Interview: William Downs

illiam Downs, Too Tired, 2018, india ink on paper

by Karley Sullivan


illiam Downs, Too Tired, 2018, india ink on paper


You set up your materials at the easel or on the drawing horse. Open to a blank page. Flip past drawings, noting what you felt worked or didn’t, engaged with your own mark-making, perhaps chiding yourself for not being able to truly capture the complexity of what you’ve seen. The model will arrive soon. The group of people around you contribute to a buzz of activity: the whisper of paper, greetings and styluses clinking softly, a pencil sharpener grinding. You walk around saying hello, eyeing other people’s drawings. The model walks in, wrapped comfortably in a loose robe. They greet the instructor – maybe that’s you. Pleasantries ensue, a break-down of the pose lengths and time schedule. A step onto the platform or a settling onto a chair. Centralized. Seen from all angles. They disrobe, becoming naked, nude, exposed, exhibiting, being seen. You bow into making marks.


You disrobe, find a position, freeze, and breathe into the time. The first few poses are brief, only one minute. Your body is stretched into a posture that wouldn’t be feasible much longer. An arm up, inner elbow taut, you find a spot on the wall to gaze at. Breathe. You didn’t realize that your toes were pointed but realize it now as the position holds. Breathe, rib-cage lifting slightly, you wonder, “can they see that from there? Can they see, even hear, my pulse”? Scratching, rubbing sounds of marks being made on paper fills the air. Time is called and the pose ends. You change positions, turning to share other planes of your body with the group.


There’s an inherent interdependency that arises as an artist works with their materials. Whatever they set their sights on – whether it be a model, concept, or the germane labor necessary to sustain a lifelong creative practice – that object is also dependent on the focus that the artist provides. Artists also need community – to look at and be seen by other creative people. In his book, The Right to Look, a Counterhistory of Visuality, Nicolas Mirzoeff writes, “I want to claim the right to look. This claim is, neither for the first or the last time, a right to the real… The right to look claims autonomy, not individualism or voyeurism, but the claim to a political subjectivity and collectivity.[1] Karley Sullivan and William Downs engage in conversation about various interchanges of looks and the kinship between artists, their subjects and community.



Hi William, we met when both of us were rather painfully disentangling from relationships that had lasted a decade. Since then, I’ve come to count you among my closest compatriots in this strange endeavor of being an artist. When I reached out to you for this conversation, the impulse was anchored in that deeply personal connection and our mutual appreciation for drawing and the human body. The theme for this issue is dependency…which is a valuable term, but I prefer to centralize interdependency in our conversation. I’d like to start with drawing the human form, which was what brought us together in the first place.


Nice. Yeah, I remember that, you were looking at grad schools trying to decide whether to apply with a portfolio of paintings or photographs. All of your work at that time was really in the body.


Yah, I was so into meeting the new figure person in town and delighted that you approached it with as much loving fascination as I felt. So, I’m gonna riff on that and then bat you a question…


Drawing is a sensual medium, and one that lends itself with ease to subjectivity. When I draw to the tune of a live model, I feel a deep fascination with the body before me as it materializes on the page. The small shifts of form as they inevitably move and the changing cascade of light and shade across their shapes can actually evoke a trance state as my eye and hand circle forms. I’ve also figure modeled many times. My body is compactly muscular, female, small – almost a technical little person, and my skin is very white – like weirdly translucent. I am acutely aware of my body most of the time. I’m also aware of how my body can be objectified, ignored, and even pathologized by the capitalist-patriarchal society that scaffolds our lives. Figure modeling made me much kinder to my own body, and figure drawing can take me completely of that onism to be in tandem, like dancing, with another person. How does your physicality play into your practice?


I’m an athlete, and I’ve placed my body under extreme conditions by training for track or biking on a velodrome track with a fixed-gear bicycle. So, for me, I’m aware of body structure based on days of weight lifting, sweating, stretching, climbing to the highest point on a hill, then going back down, breathing, sweating, and constantly thinking about endurance, muscle mass, muscle building, breaking bones, repairing my muscles. When I teach life drawing, the things that flash through my mind is how a body stretches, how it feels, its mobility and composition. I talk about the body structure and how it’s made up of muscle, blood, water, heat, sweat, and energy – and that knowledge is born of my own physicality.


