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Art AND: James Williams II

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James Williams II is taking it one day at a time. As an artist and a parent, it can be difficult to get time alone in the studio, and for most people, having children is as drastic a life change as can be. But Williams, whose children are now 8 and 4 years old, is approaching the next stage of studio life as a parent with positivity, seeing new potential to meld making methods he previously considered hobbies into his new work. 

Before he had children, Williams considered himself a fairly traditional painter, applying oil paint to canvas to make portraits. And when his children were a little younger, he taught himself how to make videos while holding his daughter because he couldn’t paint and hold her at the same time. Now he’s finding ways to incorporate video into his paintings. Other novel elements that he’s worked into his paintings, like simple music, a primary color palette, and velcro, have also been inspirations taken directly from his kids’ toys. Williams acknowledges that parenting is a balancing act, but for him, it’s the amalgamation of what he calls “those small little moments … that we can gravitate to that will, somehow, have a big implication in our own personal work if we allow it to.”

 

James Williams II, But Sometimes It’s Like That I Love Me More, 2018, velcro and oil on panel, 60 x 82 inches

For Williams, the effect of those little moments and, frankly, inspiration from his children, has been profound and altering. Being immersed in the talismans of childhood has helped Williams enter what he calls a “mindset of experimentation.” As he instructs his painting students at MICA, where he became a full-time professor in the fall of 2020 after many years adjuncting, being open to change is an important aspect of being an artist. Williams believes that “if you can be pliable enough, you’ll be able to see [which] things are really important and may be important to your practice.”

Williams grew up in and around Syracuse, New York, and was raised by a single mother of two who worked as a professor and college administrator. And yet, Williams did not even consider becoming a teacher until three years before attending graduate school at MICA’s Mount Royal School of Art, when a colleague suggested it as a good career option for him. Once he settled on teaching as his goal, it still wasn’t immediate—full-time roles in painting departments are incredibly scarce—so Williams spent 11 years adjuncting while working full-time jobs and being in the studio. “I never imagined I would be doing this, honestly,” he says with a laugh. “I was tagging trains and doing graffiti and working for a company doing illustrations—teaching was not the original plan, but I am incredibly blessed.”

It’s clear that Williams brings this same openness to the way he lives his life. Indeed, even before the pandemic, he would tell his family and friends that he was focused on taking things one day at a time. As a result, his approach to instruction is human-focused rather than career-focused. “We don’t know what the next day looks like,” he explains. “You don’t know what the art world will end up becoming. We don’t know how [students] are going to be able to navigate, especially when the rules that we had might not apply to them five, ten years later.”

 

James Williams II, BLK/M/5’8”/Checkered Sweatshirt/Dark Jeans/Brown Boots or in short Self-Portrait with Checkered Sweatshirt, 2017, oil on panel and LCD screen, 16 x 17 inches

Teaching in the pandemic has been incredibly challenging for everyone, putting educators up against what they are employed to do and what has become possible for a population dealing with prolonged loss and shared trauma. Williams manages this by showing his own vulnerability, which he feels makes the classroom “less sterile” and more human. Relating to his students this way, he says, has the effect of “walk[ing] side by side with them and show[ing] them what empathy looks like.” 

Humanity is also the subject of his work, which Williams has previously focused on in paintings depicting an alternate life for Williams’ grandfather, who was absent from his father’s life in his “Little Rooster” series. Since 2017 though, Williams has shifted his focus back to telling his own story, creating a series of self-portraits inspired by questions his daughter Indigo, now 8, had about being Black and about negative representations of Blackness when she was younger. In Williams’ 2017 work, BLK/M/5’8”/Checkered Sweatshirt/Dark Jeans/Brown Boots or in short Self-Portrait with Checkered Sweatshirt (video), the artist embedded a video into a painting of a shirt about where the wearer’s head might be. The blue background of the video is soon filled with William’s hands which create a silhouette of a head in profile. The video shows us both the hands of the artist and the black shadow they create on the blue background—we are always aware of the construction of the shadow as well as the shadow itself.

Watching the video, we see clearly Williams’ larger interest in exploring in satire what he calls “the Black construct” which, he explains, was forged in racism and aligns Black people with anthropomorphized animals and exaggerated cartoons to portray them as “bad.” Williams explains that he “sees this anthropomorphization as a comparison to objects, cartoons, due to the history of being viewed as either human or object throughout history.” Also notable is the way that we can see the artist’s breath—not just as he moves his fingers apart and together to make his shadow head “speak,” but also as he shifts his weight off-camera, swaying slightly from side to side. The piece illustrates both the idea and his method simultaneously, the art and the artifice.

Over Zoom, Williams and I chatted about the weight of the power of influence we wield as college educators, how inspired he is by colleagues in Baltimore, and how healing it can be to forgive, no matter how hard that can be.

