Bernard Williams was born in Chicago and grew up on the far south side. He holds a BFA degree from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Northwestern University in Evanston. He has been commissioned to create many large-scale outdoor murals in Chicago and in other cities and is represented by the Thomas McCormick Gallery in Chicago, Slate Gallery in Brooklyn, and the G.R. N’Namdi Gallery in Miami and Detroit. He is a member of the Senior Artist Circle of Chicago Public Art Group. Williams was interviewed on April 25th, 2013 in his studio in West Humboldt Park. See http://bernardwilliamsart.com for more information.
Daniel Tucker (DT): What kind of artistic communities you were drawn to or interacting with when you were first starting to make artwork?
Bernard Williams (BW): Well, maybe I will start with after school then, after getting a Masters degree [at Northwestern], some of the first work that I got involved with was helping high-schoolers making murals. I was assisting the director of the murals program at the Marwen Foundation. And, you know, Marwen is still working with high-schoolers, helping kids figure out how to make art and how to put together portfolios for going to college around art making. So, they’ve been doing that a long time and that was one of the first kind of connections after [I went to] school in terms of connecting some of the skills I had been developing with the public, you might say. And that was a segway into doing more of that kind of work as more of the artistic leader with the Chicago Public Art group and connecting with that whole history of community murals.
DT: You’ve had a sustained relationship with the Chicago Public Art Group. How did that relationship begin?
BW: I think it was through Marwen. Chicago Public Art Group, or CPAG, did a collaboration with the Marwen Foundation. I think that’s when I met the Chicago Public Art group. Jon Pounds was the executive director there. And so we did a project together. I think I was actually working for Marwen at the time so that was a beginning of a relationship with CPAG. I think after doing that project that summer I connected with them to do other projects, some of the first ones being restoring older murals. And I think as an artist that was probably a pretty transformative moment when I actually kind of encountered some of the early outdoor murals around Chicago.
DT: Is that stuff you had been familiar with or were you encountering it for the first time?
BW: It was definitely for the first time. I had never learned anything about that work at school or even at the Marwen Foundation; even though we were making murals, there was no talk about the broader history of murals in Chicago. And Chicago really is the kind of home of the community murals movement, [in many] respects. So, making the connection with that work and that history was a real eye-opener, because that work involves some of kind of muralistic ideas I had been looking at as a student but it was outside on a wall as opposed to a museum or a gallery and it often involved collaborating with other artists or even untrained artists or students or something. So, it was a whole different paradigm. And it was kind of interesting.
DT: When you were restoring murals, how much did you think about the original content or did you interact with any of the people who made them originally?
BW: Yeah I did.
DT: Were there discussions about the content? Because a lot of time they are representing history but they are also from a historical moment that is not the present.
BW: Yeah, and there was that kind of collision when I restored Calvin Jones mural, this guy was a real Africanist, very kind of afro-centric and very much connected to the Sixties movement with a nice dose of this kind of anger around white people and feelings of neglect and disenfranchisement. And I had to admit that I didn’t quite feel it as deeply as he felt it and I think he did view me with a certain amount of suspicion because I didn’t chime in as completely around some of his issues. So there was that kind of generational edge around that, but I think the key… He was concerned and interested in the fact that we wanted to preserve his work. So he was definitely on board with bringing back this old mural. And I think I restored a couple of Calvin’s murals.
But those are really important visual statements here in Chicago that kind of capture and give voice to African American history and culture in Chicago. I think there has been a lot of passion and excitement around some of the early murals in particular…Bill Walker was the other big influential person in the community murals activity. And I’ve restored a couple of his murals and had some direct contact with him during that, you know, conversations where he’d come out a talk to us about what was working, what wasn’t working, and his process. One of the big differences is that a lot of those murals were done with oil based paints, which didn’t hold up as well as the acrylic paints we were doing murals with at that time. So, even though those guys had switched to acrylic paints by then, a lot of their early work was in oil and badly deteriorated.
So, those are two characters from the early days of Chicago mural making, both of whom are gone now. Bill died a couple of years ago and so did Calvin. So, I think I actually have a direct connection to maybe the lineage of the kind of mural making those guys were involved in. I don’t think I am the only one but… I had some interesting direct contact with both of those guys.
DT: Did you ever have an occasion to talk to them about your thinking on the present or about what the murals meant at the moment that you were restoring them?
