Everything Imaginable: An Interview with Artist Herb Williams
Herb Williams took a leap of faith when he started sculpting with crayons. “You have to embrace your crazy if you want to succeed as an artist,” he says. “My career didn’t begin until I took the greatest risk I could afford—and I almost couldn’t afford it. I had an insane idea, and because I was able to actualize it, exhibit it and sell it, I’m not running from debt in Mexico to this day. Instead, people take me seriously; they even call me an artist.”
The Nashville-based sculptor talked with ALIVE about how crayons have allowed him to create truly original work and bring fun to the field of art, as well as the series of wild animal sculptures he’s currently working on (which will be displayed in the new international terminal of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport).
ALIVE: How did you wind up in Nashville?
Herb Williams: I tell people I grew up in L.A., but that’s “Lower Alabama.” After going to college in Birmingham, I moved to South Florida to work at a bronze foundry, where I learned lost-wax casting—like how Rodin cast “The Thinker.” I lived there for a few years before moving to Nashville in 1998, just after the April 15 tornado outbreak swept through the middle of Tennessee, with two touching down in the city, causing significant damage to the downtown and East Nashville areas. I’ve been based there ever since.
ALIVE: As an artist, do you feel supported by the Nashville community?
I do. You know, in the South, it’s tough to make a living as an artist. Most artists I know do something else to support their “habit;” it’s expensive to purchase all the necessary materials and it’s not like we’re selling a work of art every day. However, Nashville has an extremely supportive community, which is expanding all the time. It is one of the friendliest places I’ve ever lived—there is something to be said for Southern hospitality; it’s real—but I think the concentration of singer-songwriters in the area has something to do with it, too. They are the salt of the earth and they add to the creative, exuberant vibe of the city.
Also, we get so many people coming to Nashville from out of town—tourists willing and excited to invest in local artistry—that it is possible to make a living as an artist. That’s been my lifelong goal, and although it took approximately 20 years, I was finally able to achieve it: I am making a living on my own art.
“Ring of Fire” (2011), an installation piece by Williams, exhibited on the campus of Texas Tech University to represent deadly wildfires that blazed in Lubbock, Texas.
ALIVE: Did you always want to be an artist?
For the most part. My grandfather and my father were both pilots, so as a kid, that’s what I wanted to be. When I found out I needed glasses, and subsequently couldn’t be a fighter pilot, I followed my other passion: drawing, creating, art. I used to carve into the red clay cliffs around my hometown. Especially after it rained, the clay was just soft enough for me to make really interesting figures and abstract shapes. I loved it. It made me feel something I couldn’t fully understand at the time, but I knew I was different and that I could be something different.
There were no artists where I grew up, so it was a path I had to make for myself. In college I tried every kind of material I could get my hands on: stone and steel, wood and clay. Then, at the bronze foundry, I worked for a famous artist who showed pieces in prestigious galleries all over the United States; that experience really opened my eyes to the art world. I saw how far you can go as an artist. I got to meet other inspiring sculptors, as well, such as Dale Chihuly and Duane Hanson, before he died. Hanson was one of the last photorealist sculptors. My favorite piece of his that we cast was “Man on Mower” (1995), which was this giant guy—he must have been 350 pounds—drinking a Coke atop a John Deere riding lawn mower. It was wonderful. Hanson had such a great sense of humor.
ALIVE: After working with so many different materials, what inspired the use of Crayola crayons in your sculptures?
Having an apprenticeship is very important—I recommend it to most artists. There are so many things, both good and bad, you have to learn about the field of art that school cannot teach you. But after working for a couple of years in Florida, I knew I had to start creating something myself.
I moved to Nashville and began creating the first series of my own work. I made dozens of the worst sculptures and paintings you could imagine. I was experimenting with everything I could think of, which was partly a product of the times: It was the late ’90s, a time when artists around the world were testing out new mediums. I remember seeing a show by Scottish sculptor and installation artist David Mach, who assembled his pieces out of match heads, and I was blown away.