SUBJECT: James Williams II, 39
WEARING: Jacket from Army surplus store, Uniqlo pants, Vans, Brxtn hat
PLACE: Zoom

 

James Williams II, installation view of B & G (Butter and Guns) and Calm Before. From "Color of the Day," Williams' 2019 solo show at Resort

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

James Williams II: I have expanded my reading list to a lot of research on various topics. One non-research book I’ve recently enjoyed was Isabelle Graw’s The Love of Painting

You’re from upstate New York and even moved back a couple of times, but ultimately ended up in Baltimore. What makes Baltimore a great and unique place to be an artist? 

I will always have a place in my heart for upstate New York, but coming up on 15 years, Baltimore has become home. When I think of other metropolitan cities what usually comes to mind is their architecture and spaces. When I think of Baltimore I don’t always go to the architecture but instead I think about the people and our communities. Baltimore is great because of the people and the amazing things they do in the city. 

How have you defined success for yourself as an artist? Has this definition shifted at all with time? 

My success as an artist and as a person is intertwined. When I was younger I used to have a warped idea of success that only seemed to accelerate my ego. As I’ve gotten older, success encompasses a lot of things to me. Day to day it’s different, but I’ve come to realize that success is being right where I need to be at this moment. I would not be successful without God, my family, and my friends. I hope to never take them for granted. 

 

James Williams II, Spy vs. Spy, 2019, velcro and oil on panel and canvas, 12 x 12 inches
James Williams II, CP Time, 2019, velcro, oil on panel, clock parts, 9-inch diameter
James Williams II portrait by Justin Tsucalas

Your mom has been a college educator your whole life and is currently a vice president of a community college in upstate New York. Did her career in higher education influence you to pursue teaching yourself or push you another way initially?

I think every child at some point in their life wants something different from their parents’ pursuits. For me, I wanted to be a full-time artist and at that point in my life, I couldn’t imagine teaching higher education like my mom. However, in the summer of 2004, I had a conversation with my friend Sandra while in her studio, and she randomly brought up that I would make a good teacher one day. I laughed it off but unbeknownst to me that conversation would become a seed that would grow over the course of 17 years. 

It is amazing how our lives unfold. Now as a teacher I can see my mom’s influence. She was a single parent of two and there were many times she would have to bring me to work with her. I would see how she interacted with her students on campus. She was compassionate and was able to see something special in them before they could see it in themselves. I want to have that generosity and discernment for my students like her. 

Do you pursue any hobbies in addition to your work? Do you think that these hobbies have any influence or impact on your work or do you view them more as stress relief or a way to unwind? 

I have started a few since the start of the pandemic. I’ve grown into a Lego nerd and play video games when I need some time to relax. They are all hobbies I once did as a kid but now as an adult it is a way to relax and find balance in the high-stress moments.

Do you have a favorite local restaurant or a go-to order? What is it? 

Two off the top of my head are My Mamas Vegan and The Hub Asian Food Hall. They’re both delicious.

As an educator, I’m very careful about the advice I offer to students because they take it very seriously; once a trusted professor tells a student something they can never unhear it. What do you think about the influence you have on your students?

That’s very true. I think any leadership role has some power of influence over another and it’s important we are always mindful of it. There are few people in my life who have mentioned once or twice that they thought I was disappointed in them. They were a student or work-study of mine and they chose a different path in life than what they may have studied in school or set as a goal. I never want anyone to think I’m disappointed in them. Shoot, there have been days when teaching I was afraid I had disappointed others. What an amazing, vulnerable shared experience. I’ve come to realize after almost 40 years that the roads that we travel are not straight and narrow paths, they’re curvy and broad. You sometimes never see where you’re heading until you get there. I hope my influence and advice can lend others to trust and love themselves. Not going to lie, I’m still learning how to do it myself. 

 

James Williams II, Calm Before, 2019, velcro and oil on panel and canvas, 48 x 60 inches
James Williams II, Prom King, 2020, velcro, oil on canvas and panel, 20 x 24 inches
James Williams II, Floating, 2020, felt, raspberry pi, LCD screen, velcro, and oil on panel, 21 x 24 inches

I hope that other educators are thinking about how in the professor-student relationship there is an inherent power dynamic. Sometimes students come to us from extremely traditional high school backgrounds where they feel that they need to call you professor and when they need to send an email, it begins “Dear Sir or Ma’am.” I’ve never been comfortable being an authority figure.

Many will see us as an authority figure and not always in a good way. It is important to me that that kind of power dynamic is broken up. To allow space for them to have a voice and for them to feel comfortable in the created communal space of the classroom. To call me “sir,” or “professor,” elevates me in a way that makes it impossible to engage with them as a people first. What might be the most important for the classroom’s growth is building a community on trust and vulnerability. If students don’t trust you as a person they can’t trust you will have their best interests in mind as their professor. We live in a time where information is so easily accessible. We can learn the fundamentals of basic techniques and implementations online. That being said, it is my belief that the cultivation of learned fundamentals can only happen within a community. Reducing my role’s power dynamic in the classroom can be as beneficial as a man choosing not to man-spread on a crowded subway train. You can trust that I will always have your interest in mind when we sit together to discuss. 

