Meet Herb Williams, our artist of the month! Herb uses thousands of crayons to create giant, colorful sculptures, and is one of the only individuals in the world to have an account with Crayola. His work has been featured in many different countries, famous galleries, museums, even The White House. Along with his imaginative sculptures, Herb creates art and murals around town on buildings he loves. You can find his famous multi-colored animals on the walls of Old Made Good, the Gibson-sponsored mural on 4th Ave downtown, and his newest work-in-progress on the side of Yazoo Brewery, plus others.
Read our interview with Herb on his art, advice for young artists, thoughts on Nashville's art scene, and what he's working on now. We even ask him to choose his favorite crayon, a difficult task. Check out herbwilliamsart.com to find out more and visit the Rymer Gallery downtown to view some of his new work.
Old Made Good Fawn.
Who are you and what do you do?
I'm a good friend of Jeremiah Johnson, and I've come down from the mountain for a little while. I take risks, and try to have as much fun as I can making strange and mysterious artwork.
When did you first become interested in making sculptures?
I'm from LA (lower Alabama) and there was a good bit of red clay in Autauga County. After a good rain, the clay was soft and I would spend many days of my summer as a boy carving animals, spaceships, and monsters into the cliffs.
When did you incorporate crayons into your art?
I spent years making artwork out of every different kind of material I could think of—terrible work—then, I took a trip to Manhattan and visited Red Grooms' studio and bought him lunch. He said many profound things, one of which legitimized play in the process of making artwork. That led me to rediscovering crayons and experimenting with how to use them in a different way.
What do you like most about them?
There's so much—A friend of mine who's a curator at the Smithsonian said, "They're a gateway drug." I stole it and say it all the time now—the scent, the design, the pure pigment in the stick doesn't leave you feeling unfulfilled when you put it to the paper and the color is somehow diminished.
What’s your favorite crayon?
That's like trying to pick your favorite child. Carnation Pink makes me pretty happy when you use a few thousand at once.
Which crayon has the best name?
Midnight Blue always gives me a sense of power and mischief when I use it.
Your resume is pretty incredible, from having your art in galleries all over the world to being featured in the White House. Growing up, did you see yourself making a living as an artist?
Never, I thought I would be a jet-fighter pilot, until I learned my eyesight wasn't good enough for that. Then I dreamed of being an animator of my own cartoons, until I learned how repetitious that can be.
Did you ever doubt this career?
Absolutely. It's not all glamour and good press. It's a huge risk, and the whole "starving artist" slogan came from a very real place. Very few artists can afford to continue to create art. Unless you are born rich, or have a Sugar Momma, it's not for the faint of heart. The materials cost more to create the art than you can usually sell the work for. Keeping food on the table for my kids, and a roof over our heads is a constant and daily struggle.
What made you continue pursuing it?
I can't do anything else. I love it too much. It's all I think about.
What’s the biggest challenge you face with your work?
You are only as good as the last work you made. I am usually deeply, madly in love with whatever I am working on at the moment. But it is incredibly hard work to constantly try to find the next new, original, relevant idea to do next. I fail more than I succeed, but I keep trying. I don't sleep much, and I surround myself with folks who are smarter than me.
Can you tell us about your mural in Printers Alley?
The deer dissolving into butterflies is the second largest mural I've made next to the giant Glitchmule on the side of the Family Wash Building.
Dissolving Deer Les Paul on 4th Ave.
Glitchmule on The Family Wash.
Newest work-in-progress on Yazoo Brewery.
How did you get involved with the Nashville Wall Project?
Brian Grief brought all of these incredibly famous, internationally successful artists to Nashville to create murals for the Nashville Walls Project. Several of my heroes like Mars 1, ABOVE, and Curiot now have enormous walls just a block away from my studio. A friend of mine introduced us, and Brian was gracious enough to invite me to help him curate a wall for locals to paint for the project. Gibson sponsored the wall, so their only stipulation was that the artists could paint anything they like inside the silhouette of their Les Paul. I reached out to the local muralists I knew and found the best fit for the five artists with Sam Dunson, Zidekahedron, Emily Miller, and Brandon Donahue.
How long did this take you to paint?
We finished the entire wall in about a week, working around the clock.
What’s the significance with animals throughout your work?
