When I attended the RHIZOME activities at MIWSFPA during the 2016 In the Soil Festival, I strayed from the designated areas, as I often do. I found myself in the studio space where Amber Lee Williams was “inviting participants to pose for a blind contour drawing [for] her interactive exhibit. Each drawing will be done individually and privately but the drawings will be connected through medium and drawing surface.” The rooms had the drawings arranged on the walls, and you sat / stood /acted among them as Amber rendered you in a similar manner. I was trespassing during “down time” of her performance, but she was gracious enough to answer my questions then, and talked about both process and portraits. Blind contour, for those unfamiliar, is when an artist draws a subject without looking at the paper (often considered a “warm up exercise”, with the intent to loosen the hand and encourage creativity, but like any medium, can be different things in different “hands”).
When I sat down to talk with Amber again, her work in Devolve: Creation/Movement/Fluidity at Niagara Artist Centre had just opened, in the Dennis Tourbin space. Her encaustic works are lovely in texture and tone and mark a further exploration and refinement of her use of this often difficult medium of wax and pigment.
We talked about her practice – which exists in a threefold manner – and the ideas that have informed her artwork over her artistic career. Her work is likely familiar to you if you live in the STC area, and seeing some of her photographs in a show nearly a year ago makes me pleased to feature Amber Lee Williams as the latest instalment in The Sound’s ongoing local artists series.
As mentioned, Amber works in three different “areas” of art: encaustic painting, photography (a more recent practice), and the blind contours. These are very different and unique media, with distinctive history and baggage. None is the “favourite”, but wanting to work on them all together or have them influence each other, is an aspect of Williams’ art. But they’re “all different” and Williams says she can’t speak of them as one “entity”. I might posit that her practice is an umbrella and these are all under that arching cover.
A term she used often is “embracing randomness.” Williams spoke of process as “a vessel for the creativity of the act, and sometimes even in the selection of the works, to see what’s worked, and what has not.”
Her works in the NAC embody this: rich encaustic abstraction, the generous application of colour, the use of a blow torch, then repeating the wax and the pigment and the melting and seeing what colours come to the fore. There’s a slim vertical triptych, mostly black, mimicking wood grain or veins that “flow” like pencil marks through the wax. This blackish web “sits” on top of the oranges and off whites: there’s similar depth to others, at NAC, such as two small works on the back wall. Primarily whitish, the small dots and blots of colour in them make these encaustics resemble mould or colourful lichen. Another triptych have wax and colour like icing or fudge, slathered on a form and now cooled and hardened.
Returning to Williams’ contours, another sentiment that informs her work takes shape: that the process is not so much about control, but about setting up a framework (some rules, a specific technique) to get to the end result.
This returns again to “embracing randomness”: Williams expressed a dislike for very “formal” drawing, with the pressure of intention in a “final result.” With blind contours, if she looked she’d want to make it “perfect”, remove and erase any marks that aren’t “good enough”, with over determination ruining potential creativity. She prefers “taking chances, embracing the questionable nature of the outcome, and the process that defines all” (there’s a similarity to William Griffiths’ ongoing painted process where a work is never truly “finished”).
If she’s unhappy with a piece, it’s recycled, or discarded: “fearless creativity. Step up to the edge and take the chance of destroying the piece if there’s a chance you can make it better.”
The break from one process to another fosters continuous work (“encaustic painting day”, as it takes four or five hours, but contours are fast and more social. This was clear with In the Soil, as it became a social performative space, of the drawing with participants and collaborators).
Photography is perhaps the most technically formal of Williams’ work, with f stops / light readings, focal lengths and such. But in creating multiple replicated images, it has an element of experimentation where you can discard or repeat. When asked about her “most significant piece of the past year”, Amber indicated that being introduced to photography as an art form was notable. She’d always enjoyed taking pictures, but with the influence of a class taught by the fine artist Amy Friend (an excellent artist / educator) she’s begun exploring analog, film, lumen prints, pinhole and “hasn’t felt this obsession since discovering encaustic”. It’s a medium that she can see working with for some time. She mentioned an artist whom she’s interested in right now, Joseph Parra: a young, Baltimore-based photographer who produces CMYK screen prints of photographs printed by hand, or photos that are sanded, cut, braided and that represent more than just the physical identity of the subject. This is similar to what Williams wants to do with her blind contours and photography. She also cited the necessity of it being tactile and that it has that immediate physical connection, both to her and viewers.
If you missed Devolve: Creation/Movement/Fluidity (all the images in this post are from that exhibition), Amber will be exhibiting more photographic works at NAC in November, and more of her work can be seen here.