Interview with Kelly S Williams

DLG: You are having a moment! Tell me about some of your recent and upcoming exhibitions.

Kelly S Williams: A 20-year-in-the making moment! But I think what you are getting at is that old adage about things happening all at once. Well, as you know, some shows are planned a year or more in advance, like the show at The Suburban, and then some things just pop-up last minute, like the show at Watkins in September. It all sort of transpired that they are happening in the same few months of 2017. I’d been hearing whispers and updates about the status of American Genre: Contemporary Painting for more than a year from Michelle, but the final information about dates and works included and artists only came in April. That show is hopefully going to travel, too.

DLG: What are you working on? You seem to be shifting back and forth between representational work and the more abstract tondo series. Do these separate bodies of work feed off of each other? Do you require a specific mindset for each?

KSW: I like to have multiple things going in the studio at once, and part of that is just the nature of the painting process. The tondo paintings are on their own strict schedules once the oil paint is applied– they have to be re-worked before it dries completely and after it has set to a firm state. So, that means I can work on something else for a day or two and usually I take that opportunity to really change gears and work on a still-life or landscape. The tondos are really meticulous and tight and repetitive, so I find that the still-lie and landscape works are generally the opposite: loose, unplanned, and quick. I think I’m achieving balance in my studio this way. The work doesn’t really separate into different categories for me, because I see how it all relates–back to the everyday, back to allegory, back to rituals and habits.

DLG: Tell me more about the representational series, how are you choosing the imagery you paint and what is the significance of their smaller scale?

KSW: The imagery of representational work also comes from the everyday…and mostly from photographs I take or have taken. Lots of images of the dog in the garden, or the dog playing with her best friend. I’m not sure if those paintings are smaller just because of necessity or if it’s a conceptual decision. I have one table that is pretty devoted to the tondos and the other table that I keep the oils on is smaller…so, the canvases are smaller. I think they might get scaled up a bit, but the restraints are what they are.

DLG: What or who are you looking at? What drives you visually in the studio?

KSW: Who am I looking at these days…let me look at the search history and instagram real quick…

Tauba Auerbach

Theodora Allen (pretty obsessed with that work)
Laura Owens (long time running obsession)

Actually, almost everyone on the David Kordansky line-up in L.A….Jen Guidi paintings interest me because her process feels complicated and messy and precise and I like that.

I’m listening to the 2 Dope Queens podcast, by the way. It is life-saving in the studio right now.

DLG: You have mentioned that your grandmother was a quilter, hence all the fabric. Do you think about femininity or the significance of a particular fabric or pattern when making the tondo pieces? Do you think about the historical significance of women and quilting or does that enter into how you approach this series?

KSW: Well, for me, my grandmother was the ultimate cultural producer in my life. Talk about everyday rituals and habits! I would like to think I’ve been able to adopt her work ethic in my life, but she truly was astounding. We found a closet stocked with hand-made quilts (and I mean, all hand-stitched, right down to the piecing and quilting) after she passed away in 2015, and that was in addition to the quilts she’d already made and delivered to her children and grandchildren. She was the only woman in the town (and nearby towns) with a monogramming machine, so she also did all of the towels, the uniforms, the jackets, etc. for the Belk’s department store and all the people who just dropped in with their things. She made clothes from patterns she and her sister drew by hand on paper bags after looking at the mannequins in the shop windows. It is hard for me to understand all the skills she had. All that said, I’ve tried to shift the conversation away from the pretty worn-out discussion of “women’s work”. I just don’t think many contemporary artists are adding to that conversation in any new or exciting ways these days. It pretty much played out in the 1970’s, right? I guess what I’m hoping for is more of a discussion about the location of one’s home as the nexus of “work”. Whether that work is made by men or women.

DLG: I probably agree that not many contemporary artists are adding anything new to that conversation, however I am less interested in discussing the idea of “womens work” than how growing up with such a strong presence like your grandmother affected your idea of quilt making, sewing etc. and if you see any significance in that relationship to why you are drawn to these fabrics and most importantly why you decided to become an artist in the first place.   I think it interesting that you choose to replicate these fabrics in such a painstaking manor, is that related to your grandmother’s dedication to an equally labor intensive craft? I also think that the boundary between craft and art is becoming more blurred. Do you agree?

KSW: Right, I kind of skipped over your more important questions and went on a tangent about my grandmother, didn’t I? Anyway, I do think the boundary between craft and art is becoming more blurred…or at least, that distinction matters less to popular culture. They are seeing both art and craft and the hybrid delivered through the same platforms: Pinterest, Instagram, blogs, etc. so there’s not much context delivered in that half second scroll of where the work was made or how it was made or even who made it. Only if you are curious about something do you click on it and take the time to read the context. I haven’t really assigned a judgement to this process, but I’m noticing it more and more. Growing up, I was frustrated to the point of tantrums when I went to the fabric store with my grandmother. She would adamantly refuse to make something for me if she didn’t approve of the fabric I chose for the project. She had final veto power on that issue, which to me, was the most crucial part of the whole arrangement. Fast forward 30 years and I finally get it—who wants to labor on a project for so long if the pattern isn’t compelling in some way? She was as discerning about quality, too. So, my need to represent those textiles so faithfully is something I can easily trace to her ideas about what made something “good” or “worthwhile”. Utility and style were working hand-in-hand there.

I think I saw her stitch work metered out in pixels. You know, embroidery designs are grid-based and you are given instructions to follow based on the grid. That was how I approached observational drawing or painting when I was a student. I just imagined a very large embroidery design transposed over what I was looking at and tried to estimate distances between landmarks in terms of the grid. It isn’t a very big leap from stitches to pixels. It’s all performed on screens. Which is also why televisions appeared in my paintings.

I also think I envied her ability to effectively disappear from the world in plain sight while she worked. Everyone would hang out in the living room after dinner, watching Wheel of Fortune on the giant console television, but she had her chair and her work light and a project to work on and she kept an ear to the conversation or television, but at the same time, she was gone. She was also left alone by the rest of us when she was working in that chair…for the only time in her day.  So, I learned about the power of meditation, too. Those are things I think most artists recognize in their own practices, right?

DLG: You received your MFA in Chicago and have lived in Nashville for some time now. Do you feel living in the south plays a role in the direction of your work or how you think about it?

KSW: So, I’m from Nashville, was born and raised here and moved away for college (Poughkeepsie, NY) then graduate school in Chicago (SAIC) and then I stayed up there for a few years before moving back home. I came back because I could see a better quality of life for me here than in NYC or Chicago, for example. At the time, most of my friends graduating from SAIC I think saw that decision as career-suicide. No one was moving to a city like Nashville, with a very small and pretty inconsequential visual art scene in relation to the big art market cities. But, I guess I didn’t care and I think I knew that my home life would work hand in hand with my work life and that had to be my primary focus. I needed a yard and a dog and a climate suitable to both. A very wise graduate school mentor told me that it was okay to do that and the art world would eventually catch up– the long game is always the better game. I believe that is true.

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