Sensing the Material’s Moments:
An Interview with Richard Williams
By Dr. Leanne Haynes
Monday, January 6th, 2014
Richard Williams is an artist from Trinidad and Tobago and is currently researching numerous domains and techniques of art. He holds a degree from the Academy of the University of Trinidad and Tobago. He studied under Christopher Cozier, recipient of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Prize, with whom he is still connected through the group Art People International, which was founded by Richard Williams in Frankfurt, Germany. Richard Williams has won art awards for his paintings and his street art. His work is being collected by the Foundation of the German bank Sparkasse.
Leanne Haynes: Richard, your work to date primarily offers different representations of the sea turtle. Can you tell me how and why this became a common motif, if you like, in your work?
Richard Williams: In the past I was an avid surfer and I was aware of the problems sea turtles faced globally. The integration of the motif sea turtle in my work as a concept in part was triggered during my participation in a German art competition. This became part of a three year art mission thereby fusing my Trinidadian roots and my German experiences into a political message. The motif of the Leatherback Sea Turtle has crystallised into multi media objects, installations, sculptures, paintings and new street art related experiences.
LH: Are you currently involved in any field work with regards to the conservation of the Leatherback Sea Turtle?
RW: I am not involved in field work or particular conservation groups at the moment and currently I am working myself out of the issues surrounding the Leatherback Turtles. However, I may continue using the Leatherback Turtle as a motif to support the groups on the Trinidadian coastline. The facebook group I’ve founded, Turtle Lovers Collective, is an added facet to my efforts. During the last three years I realised that bringing the Sea Turtle extinction problem to a diverse public is an important part of any conservation effort. I lead conversations during art exhibitions and I have had discussions with art students and people on the street regarding the Leatherback Turtle and its environmental problems. This interaction, exposing the problem to the public, was the motor of me using the motif of the Leatherback Turtle in my inquisition of different materials, surfaces and art domains in my practice for the last three years.
LH. You’ve worked with all manner of materials (sand, steel, glass, wood and paint, to name but a few). Have you always experimented with different materials?
RW: That is correct. I’ve always been interested in discovering new materials to use my work. I’ve noticed that my present surroundings , like the street or nature, have a lot to offer in terms of materials and ideas. This spontaneous reaction is a kind of fuel for my creativity. Time is also a factor – to acquire the material for the Art on Street project needs perseverance and time, and this time allows the development and strengthening of my instinct for the rationale behind the art work.
LH: What material do you prefer to work with?
RW: I don’t have a favourite material as I source materials according to their availability. I collect street objects for years until I acquire enough to transform them into a sculpture. This transforming practice first started in Germany. It delivers a re-message to the viewers to re-purpose, re-use, re-invent and re-cycle. However, I have a curiosity for plastic - being at the same time the most commonly and the most problematic waste.
LH: How does working with steel, wood i.e. making more sculptures compare to the act of painting?
RW: I enjoy painting – to control the material - there is definitely a romance between us. I love experimenting with new materials that have different dimensions and combining them with painting to create a platform which delivers diverse options within the interactions between the viewer and the work.
LH: I think it’s incredibly interesting how you produce live art, if you like, and by this I mean your art keeps on developing after you have finished your physical part in the creative process. Here, I am thinking specifically of the one where you create a Leatherback Turtle from bird feed. After you step back, the hens then proceed to eat the feed. Can you tell me more about this piece?
RW: The title for this work is Tengeri (in old Hungarian, the primary language of Transylvania, “tengeri” means “corn”, and at the same, in Hungarian “tengeri” literally means “of the sea”). The work was created in Transylvania.
This piece grew out of my fascination with the space of the classic barnyard, which I’ve always romanticized about growing up as a child in Trinidad. We all remember our Nelson’s West Indian Reading Primer. It was amazing to encounter it there and to come upon the availability of the materials. You should see the recorded videos! The participation of the people has been delightful. They cherish their traditionally organically grown crops, they can talk at length about it and they relished me respecting it and using it as a medium for art. The collaboration is ongoing.
LH: I admire the organic nature of this piece. The art keeps just keeps on developing until what….it’s destruction (by the hens)?
RW: I try to make art that poses questions and inspires conversations, especially here as it is a series that uses the animals as performers instead of just being there to devour the food I feed them. I look at the turtle as an image that can be transformed through the materials into many different possibilities. It can be read as a metaphor for the active role we play in the extinction of the sea turtles.
LH: You’ve done a similar piece whereby pigeons swoop down and start eating the turtle (made of bird feed). How did passers-by respond to this?