So I continued experimenting, but I was getting frustrated. I couldn’t find anything that I considered truly original. One night I broke down and burned a lot of the work that I felt was terrible. Then I drank a fifth of Jack Daniel’s, passed out and had one of the most vivid dreams of my life. In it, I saw a sculpture made out of crayons. Luckily I keep a sketchbook next to the bed because I woke right up and started drawing what I’d envisioned. I don’t know if it was divine intervention or what, but I’ve been working with crayons ever since.
“Chanel Poodle,” part of Williams’ series of dog sculptures, “Call of Couture.”
ALIVE: How did you proceed from there? Was there a lot of trial and error?
Definitely it took some trial and error. For example, you can’t use the whole crayon, otherwise the sculpture would be so abstract that you wouldn’t be able to tell what it is, or it would be so heavy that you couldn’t move it. So I cut the crayons using an X-ACTO blade, and I quickly learned that it takes hundreds, if not thousands, of crayons to create anything sizable enough to make sense of.
You know exactly how many crayons you’re getting in a box of 64, and that will get you about four square inches. I decided to reach out to Crayola and was able to order boxes of individual colors, which was helpful, but still expensive. But I was hooked; I was producing sculptures that I could be proud of.
I don’t like to get into the intricate details of my process because I don’t want to reveal too much of the magic, but I start by building an armature, which I then cover with the crayons. I attach the crayons using an industrial adhesive made by a company in Texas, where, as you know, everything is bigger and better—you just have to use a chisel to remove any you might misplace. [Laughs.]
It’s funny, the people to whom I have explained the whole process—usually schoolteachers who want to do a similar project with their students—will call me about a week later and say, “You can have it. You’re crazy.”
ALIVE: How long does it take you to complete a sculpture?
It depends how big it is, but I’m usually working on several pieces at once to create a body of work that explores a single idea. For instance, I did a series, “Call of the Wild,” about creatures of the natural world communicating through color. I sculpted wolves, deer, birds, tree trunks and branches. It was very meditative going back and forth between pieces. And the bigger ones that are composed of hundreds of thousands of crayons took months.
From Williams’ series “Call of the Wild.”
ALIVE: You recently had an exhibition at The Rymer Gallery, a contemporary fine art space in Nashville. What are you working on next?
I’m calling it “The Wall of Boom.” It’s a series of boom boxes, Walkmans, even a turntable and microphone, which will spark feelings of nostalgia in any child of the ’80s. The theme came to me when I was thinking about mixtapes and how much I miss them; I always thought of them as a form of poetry, and it used to be my favorite form of communication. So I’m trying to recreate as many kinds of boom boxes as I can, enough to cover a whole wall—the wall of boom.
To promote the series, I took a photo of my 16-year-old son in a trench coat, in front of an old Malibu, holding one of my crayon boom boxes over his head like John Cusack in “Say Anything” and posted it on Instagram. I guess you could say the series is my way of creating something fun, something that can be a communal experience, something that can bring us all together again; if you remember, people used to gather around a boom box like primitive man around fire. This is my way of recalling my youth and explaining to my kids why my generation is so much better than theirs. [Laughs.]
ALIVE: You’re also working on six sculptures for the new international terminal of Atlanta’s airport. Tell me about that series.
Well, in order to enter the new terminal, passengers have to ascend a long escalator. To the left of the escalator are six tiered, black granite pedestals, each with a massive platform on top. And the airport thought it would be nice to set sculptures up there as a point of interest.
I proposed a design for six sculptures of wild animals that would treat the black granite platforms as a single body of water, almost like a stream or waterfall cascading down the side of the escalator. Each animal will be crossing the water—making ripples in it, partially submerged in it—and they will be ferrying a smaller animal in their antlers or on their back or belly. It’s a strange narrative, and I’m not sure this scenario would ever happen in real life, but I think it’s a nice concept: giving safe passage to another creature in need.
Sketches of two of Williams’ six new sculptures for Atlanta’s international airport.
I’ve always thought nature is an artist’s best source of inspiration, you just have to pay attention, and there’s such beauty in not being quite so literal. Art is incredible in that you can communicate without words. And I love that an individual’s interpretation upon encountering a work can be completely unique—and completely different than the message the artist intended to convey, for that matter. With this in mind, I want to create sculptures that speak for themselves.
Images courtesy of Herb Williams.