Published September 27th 2023
Interview by Qwynn Garrett
Unite, 2008, 48’’ x 48’’
Nashville artist, Herb Williams, discusses his life of art making and his journey to creating recognizable work across the country. Known for his life-size and larger sculptures seemingly composed of whole wax crayons, Williams encourages young artists to experiment and for creative communities to collaborate with one another.
In his upcoming series of works, Selfree, Williams creates an experience that invites you to become involved with the exhibition’s monochromatic environment. In response to Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms, and the general nature of making art your “photo-op,” Selfree immerses you in the act of observation.
Herb Williams at work – photo courtesy of the artist
Below is a statement from the artist:
In this installation, Selfree, the artist explores the oversaturation of shades in single values of individual colors in a space using iconic objects to alter the viewer’s future perception of color and invites the viewer to become a part of the work itself. The thousands of crayons used to create each of the objects also have a very specific scent which strongly tie into early memories which create a diverging pathway to the traditional senses of perception. Artwork that appeals to more than one of the senses would typically label this creation Fluxus in the genre of art. However, using these senses to question the act of perception itself makes this genre of art something new the artist is calling “Selfree”. The artist invites the viewer to dress in the color of a single shade, in this room blue, to become a part of the artwork itself and lose all sense of self and ego so that the viewer may truly experience the work and become a part of it.
As Herb’s intern, I get to work alongside him and understand how work as an artist gets done. As an interviewer, we get to learn more about why he makes his work, what he’s done to get here, and how the “Crayon Man” will evolve.
Interview from September 14th, 2023 between Herb Williams and Qwynn Garrett
QG: Tell me about Alabama, and the beginnings of your involvement with art. How did that community influence your work?
HW: Alabama is a great to be from, but it’s a tough place to exist as an artist. Growing up, I was born in Montgomery, Alabama, and grew up in Prattville, a tiny little town. As a child, I loved to color, I loved to draw. I won my first little art competition in kindergarten. They put some mosaic I made out of paper up in our local strip mall, where I got my hair cut, and that set me on a path. As a child, I would always carry around -I didn’t really fit in doing anything…. My mom had to tell me this later, but people would refer to me as “the kid who would carry around the fruitcake tin.” I’m old enough where you would get a fruitcake for Christmas, then save the tin because it’s so nice. People used it as a doorstop, but I put all my leftover crayons in there. I would use them down to the nubs, because we weren’t rich, and could only afford to buy a pack of 8, or 16, or 24 every now and then. So I would have to use them for as long as I could, and I would just carry around this fruitcake tin of little pieces of crayons with me wherever I went, because I was always drawing.
I did that for a long while. We moved when I was in [fifth or sixth] grade, to a house outside of the city. It had several cliffs of red dirt. The whole of Alabama is full of red clay, but there were cliffs here that would wash down with the rain, and I would go out there with just a spoon and a dinner knife, carve all kinds of figures and animals and strange things into the red clay. Then it would wash away with the next rain, so I would have my own little wall of art for a little while. I guess it was a pre- form of a pop up.
But I grew up on a pecan orchard, and I feel rooted when I’m walking through that orchard. If I feel like I need inspiration, I try to get in the car and go on a long drive back to find it down there.
QG: I know after high school you worked in a bronze casting studio. What about working in the studio helped you learn about creating large scale sculptures?
HW: During college, I apprenticed with a couple of sculptors who worked off campus professionally, and seeing these guys create big public commissions opened my eyes. We got to cast the last sculpture Duane Hanson created, “A Man Riding Lawn Mower.” He was a photorealist sculptor, and it was this 300-pound dude on a John Deere lawn mower (now displayed in The Whitney). The scale, and understanding how something starts off is not exactly where it’s gonna end up. Trying to find your place in that left a huge impression on me. I learned to really think bigger than the page, or the canvas, or a small sculpture. I had never thought outside of those real parameters until working in these other artists’ studios who were doing the kinds of things I had dreamed of doing. The first guy I worked with, his name was Branko Medinica, out of Birmingham. He did the Jesse Owens Memorial. He did really cool abstract, stainless ring-sanded works that were gorgeous. The finish on them is so inspiring because it looks like the steel has cables and layers underneath, it’s this beautiful illusion. He taught me so much, and was responsible for landing me my first job out of college at this bronze foundry down in West Palm Beach, where I learned to cast and do lost-wax casting. It’s where we cast that Duane Hanson, and began to cast some of my own work.
