Q+Art: Artist Ashley Eliza Williams Reveals Hidden Magic in Vulnerable Ecosystems
“How fully can we understand a cloud, a tree, or a rock?,” interdisciplinary artist Ashley Eliza Williams asks. Based in Massachusetts, the amateur ecologist paints biomorphic shapes that seem to vibrate with life.
Williams’ work is consumed with the process of understanding. We see her biomorphic shapes—sometimes resembling stones, sometimes flesh—from every angle. When they float in midair, Williams positions our gaze just low enough to see underneath, a vantage point usually hidden from or inaccessible to human eyes. “When I walk in nature, I explore the insides of things,” she explains. “The furtive organisms found under rocks, the fungi living between tree roots, and the bright patterns of insect eggs within a rotting branch.”
While Williams’ work is unavoidably concerned with environmental grief, the prevailing emotion is one of wonder and curiosity. We, like Williams, feel compelled to turn these strange objects over and over again, attempting to understand their form, function, and context. Her keen observation of the environment isn’t merely a lesson in natural science, though. Williams’ work verges on the metaphysical, depicting even inanimate objects as possessors of an incorruptible spirit.
Williams most often turns her attention to what she calls “shy ecosystems”—landscapes balancing on the edge of a knife, damaged by climate change, and badly in need of care. She invites us to consider the fragile beauty of our most vulnerable ecological communities, a practice she hopes will extend to vulnerable human communities as well: “My central goal as an artist is to discover alternative, more empathic ways of interacting with nature, and with each other.”
In Today’s Q+Art Interview….
Ashley Eliza Williams discusses “the language of lichens and moss,” the simple joys of hand-writing a to-do list, and saying “no” as a form of stress relief.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Ashley Eliza Williams: Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Watership Down by Richard Adams, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, Bluets by Maggie Nelson, Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, Lincoln in The Bardo by George Saunders, Underland by Robert MacFarlane, YA lit, picture books, graphic novels, all of The Classics, questionable self-published books you find at thrift stores, and everything science-fiction and fantasy that you can get your hands on.
Which cultural concepts, themes, or philosophies inform your work?
AEW: Future ecology, environmental grief, the language of lichens and moss, the histories contained in stones, the purposes of monsters and magical creatures, and learning from the non-human world about how to be a better human.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
AEW: A prehistoric cave painter + a top-notch translator.
What are you trying to express with your art?
AEW: A feeling of aliveness, curiosity, and sensitivity. My central goal as an artist is to investigate alternative, more empathic, and less violent ways of interacting with nature and with each other.
What's your biggest barrier to being an artist?
AEW: Money. I've had to make some really hard life choices in order to continue making work that feels meaningful to me.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
AEW: I'm not sure that work/life balance is possible. Related/unrelated: I recently bought a paper planner for the first time ever. It is bright yellow! Filling in little boxes and checking things off a list is an enormously satisfying activity and it makes me feel 17 percent more balanced.
What does generosity mean to you as an artist?
AEW: Really listening to other people's stories, supporting the work of young artists, and taking care of the earth.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
AEW: Generating meaningful questions.
What role does the artist have in society?
AEW: Fostering curiosity and encouraging dialogue.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
AEW: Long ago, I worked for an evangelical fly fishing magazine
Have you ever turned down an opportunity? Why?
AEW: Yes, many. I've realized that I cannot function when I'm under too much stress. I have dramatically simplified my creative practice in recent years, and I try to only work on projects that feel creatively meaningful, can support me financially, and/or provide a needed service.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
AEW: This week I've been making short videos of my cut-out paintings in the forest near my home.
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
AEW: I volunteer for a crisis hotline, I try to get enough sleep, and I have a cat.
How does your geographical location affect your work and/or success?
AEW: When I lived in Colorado, my work was more austere and geological. Now that I'm in New England, I find myself painting more clouds, green plants, and mosses. After living through six summers of Rocky Mountain wildfire anxiety and drought, every rainstorm fills me with delight. I'm currently painting a creature with a rain cloud in his belly. I'm also working on a series of drawings titled: Archive of Mists and Fogs.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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