,” longtime friend Jon Ruetz said.
The October Game, said close friend Bill Williams, helped Counts get over that perfectionism and let things go. He had challenged himself in public.
Nelson is planning to challenge other artists to the picture-a-day October Game next year to carry on the tradition. He’s still fleshing out the idea but hopes to make it an annual event.
The only time Counts willingly stepped into the spotlight was when he wasn’t himself. He is probably best known for his performances on stage at the Jonesborough Repertory Theatre, the Johnson City Community Theatre and Olde West Dinner Theatre, which became Highland Theatrical Company, and several others. He acted in and directed 70-some productions over 25 years beginning in 1978.
“I met Bill Counts through the theater, and he was one of those rare people you meet of whom you ask ‘Why doesn’t anyone know about this guy? Why is he on such a small stage?’ He had flawless comic timing. Then I found out he was an artist. And a very good one,” artist Jill Lorainne Turpin wrote on in her blog entry announcing she’s following Bill’s lead and will attempt her own version of the “October Game” this year.
“He was the most interesting person at the party, and fortunately for me, he always wanted to hide out in the kitchen where I was fixing the snacks,” Turpin said. “He was so humble about his own immense talent, and so encouraging of mine.”
Vicky Livesay acted with Counts several times, most memorably in “Wait Until Dark,” which ends with a ferocious fight on a dark set. “Every night we would sit down and compare all our cuts and bruises, each trying to prove that we were more beat up than the other,” she said. “But my absolute favorite memory is watching Bill and my husband, Bill Livesay, do any of their British comedy — especially ‘Good Evening.’ Watching those two men on stage was like watching kids who had been turned loose in a candy store. If they couldn’t make you laugh, then something was terribly wrong with you. They were shameless and proud of it. I continued to hold out hopes for a reunion show until the very last moments, but I have faith that someday those two will reunite and bring their comedy to heaven,” she said.
“His abilities dwarfed us mere mortals and Bill saved my self-respect on more than one occasion by promising to one day play Stanley (in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’) or Brick (‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’) opposite me. It was his way of saying I was ‘up to speed,’” said Cindy Angel Ingram, who has admired Counts since their days at Henry Johnson Elementary School. “Bill was my first exposure to brilliance and talent of a kind I hadn’t seen in my little world before. In Miss Hurst’s first grade class I understood the almost staggering difference between Bill and our other classmates.”
Ruetz was dazzled by Counts’ seemingly effortless acting ability. “Bill was highly intelligent and blessed with an extraordinary capacity to find and be precisely what was needed on stage,” he said.
Like everyone who got to know Counts through one art, Ruetz came to appreciate his other talents. “A No. 2 pencil in hand, he could, with just a few strokes, sketch a perfect likeness of any subject. Or he could astound with detail so complete that his drawing appeared at first glance to be a photograph. But, much more than that, he had the uncanny ability to capture the genuine essence of a person, even if the subject was someone he had never met.”
Storytelling godfather Jimmy Neil Smith met Counts in the early ’70s. Smith was a newly minted teacher and faculty adviser for the Science Hill student newspaper, and Counts was on the paper’s staff.
“I immediately recognized Bill’s rare and unusual talent,” Smith recalled. “Despite his youth, Bill, even then, excelled as a writer, a photographer and artist. He just may be the most talented person I’ve ever known.”
Counts was a nonconformist, but never in that provocative way concocted to get attention by making other people uncomfortable. He took great pains to make sure people around him were at ease. That played out at the gathering for family and close friends at the home of lifelong friends six days after his death.
He made two requests of his sister, Cheryl Willingham. “First, he didn’t want a picture of himself displayed. He said we should have a picture of a handsome actor instead,” she said. So, guests were greeted by a framed photograph of Robert Downey Jr. Right away, no matter how sad they were, friends and family had to smile because that was such a “Bill” thing to do.
His other request was that Willingham play a recording of Randy Newman — Counts’ musical idol — performing his “When I’m Gone.” He gave permission to miss him — at least for the length of the song. Not that anybody waited for permission or stuck to his time limit.
“Without question, Bill Counts was the most creative and humble among us,” said Vicki Shell, creative director at Osborne, Shell & Miller Advertising, where Bill worked for 20-plus years as a graphic artist, web designer and video director. “I could accurately measure the success of our projects by Bill’s level of approval. I didn’t know how I was going to continue without him, but I was in the studio recently working on a project and I could almost hear his comments over my shoulder and for a few seconds I thought he was with me.”
With his talent and charisma, Bill would have been justified in being a full-on egomaniacal self-promoter — an Artiste — and he might have had throngs of adoring fans. But he likely wouldn’t have had as many adoring friends. As it was, he had good number of both.