Obscured and overt, obvious and implied / Amber Lee Williams’ (un)hidden at the VISA

Amber Lee Williams’ exhibition (un)hidden incorporates several distinct bodies of work that intersect with each other, growing out of and into each other. That isn’t so much a pun as an acknowledgement of the personal and very physical narratives that define Williams’ practice, diverse in media (polaroid emulsion lifts on cotton rag paper to readymade yet enhanced mason jars) if interconnected in concept and content.

This convergence occurs literally in the VISA gallery. The music boxes along the one wall (gutted and mounted in tiny jutting “drawers”), audio both comforting and creepy, wafts out to join you as you move among the mason jars mounted on plinths (Preserves (Jar Installation)). These are unembellished metaphors of vessels, but also offer images at the bottom of these glasses that correspond to the images on two other gallery walls (Preserves (Jar Image Installation) or Change or Over the Shoulder).

Several of these prints (Upper Body Lower Body for example) blend abstraction and recognizable depictions that play off each other, in colour and form, and one final wall (if you walk clockwise around the space, beginning with the enticing music boxes) offers a large “contact” sheet. This acts as a visual “statement”, in tandem with Williams’ written one, but also as an indicator as to many of her ideas visually realized around you originated. To stand in front of these black and white images where Williams, with her daughter and partner, recreates “hidden mother” images that once proliferated in archival, or Victorian, photography, and then turn and move among the tiny shelves protruding from the wall, with music box “guts” you’re invited to wind (multiple chimings that overlap and layer, in and out of sync with each other), to stylized renderings of “motherhood” that are as illustrative as they are conceptual, is to see that Williams has offered a very autobiographical exhibition.Besides being a strong show aesthetically, there is a sense of her self, here, that is very much like a journal of memory and being.

Despite its title, (un)hidden is a very physical, corporeal show. The artworks grounded in a physical being. This – like the different artworks that overlap and enhance each other, employs the artist’s strong sense of identity (as seen in her past works, and that Williams is one of the hardest working, and most prolific artists in STC. Thus who she is, to me – and I don’t think I’m alone in this – is very much defined by the images she creates) as a base to explore different concepts of “mother”, seen or unseen, overt or simply implied.

If I consider a main “framework” (my recent engaging conversations with curator Emma German have me considering how we interact with art, how we expect to do so, or don’t expect to do so) its that Williams’ (un)hidden has a great deal of resonance, with connections only clearly seen / understood upon completion of the work, with instinct and intuition in process that informs the realization but is not overt or limiting in its construction. As someone who can, of course, not ever be a mother, nor has children or any desire in that area, I never felt that this exhibition didn’t offer me experiences that are engaging visually and conceptually.

One of my favourite authors, Salman Rushdie, in The Moor’s Last Sigh, gives voice to an artist who is also a mother (or vice versa) and one critic of that book described her (Aurora Zogoiby) as “too much of an artist to be a good mother.” With Williams, the opposite is true, though even that’s too simplistic a statement. The pieces in un(hidden) suggest a gradation of meaning where something is not so much visible as intimated, no so much missing as alluded to, and thus present and absent simultaneously. This is where the visual surpasses language. This multiplicity of Art is like a mason jar that suggest domesticity and careful nurturing and that, upon closer examination, offers an image “sunk” within it that elevates it to portraiture, both on a personal level of the artist’s experience, but also as a trope of mother / mothering / the complicated dynamic between being an artist and a mother.

Her statement is well written and expansive: I’ll offer a few excerpts.

“This body of work is in some ways a documentation of my experience as a mother, and an exploration of the individual and shared themes of motherhood in general. While the work was created from a personal point of view, I connect it to the timelessness of motherhood and the universal truth: we are all born.”

(un)hiddenis the culmination of a year-long independent study course (VISA 3F99) with Professor Amy Friend. I was pregnant when the project began, and gave birth to my second daughter at the end of January this year. My studio processes involved experimental photographic techniques with Polaroid emulsion lifts and lumen printing; while incorporating sculpture and installation as an integral part of the work. My intention for this work was to explore the idea of a “contemporary hidden mother”, with other themes of motherhood, relationships between family members, and the loss that we all face in the inevitable passing of time.”