What about in your studio practice


I use the figure as a form to express feelings, sensations, emotive states of being. I’ve had formal training in drawing and painting, but now I get more out of it when the figure breaks apart into multiple lenses or genders. My figures have motley feelings, and those contractions become juxtapositions of emotional and sexual experiences within a single form. Then whatever I’ve been reading or listening begins to bleed into the creation of a narrative.


Ah yes, the bleed. Doing a graduate program in photo/media took me out of the body and into thoughts of social and visual apparati, framing, time – it’s still blowing my mind. I still feel like a wild-eyed reader and less like a practicing artist. RN, I’m reading Ariella Azoulay’s Civil Imagination and musing on the ongoing “event of photography”. This is the idea that a photographic image branches far beyond the frame of the imagemaker’s intent and functions as an indexical artifact to be interpreted through multiplicitous lenses. The index is collective and shifts with time and revealed knowledge. What are you reading or listening to right now that’s seeping into your work?


Merle Haggard’s Roses in the Winter. I had just gotten the word that my father had passed away. I said goodbye to Michi (Meko) and took off driving to South Carolina to be with my mom. I was doing 125 in my Subaru Outback in an intense rainstorm. When I crossed the state line, the radio station went from rock to country. Merle Haggard was the featured musician, and they played several of his songs. Roses in the Winter has stuck with me ever since. It was so painfully beautiful. The work that began with that song is now up at the Zuckerman Museum as part of the Figure Forward exhibition.


When I photograph or draw someone, there’s the potential for eroticism, though it’s not necessarily a sexual sensation. This charge fills the space between the figure and I, and then again between my eyes and hands. I touch them with my gaze, and my hands run across the paper becoming a record of that contact. I’m dependent on them before me, and the materialization of their form reimagined is dependent on me. What gives you a sense of intensity or charge that then feeds into the eroticism in it?


I approach between the tease or voyeurism. There’s no penetration in my figures. There is an implied suggestion of such but no consummation. And I believe that the charge, like with you, is due to the way that I actually think through my work by using touch and the movement of my hands. This gives the viewer a window into, “Oh, there’s something going on here”. I like that softness, that gaze where you’re waiting for something to happen, and feel the longing, but with no full impact. Artists like Francesco Clemente and Marlene Dumas also keep the viewer on that teetering line, and that’s the place that I draw from. You get the beginning or the aftermath, and that’s enough. I want people to think about their desire.


We’ve sat for each other. By the way, you’re a great model, one of my favorite people to draw. Can you describe what it’s like to switch positions and become the figure being drawn?


It’s as if the director is switching roles with an actor. They know how to do the things that the actor is trying to figure out how to do. When you’re a model who is also an artist who works from the figure, you know the script. You know how to place your body in contrapposto, or how foreshortening may play into the composition. You try to give that back to the artist who is drawing you. You switch over and do what you would want the model to do for you.


When I’ve worked on very large surfaces in public there’s a performative aspect, and my body working is also in the frame – even after I’m gone, in that the viewer is able to empathically experience their own body in relation to the mark-making. On the other hand, working on series of small drawings is a private exercise that I feel is more born of an inner life. How do the different processes of making numerous small drawings and also working on large scale paintings in public feed your practice in relation to each other?


The little drawings keep me fresh and keep ideas pouring out. When I go to work on a large wall, I bring many small drawings and lay them on the floor. They become characters that I’ve created, and in the wall drawings they now have space to perform actions. They go out and create a kind of orgy of humans doing something together, whether it’s a circus, or parade, or doing yoga positions in a group. The private and public practices combine to provide structure and narrative.


I had a rural and isolated youth; there were problems with drug and alcohol addiction in the community, and trust was a big issue. I can sometimes still see that surface when meeting folks. My painting mentor, Kristin Calabrese, gave me the best advice. She said, quite simply, “be generous”. Since then, I’ve just kept gravitating towards folks and spheres of influence that welcome me and where I can find a way to contribute. How do you find and build authentic relationships in your community?