How would you say parenthood has influenced both the material and method of your painting practice?

There was a time when I had to slow down my studio practice. There were moments when I even paused it. As a new parent, the demands and responsibilities of having a new child made it hard to make work. I found my creativity in other ways: fibers, photography, and technology. While exploring new hobbies, I came across new materials. I had collected ideas over the years that I had always hoped to explore. Much of those ideas connected with the materials such as the use of velcro throughout the body of my work. I forgot the moment of inspiration to use velcro but I believe it connected with my children’s toys or clothing. Before I was a parent I think I was afraid to explore and have fun. Sometimes the work that comes out of my studio isn’t always optimistic but I am having a lot of fun making it. I can’t stress how important having fun and experimenting is to me. Kids can teach us how to experiment and to have fun. Maybe you thought the experiment was hot-trash but who knows… it might end up being something special. That’s exciting for me. 

What are the last three emojis you used? Have you given up emojis?

🥴🤦🏾‍♂️🍾. Haha. There must be an interesting story somewhere within those three. Give up on emojis? Nah, not anytime soon. 

 

James Williams II, Chain Gang, 2019, velcro, oil on canvas and panel, 20 x 24 inches
James Williams II, Bae on Vacation, 2019, velcro, oil on canvas and panel, 35 x 49 inches

Your latest body of works centered around the Black construct were in part inspired by questions your daughter Indigo has asked you about race. Do you think about making your art as an opportunity to teach her?

I don’t know if the work I do will necessarily teach my children, but I create it as a way of documenting a conversation. It’s also not one-sided, as there are moments my daughter Indigo has taught me something through her questioning. She sees the simplicity in our complexity as adults. I think all children do. I don’t know, maybe we adults are desensitized and lost our way of seeing what’s in front of us. I remember a time I had mentioned to Indigo that she and I were Black and in a funny way I was rebuked by her. A four-year-old at the time stated that we were brown, not Black. How could I argue? Technically, she was right. Moments like that inspire me to make work. It is my hope that while I have breath in my lungs and as they grow up that I’ll continue to help them navigate life this construct of ours and its belligerent structures. I hope the work I create will make sense to them as they get older. 

Who do you see as your contemporaries? Whose art is yours in conversation with, or if there aren’t any other artists whose work you see your own in, are there structures, places, or other notable influences on you? 

Man. That’s a tough one. There are so many amazing artists, especially locally, whose work I connect with both technically and conceptually. I don’t know if I am at their level but I hope one day to be. These individuals are friends of mine and they inspire me. Katherine Mann and her deep love for painting. Tommy Dahlberg and his ability to weave these complex ideas so simply. Maddie Cutrona and her child-like but fearless exploration of materials. Dominic Terlizzi, in short, is a genius. Speaking of genius: Phaan Howng, Christine Stiver, Taha Heydari, Elliot Doughtie, KT Duffy, Ali Seradge, Carla Brown, Stephen Towns, Valencia James, Mary Baum, Justin Plakas, Rachel Debuque, Stephanie Williams, Cindy Cheng, Chelsea Ragan, Richard Hart, Mandy Cano Villalobos, Alex Ebstein, and Lawrence Lee, to name a few. These individuals inspire me in so many different ways when it comes to my practice. I hope they know it.   

Do you believe in astrology and if so what insights can your signs give our readers into your personality and mindset? 

Oh shoot! It’s crazy how astrology can be accurate at times. As for my personality, well, I’ve been told that I am a Taurus Sun, Capricorn Moon, and Virgo Rising. All I know is my Taurus brothers and sisters get a bad rap… we aren’t stubborn, we are passionate. Haha.

 

James Williams II, School Mascot, 2019, velcro, oil on canvas and panel, 12 x 12 inches
James Williams II, Oh R.E.O, 2019, velcro, oil on canvas and panel, 12 x 12 inches
James Williams II, Car at the Finish Line, 2019, velcro, oil on canvas, and panel, 48 x 60 inches

Who are your art or career heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why were/are they the coolest? 

If he was alive, Pierre Bonnard. His paintings are like poems spoken in color. Martin Puryear’s sculptures made me cry once. Mary Weatherford, Dianna Molzan, Karen Davis, Neo Rauch, and Kerry James Marshall. 

What have you learned the hard way? 

This might sound like a Hallmark card but after losing a lot in my life—time, opportunities, and people—I’ve learned to be more forgiving of the past, grateful for the present moments, and hopeful for the future despite my natural pessimism. 

What would your teenage self think of you today? 

To be honest I don’t think my teenage self would’ve recognized me if we bumped into each other on the street. My teenage self was a scared and angry little boy who carried a lot of pain. He wanted to give up but never did. If and when he does realize who I am, I hope he’s proud of us. We’ve come a long way and I couldn’t have done it without him waking up and giving it another try.  

 

James Williams II, Chuck, 2019, latch
and hook rug, 40 x 16 inches

Portrait photos of the artist by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt. Art images courtesy of the artist.

This story is from Issue 12: More is More, available here.

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