This is an exhibition of imagery and elusiveness (in conversation, the idea of creating an image or object and trusting in the intuitive nature of the process while understanding that interlinking concepts will reveal themselves later was a recurring point). Like the mothers that are concealed, or only revealed by implication or a sudden glimpsed detail (whether the historical photographs that Williams displays, from her own collection or in the restaging of these in Hidden Mother Contact Sheet) this show offers obvious signifiers and understated ones.

Williams is also one of the artists who’ll be exhibiting in the 2018 In The Soil Arts Festival, with a new work that continues some of the ideas found (or to be found) in (un)hidden. Her Self Portrait as a Female Fountain will be installed at the corner of St. Paul and Bond Streets in the downtown, but as with all In The Soil events and exhibitors, check back at their site for the latest updates and any variations. Williams performed continuously through ITS last year, although she may have walked right by you without recognition, and she commented that ITS is a space where she likes to challenge herself and step outside her usual comfort zone of artmaking. Personally, I look forward to seeing how Bruce Nauman might be reconfigured through a female, maternal or perhaps simply contemporary lens. It might be a commentary on gender (performative or otherwise) but it also has some connection back to Williams’ Breastmilk on Baby’s Breath 1 and 2, from (un)hidden.

(un)hidden is on display until the end of April in the MIWSFPA, in the VISA Gallery. In The Soil Arts Festival will begin its tenth anniversary extravaganza on April 27th, 2018.

All images generously provided by, and copyright, of the artist.


In the Soil 2017: your intrepid #artcriticfromhell’s purely subjective synopsis

It’s been suggested that what truly makes Art in the public sphere successful are moments of unexpected joy. Perhaps when you’ve suddenly remembered, amidst Pendulum Pulses music and the entrancing Sojourn of Spectaculous Wunderkle Things, an installation that fills the entire community room at the Mahtay Cafe in downtown St. Catharines (with black light and jellyfish, squid like and Cthulhu – like beasts) that the Rheostatics have just started playing in the Festival Hub.

A mad rush ensues through back alleys, past white tents housing various performers and activities on James Street, but you pause as the first sounds of their opening song wafts across the downtown. The Rheostatics began one of the most anticipated events of In The Soil 2017  with Saskatchewan (“…the moon hung high… in the canopy of sky. Home, Caroline, home”). This wasn’t my premiere experience of In The Soil since I returned here (from Saskatchewan), but that’s a moment I’ll treasure. It joyously defined In The Soil 2017 for me.







At this (second for me) extravaganza, it became more like the joke one of the performers made onstage: spending twelve hours in the downtown, forget a change of clothes, crash at a friend’s downtown place, and lurch awake the next day to pinball from site to site, from theatre to art to music to installations to events that straddle such descriptions. My first day culminated in The Sex Appeal (“…this song goes out to all the millennials in the house. It’s called “eat ass & call me daddy….””) and Pizza Sharks. My ears haven’t yet recovered from the latter. The sheer volume that rolled out from the Merchant Ale House was physical, almost enough to stifle your heartbeat.

Saturday was a day of itineraries and schedules, initially devoted to theatre; Young Drunk Punk (Bruce McCulloch’s sometimes coarse, always cutting monologues) and lemontree creations MSM (men seeking men) specifically. MSM (dance theatre which sampled online chats of men seeking men) was graphic and salacious, not for the faint, but had moments of emotional honesty that bridged gender and orientation easily. It made me feel a bit old, but also reminded me how far we’ve come – oh, did I just make that pun? LOL. Well, “we all need someone we can cream on / and if you want to / you can cream on me…”

And more music. And Ceasars. Okay, it’s not “Art” but I must praise the bartenders for their excellent work in the Hub. My research was thorough. A lubricant to the enjoyment of In The Soil, for sure; or a sedative so you’re not too taken aback at the shambling Cloak of Cosmoss, as she silently, unhurriedly wandered the Hub all weekend…

Perhaps it should’ve been milk, as Katie Mazi’s Spent Cows of the 20th & 21st Century, which graced the window of Beechwood Donuts, was a slick porcelain white pile /herd of tiny cattle. Rose McCormick’s Children’s Toys for the Apocalypse (I repeatedly photographed floating backlit Barbie in that instalment of RHIZOMES in the MIWSFPA. As the world ends, #allwehaveisplay) and Lacie Williamson’s Garbage and the Beautiful Embrace both appealed. Garbage invited you to “write down whatever you wish to let go of, and toss it over the balcony. May your worries fall to rest while you rise above the garbage heap.”