My mother was very social and stressed the importance of family first. I’m also very curious about people in general. I continually tell my students that their classmates can be their most valuable connections, and I practice what I preach. Beginning in undergrad and then grad school, I met friends who became like family. And then, being an art worker (installer) means that you meet people as a trusted laborer as well as a practicing artist. So, from the experience of being an art worker, I’ve made friends with curators who introduced me to other curators who then showed my work. So, it starts with the individual artists, work ethic, and then continually reaching out to meet new people. I make sure that I keep touching base with folks that I meet. All those relationships can become your family, your art family. The upside of social media is that it has made that connection easier and faster.


Yeah, it’s beautiful to link into a web of creatives and then watch that spin wider and back on itself. The first place that many creatives find art kin is through artist-run collectives. I moved to Atlanta in 2009 and joined the dance community as a photographer with gloATL and Lucky Penny. The choreographers and technicians, particularly Malina Rodriguez of Lucky Penny, really brought me in. Through that I met arts writer Andrew Alexander way back in 2010. A few months ago, after living in Los Angeles for several years, Andrew called to invite me to work with ArtsATL under his editorial purview. I was so excited, like, “YES”! Since then, I’ve been visiting the South often to meet and photograph various artists; Michi Meko, Bojana Ginn, Jill Frank, and yourself included. I’ve also been back to the ArtsXchange, where I once had a studio next to Mark Leibert, who now shares space with you. Those relationships that began almost a decade ago continue to flourish and feed my life practice. You cofounded Day Night Projects in Atlanta – can you talk about participation in artist-run projects, and what that means to you?


When I previewed this question, it struck this memory chord from my teenage years. I was in downtown Greenville, South Carolina, and saw a flyer with some artists’ names on it. They were calling themselves a collective, and I was like, “What is that?” So, I wrote down the date and went to the opening. I walk in and it’s just someone’s apartment, but not – and that felt so novel, so incredible to be in a home that was also a space for an intentional art gathering. I met one of the guys in the group and asked him, “What is this collective about?” He was like, “Well, it’s five black guys who get together, and we talk about art. We talk about money. We talk about how we’re gonna show our work.” And I was like, “Wow! And it’s just y’all?” He’s like, “Yeah. Would you like to come to one of our meetings?” I was like, “Yes!” You know, I’m like 14, 15. So, I go and am just blown away by their collectivity and support. That opened up an idea of art-related community and informed me to as to how creatives can work together in the world.


Day & Night Projects is a reincarnation of collectives that I’ve participated in since that initial taste of collectivity. Mark Leibert, Steven Anderson, and I open space for fresh, poetic intersections; we don’t limit what the exhibiting artists can do. It is a small space, so it’s challenging. We like that people have to come in and figure out how to manipulate such a small space and make it feel epic, even heroic in their own way. I want the artist to do the things that they couldn’t do somewhere else. Even though we’ve got to have some selectivity when people submit work, we don’t leave out the people that we say no to. No simply means that we put them in a folder and keep our eyes open for how they can participate in the future because we do want to work with that person at some point.


Fantastic, that about wraps it up. I want to show at Day Night, let’s talk about it. Thanks to Mike Calway-Fagen, of my art family and undergrad cohort, for inviting me to put together this conversation. Thanks William, I love ya.


Wonderful, I love you too.


William Downs is professor of drawing at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. He is also co-founder of Day Night Projects, an artist-run space southwest of downtown Atlanta. His work is in current exhibitions at the Birmingham Museum of Art, the Zuckerman Museum of Art, and the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis. He holds a BFA from the Atlanta College of Art and an MFA in drawing and painting from MICA.


Karley Sullivan is an artist-photographer based in Los Angeles. She has exhibited at Yogiga Art Space in Seoul, Whitespace Gallery in Atlanta and is in the current exhibition at ArtCenter College of Design’s Williamson Gallery. She is a regular contributor to ArtsATL, and her work has been published in Burnaway, Bomb Magazine, and The New York Times. She holds a BFA in drawing from the University of Tennessee and an MFA in Photo/Media from CalArts.


Karley Sullivan loves people and keeps trying to trust the process.