QG: Name a memorable experience from when you worked downtown [in Nashville].
HW: I’ve had a studio in Downtown Nashville since 1999, where my first studio was in the old Downtown Presbyterian Church on 5th and Church. It was 5th avenue then, now it’s been re-named the John Lewis Way, which is cool. One of my favorite memories was when I got to curate with several galleries down there, and helped curate a show where John Lewis showed his graphic novel about his life, called March, that was released a few years ago. He came, and I got to meet him, and introduce my kids to him. It was a momentous occasion because he was just one of my heroes. Working Downtown, you just never know who’s walking down the street. In Nashville, I get to meet several people. It’s a wild city, mostly about music, but I love the energy of it. Probably my most memorable is just how much the city has changed since I’ve started moving studios. I’ve probably had four or five different studios in the middle of downtown simply because it was easier to do that back then, and more affordable, until it wasn’t. Every studio I was at, I would stay at, until the landlord would come to me with, “We love having you here, however- there’s a new tenant who’s offering X amount more to be here, and you can stay if you can match that amount.” It was just a lesson in gentrification, and I had to move so many different times. As soon as I would create an area, I just felt like wherever I went, I’m creating this value that I then can’t enjoy. It felt a little bit like Chelsea, in New York, and how the artists must feel. But on a very small scale, because I feel like Nashville is just one square block of New York City (maybe a couple).
QG: What are some of the perks of creating something so niche? What is some common feedback you get?
HW: As an artist, I learned pretty quickly that you were only good by the work being unique or different from somebody else’s. I love painting, I love photography, I love drawing. But I didn’t feel like anything I was doing was offering anything different in those mediums. So finding the crayons, really kind of blowing out what I can do with them, pushing whatever I could think of that just sounded wild, different, exciting and challenging to me. That’s how [people] refer to me, I’m “that crayon guy” or “the crayon man.” It beats being called several other things I’ve been called. It’s good to be known, but I’d love to experiment in different mediums. That’s a tough part of finding something that works, is people want “it.” They don’t want something new or different, even though you have to continue to do something new or different, or you’re just dead in the water. That’s the hardest part about being an artist. Whatever you make next, has to be better than what you did before, and it’s a challenge, but I love it. It keeps you going.
QG: Do you wish there was a way to make your work more “environmentally friendly”? What are some obstacles you’ve faced from working with wax?
HW: Wax will not break down in landfills, so I feel like I’m doing my small part to keep it out of landfills as much as I can. I do wish there were more environmentally friendly solutions, it would be great to find ways to use it. A friend of mine works with bee’s wax, he creates things that bees then use in their hives, which is inspiring. I love that he’s giving it up to the animal kingdom to let it decide on the result design. I would love to be able to do more with that, but I’m pretty happy with what I’m doing. When I get into a rut, I love to go outside, go to a park, and find big, beautiful trees that have branches I can reach, and take a few cases of crayons and just spend a day stacking. I call it “color nesting,” just stacking crayons in the negative space of the branches and creating these unusual shapes or “wedges” of color. Then taking a photograph of it and boxing up the crayons and taking them home. It would be nice if I could find something that if I leave the crayons, it would be good for the environment.
QG: Yesterday, there was a lockdown at MLK High School because of threats for the school’s safety. How has the lockdown changed your perspective on your two most recent projects, Up in Arms at Merritt Mansion, and Invitation to a Conversation at Bongo East?
HW: Gun violence broke my family. I’ve got two teenagers, my daughter was at MLK yesterday, texted me during the lockdown trying to get me not to worry. Even Though we didn’t know if the shooter was in fact inside the building, or if it was all a hoax, there was so many police and SWAT there like there had never been before.
