Herb Williams: The Subtext of Crayons
“My intent is to continue to seriously create art that looks at itself unseriously.” – Herb Williams
A large dog, featuring contour labels, created in crayon was my first sighting of a Herb Williams sculpture. Across the gallery, the medium of creation was not immediately evident. There was a pointillism affect, but closer examination revealed the crayons tips.
Crayola Crayons are the first choice medium for Nashville, Tennessee artist Herb Williams. However, it was a rough road discovering this medium. Trained in sculpture, Williams reports, “I tried everything, in every medium I could think of - I could not find it. I really felt I had no way to go."
Perhaps another artist would have made themselves happy picking a medium and simply moving forward; Williams was unwavering in “finding my own voice. How you set yourself apart as an artist is only relevant if what you are saying is unique.” On William’s website his words are captured in a short documentary, The Call of the Wild, by Jeremy Adams, describing a dream where Williams saw a giant sculpture created out of crayon. He had found his voice.
Williams works out of a studio in downtown Nashville, where he creates sculptures and bodies of work, often in large scale. Using his skills from summer construction jobs and years studying and creating bronze castings, Williams uses a child’s tool to create sculptures that explore iconic images and sometimes darker themes: “sexuality, religion and social hierarchy. I like to explore man’s place in the world of nature.”
His themes are representative in the titles of his bodies of work: Call of Contour, Call of the Wild, Plunderland, The End of Nature, The Color of Luck. Williams likes titles and language and he often incorporates words into or onto his artwork.
“Word play when done right can transform into art.” But color plays an equally strong component: “The sculptures are childlike in their curious approach to the object as icon, but beguiling and satisfying to me in the use of color as pure form.”
Color is also part of the communication. I asked his favorites of the Crayola colors. Season is one he is working a lot with right now. Love Dandelion is a favorite. Carnation Pink, “it is amazing what it can do in small batches.” Color can be unspoken“communication.” The stripes of color adorning his animal sculptures, are also representive of animals hiding in plain sight. They can only be seen (or saved) by paying attention.
Williams speaks often of paying attention. And what we can see and discover if we are paying attention. He states, “I often revisit the same themes again and again. If I pay attention and really look at them again, I can see there is more work to be done. I am never finished.”
Creating the larger scale sculptures is a process. Wall sculptures are mounted on panels of wood, to support the weight (“crayons are heavy”). Large sculptures are sculpted with clay, then brushed with fiberglass paint. “It is an arduous process, but I love it – It is like therapy. I get a lot of ideas when I am working, so it is a real commitment to a sculpture to finish.”
The clay must be hollowed out to reduce the weight. Then the crayons are added. Williams rarely uses full sized crayons. Usually the tips. As always, artists discover unique tools, for Williams dog toenail clippers work best; each crayon is cut by hand. The crayons are bonded to the art by the paper – wax is a release agent. William's dog sculptures sell in the neighborhood of $7500. - a reflection of the time and skill needed to create one sculpture.
Crayola crayons are the best. Williams is the only individual wholesaler of crayons. “I’ve tried them all, I have even cast my own, and Crayola is what I use, and it smells the best.” Do not underestimate the added sense of smell in relationship to Williams work. Crayons smell wonderful in mass. “Crayons are a gateway drug,” says Williams. I agree. The smell of crayons is one of the most nostalgic, if not the most nostalgic smell that brings you back to childhood.
The Plunderland exhibit, at the Rare Gallery in Chelsea, an enclosed gallery installation piece, must have smelled somewhat magical. Plunderland was created after the recession, and focused on “finding your place after loss.”
Williams is a prolific creator of artwork. A recent show at the A.E. Backus Museum and Gallery in Ft. Pierce, Florida exhibited so much work I initially thought it was a retrospective. Williams admits, “I don’t sleep much.”
I always ask any artist working in an alternative medium, "Are you concerned about the permanency of the material?" Williams pondered, "Crayons are more permanent than we are; they will last as long as we will. It is not about the medium - it is the idea that is worth doing."
A Few More Facts:
Website: Herbwilliamsart.com. Herb Williams is the co-founder and curator of The Rymer Gallery in Nashville. "I love my job, if I have to have a title artist/curator is pretty good." He is a Dad and a musician. He is also a painter, though he often uses it simply as inspiration for sculptures. He sometimes “tags” his paintings on locations around Nashville. Crayola has purchased one of his sculptures. Williams likes to say he is from L.A. – lower Alabama. A fun part of this interview was hearing some honky-tonk through the phone as Williams walked from his studio to his next appointment. Was it Printers Alley or Broadway, or simply a studio with their door open? I don’t know.
Special thanks to Andrew at The Rymer Gallery. If you were not doing your job so well, this article never would have been written.