Kelly Williams

Q & A with Kelly Williams and Gallery Director Laura Moriarty

LM:Please tell us about your background and how you came to art?

KW: I grew up in complicated, crazy and precarious circumstances, yet I was fiercely determined to survive and build something different for myself.  I did not want to be defined by my history. In a landscape of dysfunction, at certain critical times there were adults who stood up for me, who saw me and heard me, and encouraged me to move beyond the chaos. These people acted as tethers, keeping me directed towards a belief that I might have a chance to survive in this world, and to live a better life than what I had experienced.

They promoted education as my best chance to escape my circumstances and give me choices beyond the ones laid out for me in my childhood. With this direction I was able to put myself through college. Afterward, I found myself working with traumatized children who had been removed from abusive homes as a consultant with Oregon’s Children’s Service Division (CSD).  I had come full circle and was doing powerfully difficult work that made me realize I had my own healing to do.
It was at this point that someone put a paintbrush in my hand and told me to paint ‘IT’.  Although formal art training was out my reach at this stage of my life, my persistence and hunger for knowledge pushed me to learn as much as I could about whatever art form was available to me. Over time, my art refined itself into painting with mediums that felt symbolically connected to my intentions and message. I continued to learn and create with the same intensity that I used to survive, because for me it was life or death. I had found my voice, so I painted…and painted...and painted…and healed.

Now, an important part of my art practice is to develop and implement programs to help unseen/unheard people bring vision/voice to their own story through art making and writing.  

LM: So painting is a cathartic process for you?

Before I discovered painting, I spent many years as an adult trying to understand the complexities of my past. I felt a deep need to understand, acknowledge and digest my history so I could start creating a new personal narrative. Words often failed me, so instead I created a personal visual language to explore and articulate my experiences.  The use of color, texture, line and shape allowed me to paradoxically capture and release the complicated themes and emotional subtleties I was compelled to express. Encaustic painting specifically added a deeper level of meaning by using the physicality of the medium: layering, embedding, gouging and burning. This building up and then obliterating through flame and tool, the chaos and delicacy of marks echoing from previous layers, add to the intricacy and complexity of the final piece. These are all the paradoxes with which I grapple.

LM: Can you describe the Crossroads project?

KW: Crossroads is a project aimed at giving homeless and transitional youth a safe and supportive environment to share their personal stories through art workshops that combine encaustic painting with written narratives.  Encaustic is an ideal medium for this project because the process allows for exploration and expression of a personal journey.  This method of applying layers of wax which are fused with a propane torch onto the layers below provides a physical metaphor to expand on the personal narrative that will be embedded within the bottom layers of the painting. The project will take place and first be exhibited at p:ear, an organization engaging homeless and transitional youth in Portland. The impact of the project will expand into the public sphere through multiple community art shows creating a platform for an honest dialogue about the realities of homelessness.

Painting has been the most powerful transformational tool in my personal journey.  My own story has developed out of tragic circumstances and art has given me the voice and opportunity to both personally heal and help others on their journey to wholeness. Now I want to help these kids grow to be whole and self-directed members of society and begin to break the chains of abuse and homelessness.

There is great power in knowing that someone has gone before you in difficult circumstances and has emerged transformed at the other end. Mentoring is about relationship and communication, a willingness to hold space for another exactly where they are and with deep respect, stand with them until they can stand on their own. This is what I do.

LM: What about your own studio work?

KW:This last year for me has involved profound personal change and loss, including the death of my father.   These life events have led me into a body of work around the concept of the Unspeakable. So often we refrain from saying what we see and know, think or feel in order to stay safe or keep others safe.  What would happen if I ‘spoke’ these things within my art, even if they were only visible for a short time?  Would I feel empowered by their acknowledgement, freed from the fear, clearer in my thought?

Part of my fascination with what isn’t said is to say it anyway.  I boldly write the words in the deepest layers, the place where the words and thoughts originate but no one has access to.  Sometimes it is in the process of doing this that I discover my own words and thoughts that had eluded me prior. Then I go through the process of burying the words underneath layers of images and symbols, often boxes, cages, barriers, bars, containers of all kinds. This obliterates the ability to see much of the content below.   It becomes a dialogue of words reflecting images back and forth until they all merge and only remnants remain of what is below the finished layer that is visible to all.
I am excited that these pieces will be featured at my solo show this December at White Space Gallery here in Portland.

Artist Statement

My work is a symbolic narrative process. It is a progression of disentanglement, a developing of a story, layer by layer. It is only upon coming closer and becoming intimate does one experience the intricate textures, subtle imagery, hidden text and imperfections that make up the whole. Secrets are hidden within the layers, embedded truths expressed and hidden again for a visceral journey through the soul.  The written word is often used as a form of layered texture to engage my deeper self and invite the viewer to do the same.

The use of encaustic painting allows for the metaphorical layering, burning, burying and exposing that are all relevant to the deeper meaning of my work.  This ancient medium being used in contemporary visual expression further supports the timeless messages and questions I am driven to explore.