BW: Yeah, there wasn’t much of that, especially with Calvin… He was very protective of his work and the look of it, very aggressively. Bill Walker was less so. But with both of those guys we were really interested in a pretty direct replication of what they had done. So we were really trying to get colors right, as close as we could to what those guys had done. So there wasn’t a whole lot of space for me to express my own ideas. That did happen more recently with a mural we restored in Hyde Park.
DT: The Spirit of Hyde Park? I’m really interested in that.
BW: Yeah, we called that a “restoration and reinterpretation” of the mural. So part of my task was to insert some new material along with restoring areas of the original mural.
DT: And was the, it was Astrid Fuller?
BW: Yeah, Astrid Fuller was the original artist there. Apparently, she worked some with Bill Walker on that piece and you can kind of see areas where we think that Bill Walker did some of the painting.
DT: Was she involved in your restoration and rethinking?
BW: Reinterpretation. Some. Not a whole lot. Probably to her chagrin. I don’t think she was crazy about the way they got restored or reinterpreted. There was a little bit of anxiety from some of the older community there around that mural. I mean, I would argue that we probably didn’t do the best job with engaging interested parties at the start of that project and I guess I will take some blame for that but I think even as an organization there should have been a little more outreach around what people felt reinterpreting that mural. So, I don’t know, it did produce a bit of anxiety around there. I had a meeting with some people after it was all done who were really unhappy with it.
DT: That’s too bad. I think that’s bound to happen whether you get buy-in or not. But I’m really interested in it also in contrast to your earlier restoration work that was so much about honoring the past and I don’t think the reinterpretation does anything to dishonor the past, but it does include your voice from the present into it. And so I’m wondering was that the first time you had kind of inserted your voice into a historic mural?
BW: Yeah, pretty much. It hasn’t happened very much.
DT: What was that process like?
BW: I was excited about it from the very beginning. One of the things about that mural is that it had a lot of damage over the years and some areas of it the wall is really unstable…It gets a lot of water dripping down on it, which makes it hard for any kind of paint to stay there. And then there were these other areas that were in good shape and easily restored. And then there was the opportunity to really bring something else to it all and that’s what I do. My job is to have my own voice. So, I’m certainly interested in overlaying some ideas on top of it. And I think it really did involve a kind of collage process, which is basically the way I’ve put murals together over the years and even the way I saw even somebody like Calvin Jones putting murals together. [Bernard shows Daniel some photos of Calvin Jones murals.]
But you know, that’s Calvin’s look. He came from an illustrator’s background. So there’s this really great mix of figuration and abstraction, which totally captured me at the moment. I really got interested in his work and wanted to make statements like that. I was very interested in the scale. I felt really well suited to do that kind of work. So, that was certainly an exciting moment, restoring his work and really diving into his process. It is kind of great on the job training.
DT: And did that kind of aesthetic, of both abstraction and figuration, was that something you were already working with in your own work or was that sort of the introduction?
BW: That was definitely an introduction. I was looking at, after graduate school, I was still looking at pretty traditional figurative painting or at least trying to make those kind of paintings. I was doing a lot of portrait stuff, still thinking about a Thomas Hart Benton type of thing. But also questioning some of that. But certainly when I encountered the murals, the big thing there was the kind of collage aesthetic, collaging figures with shapes and patterns. It forced me to start thinking about other studio artists who were doing a similar thing. I remember thinking a lot about Rosenquist and Rauschenberg. They kind of came up as these guys who were really engaged with fragmentation and putting fragments together. So that was definitely a moment [of transition for me].
DT: And were there any experiences where you felt like, because this work was public, did you feel like you were able to test out or get a sense of what collaging or abstraction conveyed to people who were just encountering it in the murals? Did you get a sense of how that stuff resonated for people who were seeing the murals? Because that is one of the things about mural work, is that you get a sense of what people actually think of it.
BW: Well, yeah, you are right there on the street, so people respond. I think more than just collage, it was more just people responding to this energy on the wall that maybe they identified with, some of it being the representation of brown-skinned people, some of the other connections maybe being this kind of ethnic patterns and colors. And the other part of it being that I think we all respond to art. So there is always an enthusiasm on the ground about what was going on by the young and old. I mean, I think some of the work is more political than others. I don’t know if Calvin’s work is highly political in the sense that he is addressing these kind of hard political issues very often, at least very directly, but he is addressing issues of family often. There is a mother and child figure. His work was really more of a celebration of culture and I think that’s a lot of where I end up landing as a public artist and as a visual maker.