I felt lighter – a placebo perhaps, but so what, I say, so what – scrawling “Saskatoon,” crumpling and jettisoning it away….





An interjection to my reminiscence: those of you familiar with my rants know that paying artists for their work is a significant issue. In The Soil deserves your support (as it marks a decade, next year) not solely for the quality and quantity of performers, but because Soil pays artist fees to every participating artist, as well as professional production fees,  and the marketing around the fest is excellent and effective (the free booklets were indispensable to any festival goer). Too many festivals are exploitive: perhaps one of the major reasons that In The Soil is about to mark a decade – no small feat for a festival of this breadth – is due to it being respectful of participants and being not solely artist driven but by investing in the artists, making artists invest back in the festival.

Stepping off soapbox now: let us return, you and I, to RHIZOMES. Sandy Middleton’s Shadow Play was literally collaborative: stencils and objects and visitors become actors in the projections, with Middleton less a “director” than facilitator. Middleton will be posting images over the next while, so that Play – and In The Soil – has a continuing online component, after the hectic events. Blue, by Whetstone Productions, was described as “Clown meets the Blues by way of ’30s Berlin Cabaret with a detour through Las Vegas in this interactive solo musical all about love.” I attended against my better judgement (clowns!) but it was one of the best performances of In The Soil 2017: pathos and humour, and love songs that I have added to my playlist. #youlowdowndirtydogIstillloveyou #stabyouintheeyewithmyhighheel #ImallforlovebutIcantseethelight

I spent approximately six hours at the Merchant Saturday (not consecutively). The dulcet strains of Supernatural Buffalo to the raucous thunder of Strange Shakes were equally outstanding (I’d heard rave reviews about both, but not yet enjoyed them. The festival format, offering concise tastes of performers both local and beyond, has acted as a prompt for myself and others to experience more). Know performed for the first time at the Merch that evening, another fine teaser of an excellent local band: #willyoulovemealrightwillyoulovemealrightwillyoulovemealright.







The purple pink blue lights lent an ephemeral, eerie atmosphere; the lime green drum sat atop the hot orange shag carpet. Again, an In The Soil experience as visual as aural: loud in both senses.

Sunday I was nearly eaten by The Cardboard Land Creature (brought to life by the Summer Collective) in the interactive village at the Festival Hub. 

But, after documenting for posterity, my escape was facilitated by one of the numerous industrious #inthesoilfest volunteers. This might have been foreshadowing for seeing The Ash – Mouth Man by the Stolen Theatre Collective; consumption was a recurring trope in that play. Ash was a story equal parts humourous and horrid (offstage hushed sibilant ghostly voices and balloons will never be the same, for me); it also played with audience interaction.


Further spatterings of music saw In The Soil to its conclusion, to the Dirty Cabaret VI that evening at the Odd Fellows Temple. But before that, Aaron Berger + The Blues Stars offered a medley of songs in the Hub, under a greying sky that would break into a downpour as I stood inside the parking garage on Garden Park & Carlisle, listening to Sound Sound, interspersed with the outdoor percussion of the falling sheets of rain.

Alternately abrasive in tone, then suddenly delicate and deliberate, Sound Sound embodied the energy and will that is a hallmark of In The Soil: coming together to create a larger whole, for the enjoyment of many, in unexpected ways in unexpected places.  

In the Soil Arts Festival ran from April 28 – 30 in the downtown of St. Catharines. Next year will make the tenth incarnation of the festival. All images here are poorly shot by the writer, with the exception of several shots from Joel Smith and Liz Hayden, and the Shadow Play image, shot by Sandy Middleton. 

Amber Lee Williams / “Embracing Randomness”

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.

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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.

encaustic1 encaustic3

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”).

encaustic8 encaustic10If 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.