I love using animals as metaphors for showing our conversation and disconnect with nature. I try to tag walls around town of places that I enjoy going to. I've been very lucky not to have any of the animals painted over. However, with all of the development, I've lost two just to having the buildings knocked down or redeveloped. There are more cranes than animals that I have painted around town now.
Describe your process. What’s the best part?
I love traveling and just getting behind the wheel going to a place I've never been. On the drive, I usually find the time to let my subconscious work out what I can't. Then, I come back to the studio and I will usually make a sketch, or a small painting. Then, I will create a stencil and make a graffiti painting. Then, I will carve or sculpt out of clay a form that I will then have to coat in fiberglass, then paint. Then, I and an assistant will cut thousands of crayons that we will then attach to the form.
Which works are you most proud of?
Oh, most of them still make me smile when I see them. The most ambitious and risky are my favorites though. The Wildfire Project, which actually melted down in the Texas heat. The Blues Room where I got to invite all of my friends to dress in blue and then I'd take Polaroids of them in the space. The Plunderland Installation my friends helped me drive and install in Manhattan will forever be epic. The artwork that took me to the Inauguration in '08 was life-changing, I met so many established artists that really opened my eyes to how you can make a living creating things that only make sense to you.
You’ve lived in Nashville for a while, almost a couple decades, has there always been a pulsing art scene? Has it changed?
There were always talented artists living here in Nashville. The scene has grown exponentially with the Watkins grads making work here. The gallery scene has grown quite a bit, and that has helped establish more of culture of going out and seeing new artwork.
What’s the greatest thing Nashville is doing for the arts in our community?
I think the Metro Nashville Arts Commission engaging with local artists and giving them classes and tools to prepare them for entering into larger social and civic projects is one of the best things happening here locally. The Nashville Walls Project bringing so many famous artists here and putting up huge walls of art overnight is doing the quickest job of building our city's public art collection. We have to have more artwork in our public collection by famous artists in order for anyone to take the art scene in Nashville seriously.
If you could have dinner with three of your idols, who would they be?
What would you ask them?
To Ai: How do you find the courage to create work that may eventually get you killed by your own government? To Anish: Where do you find your inspiration to create such large scale important works? To my Dad: I think I would have all kinds of questions for my Dad, he died when I was 8.
Any advice for young artists?
Risk as much as you can. Think as big as you can. Take some Art History courses. Find artists in the past who you love, or would want to carry on some kind of a dialog with your work to theirs.
How do you respond to people who don’t believe in federal funding for the arts?
It's less than .001 percent of our budget. If they knew what most of our budget was actually going toward I think they would grab the pitchforks and torches and go after our elected officials. Most of the folks who don't appreciate the arts have never experienced, or grown up with art, as any part of their collective culture. Our own American history is so young compared to Europe where there is so much public art surrounding them. There are so many things we need to rethink as to who we value in our country—celebrities, athletes, rock stars. I'm not saying that I don't value Willie Nelson, or Tina Fey, or Bo Jackson, but it would be sweet if we placed even a little respect in our public school teachers, local artists, and listened to a street corner poet every once in awhile. We are losing so much to the shiny and wealthy that unless we protect that which can't support itself, we will lose it forever.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a new series of crayon sculptures that are modeled after all of the most iconic and priceless treasures throughout history. I am going to assemble and install them all in one exhibit space and dress as a cat-burglar and title the show Masterpiece Heist. I think it will be a lot of fun to see everything that we've seen only in other museums or books all under the same roof.
Where can we see more of your work?
I have a studio on North Third Avenue next to the backdoor of the new 21C Hotel and across from my mural in Printer's Alley. The Rymer Gallery on Fifth Ave has a few of my new works on display right now too.
Anything else you’d like to say?
If anyone ever wants to come by and see my studio, I may have you cut a few crayons while we hang out. Oh, and bourbon, always the right thing to bring as a studio-warming gift.
FOUND is a monthly series by Original Fuzz Magazine. We aim to discover visual artists from every corner of the world, no matter the background or creative vision. We believe it's not just what you do, but how you do it. All art is as important to our culture as music, words, news, science, even religion. FOUND celebrates the visual and those who create it, serving as a platform for the creative pioneers who embody Original Fuzz and our products.