DT: Is in the celebratory…
BW: Yeah. Often. I mean, in the studio it is a little bit different at times but with the murals I think that’s a lot of what I really connected with.
You know, Bill Walker for example, he again I think was a very much kind of a historical in his murals so that’s the other thing I really resonated with is digging into history and putting history on the wall or putting history into the artwork in some way.
DT: Can you talk about the Pullman mural which was painted over? [The mural was written about in a September 6, 2001 edition of the Chicago Reader]
BW: There is a Pullman historical society on the Southside, they are the ones who commissioned the mural. I did that with one other assistant. And it was really a celebration of the Pullman Porters and some of the struggle they were involved in with the Pullman Railway company, George Pullman, which was apparently located on the south side there. So that was a moment to give voice to that bit of history. On the Southside there is much more strong African-American community here in Chicago. There is a lot of mix there too but I think it was positioned there in the heart of the mostly African-American community. So there is a lot of connection with that history.
DT: And then what ended up happening with it?
BW: The whole whitewashing thing? Yeah, it is a little cloudy but apparently I think what the alderman said is that there was graffiti on it so they just decided to paint it out. That was the line. But it was obviously some kind of direct response to Lyn Hughes [director of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum and the head of the Historic North Pullman Organization at the time] as a person that they didn’t like.
DT: Lyn Hughes was depicted in the mural. Is that right?
BW: Yeah. I mean, that was a really small section in the mural but yeah I guess that was problematic for the alderman in some way. It sounds like he was the one who initiated the whitewashing. I am trying to think of his name… Anthony Beale.
DT: Is that something that… Has that happened to other work you’ve made?
DT: So it is like a unique kind of experience?
BW: Yeah, and it was really upsetting because I knew that a lot of people enjoyed that work. It wasn’t just because it was my great work down there, you know. It was some of the best mural work that I’ve done and it was a great location for a mural. So, it was really difficult to see it just gone. And it was really difficult to believe that somebody would want to do that even if there was some person behind it that they didn’t like, because the mural was so much about the history and not about that person. So, there must have been some really deep anger between those two parties. I don’t know what the big rift between them was but the mural got caught in the middle.
DT: One thing I’m wondering to try to switch gears and talk about your gallery-based work, is what… I think you have this interesting hybrid practice and one of the things that I’m really curious about is the way they inform each other, like your experiences in the public versus your experiences in the studio or gallery and how they play off each other. But I guess I’m wondering, given that after school you were developing this consistent restoration and mural making and community art practice, what were some of the qualities that you were interested in terms of studio art and presenting in galleries that were maybe things you were not able to deal with in your public work? Like, what were the qualities of that space that were different than your public work that made you want to keep using both areas?
BW: It is a tough question in some ways because part of me thinks that there’s room for literally what goes on in the studio to actually move out into the community pretty directly. But I was certainly interested in a much broader aspect of history than what was often of concern with the murals. And just personal interest, I could explore in the studio in ways that you can’t always get to in public. And then some of the processes, a lot of which I think started with collage…. I think it went a little further in the studio to be this kind of attempt to develop a personal language.
So, in the studio there is a good bit of experimentation that is going on, you putting up things that don’t quite work and there is a real kind of search going on that takes a while to figure out. So a lot of that experimentation I think was hard to get to when you got six weeks to make a mural because it has got to be finished. So I think you end up retreating to some more tried and true processes with the murals, or at least that’s what happened with me, for better or for worse. I think some of the processes and ways of thinking about those murals feel a little cliché to me now and probably think about some of those ways of representation a little bit differently. But that’s part of the process, part of the growth.
DT: Yeah definitely. I can imagine that the experience, I mean, I have done some big mural work but it never is permanent, and I think there’s a lot to learn from being able to or being forced to sit with your stuff, like have it be in public for a really long time. I guess one thing I’m wondering about, some of your formal moves in the studio are, and maybe they grow out of this collage thing that is not something I associated with it up until now, because one thing I really notice a lot is the presence of grids and stuff… but I’m interested in this. There are all these grids and there are all these diagrams but I think you said somewhere that they were “congested diagrams.” I’m interested in the congested diagram in your studio work in contrast to the rigidity of what has to happen in a mural process. Complexity ends up being the aesthetic…. And how did you come to that and what kind of experiences are you interested in asserting or achieving with representing complexity?