It’s terrifying, but the projects I have done are in response to the gun violence that impacted my own family. Losing the mother of my children, Amy Williams, was murdered in front of her house five years ago, while my kids were at home, asleep in bed. It broke us, it destroyed us. I know gun violence is not a unique thing anymore in America. In fact, one in eight people have been affected by gun violence, it’s insane. The thing that’s most surprising is that I have to continue to deal with the fact that we refuse to do anything about it. These projects of mine, Up in Arms, and Invitation to a Conversation are an attempt to get people to talk about it, to deal with it, to try and come to terms with where we are and acknowledge we can change things. It does not have to be like this. It’s an ongoing struggle that is very painful because it’s so personal. I did not want to become an activist, at all. It chose me, but I struggle with it because dealing with it brings up a lot of my own pain and trauma.
It’s so important and I work through it because as much as it affects me, I have to do something for my children. This affected me, but it broke them, and I’m just so lucky that we’ve gone through a lot of therapy and they’re healthy.
I don’t know if I have a solution other than to continue to make work that hopefully forces those in power to do something about it. The thing I do like about using art instead of words is that it’s something that politicians usually don’t understand, and it has a larger power, where people can become involved in it and use it in new ways that I can’t even attend. It can turn out better and come up with different solutions and reactions that words simply cannot.
QG: Who are some local artists you would like to work with or people who help encourage the work you make?
HW: Good question. Some of my favorite local artists, Jodi Hays, has some gorgeous new work, oh my gosh. She’s amazing. I’ve been following her work for fifteen, twenty years? She’s been making work for a long time, but it’s changed in the past two or three years to this incredibly satisfying new, abstract, textural, wall sculpture that defies description. Bryce McCloud, I love him and his sense of humor. Alex Lockwood, who’s a local guy who works with bullets and a lot of metal shotgun shells. He’s brilliant. I’d love to do a project with him.
I’d love to create a big curated exhibit where we invite bands to play at the end of the night, a big blowout dance party. It’d be a fundraiser for a local issue, where I invite artists from all over to create work to exhibit and then take on tour because it’s something that has real power to heal and to change. Not many other things can transform you, to where you see something and then have a paradigm shift of your own perception once you experience it.
I was in a few exhibitions several years ago called Manifest Hope Manifest Equality, which were on social justice issues that a young curator named Yosi Sergant created. He invited a hundred different artists from all over the nation, and would put together mega bands to have a giant dance party at the end of the night. He would charge admission and it would take over something like a mall. It was one of the most magnificent projects I’ve ever been involved with, with some of the biggest named artists at the time. I got to hangout with Yosi, with Shepard Fairey who created the Obama Hope, with Ron English, who’s one of the biggest underground painters that LA’s seen. It was unreal, and I’m friends with some of them today. A guy named Diederick Kraaijeveld, who’s an artist in Sweden, creates work out of found wood that he doesn’t paint himself, he only collects wood that has a color on it already, like an old boat or an old wood shop. He’ll take it apart and then use it in a new mosaic of a big portrait. They’re friends I’ve made and still influence me today, through these exhibits. We’ve never had one in Nashville, and it’s beyond time to create one.
QG: Tell me about Pharrell.
QG: Pharrell. Tell me about how you love Pharrell.
HW: Oh Pharrell! I do love Pharrell, I think he’s brilliant. I think he’s maybe a year or two older than me, though you never know. He looks so young. I love his approach, he’s so inspired by other artists and I think it’s a brilliant way to live. He’s got it figured out. He’s got a great sound, and just a great outlook that I’ve always admired. When I found out he became the new designer for the men’s collection of Louis Vuttion, I’d created this series of new patterns after going to some of the protests at the capitol. Taking my kids and having these moments of fear, because it was so crowded I panicked that maybe some of the proud boys there who were armed might start some nonsense, or fire some guns. So I was thinking of creating something they could wear, but that could act as a symbol of your activism. I created this kind of holographic orange pattern. I was hoping that I could show it to Pharrell, not for him to necessarily use it on the outside of his designs, but he could use it as an inside liner of a piece in order to give back and be involved with him. He’s somebody I’ve always looked up to.
Herb Williams’s Selfree will be displayed at the SoHo House Hotel in Nashville Sept. 29-Oct. 1, as part of Artville Festival. Visit artville.org for details and a schedule of all events.
Qwynn Garrett is a creative living in Nashville, TN. Currently in her senior year of high school at Hume-Fogg, Qwynn works mainly in found object sculpture. Whether it be expression through music, sculpture, or journalism, she plans to continue collaborating with other creatives to strengthen the arts community around her.