RW: Transporting the material from the village Apa in Transylvania to the metropol Budapest ended in a different mind-set, the approach became hasty. The street is risky because of the uncontrolled environment: the art work can be vandalised, washed out or cleaned up. The performance was not illegal. From the neighbouring hotel building, a class of students from New Zealand were sent down by their teacher to observe me while working. That spurred a dialog between the students and I about my work and the present global situation of the Sea Turtle. It was rush hour and the passengers, joggers, bikers noticed the work and slowed as much their time permitted. Pigeons arrived and started picking the corn around me. I left the piece unobserved for less than one hour and on my return it had already been swept up by road workers.
LH: Would you describe yourself as a street artist?
RW: I use the street like an art shop that’s never closed and a gallery that doesn’t have a waiting list.
LH: You are situated in Germany for the most part. What has been the response to your art?
RW: It is a great experience to have my studio here in Frankfurt. I am triggering confusion in people by using traditional media combined with modern mass produced materials. At my first solo exhibition in Germany I felt like the puzzled German public had no connection with and knowledge about the colonial past of the world. Perceiving me as exotic still gives enough reason for people to be attracted to or distracted from my work. At the same time I receive numerous professional opportunities for exposing my work and media coverage from the shows that I take part in or curate.
LH: How does your current location (Germany) and origins (Trinidad) translate into your creative output?
RW: The choice of material is within my daily living space in Germany. However, being in Germany does not affect the themes I’m interested in working with in my practice. I feel geographically distant from Trinidad and yet I am interested in making my statement through my art, to tell stories of the news I receive on the internet about Trinidad. I am trying to use the language of art to reach audiences that would probably never consider the dialogue about issues that are originating in Trinidad and still of global concern. It is a pleasing feeling to have German locals being responsive to the stories behind my work.
LH: Are there any plans to return to Trinidad? How do you think your art would be received and how has it been received there?
RW: Moving back to Trinidad is a definite plan. To have my studio in Arima, the place of my birth, is already on the drawing board. I feel the world is so small, I’m not limited to producing art in my studio and from wherever I’m located, I’m sharing it with the world through virtual media. My connection to the art community in Trinidad has grown during the “Facebook time”. Having the Art People International Facebook group, I conduct weekly dialogues with old and young people from my early artist days living in Trinidad. Trinidad has an elaborate contemporary art culture, however, aesthetic is highly appreciated. It would be a challenge for me to have my work accepted at home and I’m preparing for this challenge.
LH: What’s the creative process like for you? (routine, motivations, inspirations, guidance, mentors, influences).
RW: My creative process starts at first thing in the morning and that instinct determines my working day. The application varies according to my location. When I am on the move, I improvise accordingly.Within the last three years the leatherback motif was my primary focus so after researching it I had always a theme to consider. Consequently, I solely concentrate on investigating the material. In the studio the process is well orchestrated. A lot of planning is needed: I think about the mechanics of the actual art work. This is half of the labour…the other half is the conceptualising.
My projects habitually start with one object that I am drawn towards. This object is not usually involved with art - I bring it in my studio, sometimes collecting several of the species until I am ready to use it where it feels right for me. I see this type of work as being sculpture. I use the material as objects of art with a conscious meaning: asking questions, kind of having a dialog with the material or objects. The material comes together as a unit when it’s done.
I just do my work piece by piece and sometimes don’t think of the grand scope of things. I do a piece, hang it up in my studio, then do another, after a while it occurs to me that I should investigate it more… try to understand the dilemma, find out what it’s really about.
LH: If you were to describe your aims as an artist in three words what would they be?
RW: My work includes two different levels and I would like to describe each one in three words each.
- My aims on the level of the media for art: sensing material’s moments.
- My aims on the level of the topic transported through art: revealing unsolved problems.
LH: Can you tell ARC readers about your current and upcoming projects? What can we expect from you next?
RW: I started to get tired of the canvas format. My work is intended to teach as well as being interesting to see. Being struck by the violent crime situation in Trinidad, the motif of my work is now shifting. For example one of my present art works is titled Keyana. I am using daily household objects and things that relate to my childhood memory, e g. the chicky chong kite. After the corn project in Transylvania I really became interested in video to accompany my work. Video is a facet of my upcoming work.
I think we should each do our part and whatever that part is adds up to something bigger, and hopefully my part will inspire people.
Bloody Republic: 1
mixed media | TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO | 16 november 2014
Bloody Republic: 2
mixed media | TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO | 16 november 2014
Bloody Republic: 3
street installation | TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO | 16 november 2014