BW: I think it did start with the murals and the process of putting information into a mural. It really is a kind of, for me it was kind of a collective of parts and then arranging the parts. And I think I slowly moved to a much more mechanical arranging on the parts where Calvin was really artful in how he inserting this man’s head right between these two larger masks faces, he was really artful in dropping these patterns behind these silhouetted figures… Eventually, I think, partly in a search for my own aesthetic, I just let go of this kind of artful way of doing it and really just lining things up. I imagine it has something to do with embracing abstraction a little bit more, just my own personal development.
I think I was talking about finding that whole aesthetic. The whole time that I was making murals, I was going through a lot of stuff in the studio and making a lot of work and really kind of changing… I was certainly affected by this way of composing murals and in general just composing and putting together a visual statement. So this kind of broken up format really released me from the more the kind of western European format with Caravaggio, a more rational space… So, this work really helped me move more towards broken up space and embrace the fragmentation. And then they got reinforced by all the other abstraction. Somebody like Rauschenberg or Rosenquist and just general abstraction.
I remember having this long period of thinking about Kandinsky. He had an interesting path into abstraction from representation. So, suddenly I was starting to notice the transition that a lot artists were making in the search for their own voice and I think I went through a similar transition. A lot of that influence by African Art, Native American art, ancient Mexican hieroglyphics, and certainly Egyptian hieroglyphics, this kind of picture writing that goes on in so many non-Western cultures. That was really kind of the pivotal… And I saw a number of artists that were also engaged in a similar pictorial or use of symbols to narrate as opposed to full out figuration.
DT: I mean there’s two things going on with what you are talking about. There’s the symbols. And some of your work, especially the installations where there is a kind of large invisible grid where you are shuffling these black cut out pieces of wood or black painted pieces of wood, and that has much more symbol-based narrative approach… And then there are aspects that get much more abstract where the lines sort of fall apart or twirl around or it breaks off the grid in some way. I guess I am kind of wondering… A lot of the work you make has a historical or social or political kind of content but I’m wondering what you feel like you’ve been able to achieve or access through these other kinds of representational strategies that are less literal? Like, when you are making this work that has this heavy content but you are doing it in this way that is abstract or is symbolic.
BW: Well it leaves the viewer to finish off the message in some ways. I think I am reluctant to be too didactic about some of the history. I think some of the pieces end up being highly didactic anyway but I think recently I’m interested in trying to not fill in the whole story but suggest these relationships that are maybe contentious, that are these weighted relationships, and suggest the tension without delivering the whole story. So, maybe you’ve got the head of a Native American and there’s maybe some automobile in proximity just to talk about this shift in time and culture and loss of a past. So, some of the links aren’t really clearly spelled out. But I think I am interested in history and I mean a lot of it came out with this sculpture project at St. Louis.
DT: Can you talk a little about that.
BW: Yeah, I did these objects but I kind of covered them with some really direct, specific kind of historical references. But again, they are not spelled out. People have to go home and Google some things to know what is what. For example, the word “Keokuk,” there’s a place called Keokuk, Iowa. Keokuk was this Native American in maybe the mid 1800s in the St. Louis area, I think, but his name is carried on in just this geographical description in this particular location. But it is a reference back to the tension that has been around native cultures and the sadness around the dramatic destruction of that culture. I thought it was really interesting to lay that on top of these modern sculpture, a sculpture of an automobile. In particular, this NASCAR thing. That was really what I was trying to get at. And the car as this kind of symbol of this American consumption and obsession with movement. Mobility is our kind of obsession. But to kind of wrap in there these references to the past and to what has been lost and destroyed and also some of the history in general. I had the number 55 in there as a reference to Interstate 55, this kind of going between the two places.
DT: With some of the performance stuff you’ve done, like the project in New Orleans in 2011, I’m wondering what the impetus is for you to start having your body be more present in the work? In a way, I think artist’s bodies are always sort of there, but in yours is more so because of the scale you work on.
BW: Yeah, I’ve been interested in that. It is just a deeper connection with the work I think. And it activates the work in an added way. So, it has been something that has been provocative addition. It is weird too because I’ve noticed over the years that I pose with my work [for photos] a lot and I think somehow there was this kind of latent desire to be in the work. And just seeing other artists, also, I think insert themselves into the work. So it is just the influence of what is going on around me, what other artists are doing and wanting to connect with that and see connections I can make in my own work. I think it is just a natural development. And the other thing about the new sculptures in particular is this interest in adventure and risk.