During a twelve-hour deep sleep, artist Herb Williams came to a revelation about his future in art—he discovered a medium that could span oceans and ages.
I meet Herb Williams in the thrust of a tornado warning I have stupidly ignored. As I blissfully neglect the sounding weather alarms and blackening sky, Herb messages me to "Hunker down and be careful." While the tornado sirens blare, I explain that I have already made it downtown and am just blocks away from his studio, which is wedged in between the Downtown Nashville Public Library and the Hermitage Hotel. Herb asks if I have an umbrella and offers to come and get me if I don't. I like him already.
Annoyingly detail-oriented, I had spent much of the night before reading everything I could about him, even though I was already familiar with his work. I own a piece of his—a cherry cobbler Occupie that was part of a share I purchased from the first season of the Seed Space Community Supported Art program—it works much like a farm share, except instead of a box of kale, subscribers receive local art. I'll admit it. I didn't quite "get" that piece. When I looked at it, all I saw were crayons and glitter in a miniature pie tin. And when I read that it was "a response to the glitter bombing of politicians who are claiming that such American wholesome values and symbols are strictly a moral or Christian right," I rolled my eyes a bit.
I thought about that as I walked into his studio. I was immediately floored by the life-size crayon sculptures and brightly colored paintings in progress. Every table surface was filled with something—all surrounded by boxes and boxes of crayons.
Herb clears off a space for us to sit, and we dive into the pastries and java I had picked up. We munch on cheddar-bacon scones, and drink coffee with the sort of zest a rainy, storm-filled day calls for. Herb's warm and friendly vibe sets the tone for our conversation, making up for the ominous weather.
I begin by asking him about his childhood beginnings in Prattville, Alabama. Herb's first understanding of materials came via construction work, which he did every summer as a teenager with his stepdad. Through that experience, Herb developed an appreciation for working with his hands. He often found himself carving into the clay hills surrounding the pecan orchard he grew up on, even doodling while out on dates—contour drawings he hoped to one day turn into animations.
Herb was also active in football. But his decision to stick with art was an easy one. Senior year, his coach informed him that to "make it," he would need to gain sixty-five pounds. Instead of bulking up, he received a scholarship to Birmingham-Southern College and earned a degree in sculpture. After graduation, Herb relocated to West Palm Beach, Florida, where he worked at the Luis Montonya Foundry casting sculptures for artists such as Popliteo and Duane Hanson. "It's a little like living on the surface of the sun," he tells me, "because you suit up in space-man garb and walk into ovens to pull out molds that are white hot." Though he loved the process and learned a tremendous amount, the intense labor involved in this type of work left Herb with little energy for creating his own art.
In 1998, he moved to Nashville where he finally found that energy. But he was less than pleased with his own projects, still searching for a voice of his own. He experimented with different mediums, churning out tons of work, most of which he later destroyed. "I realized pretty quickly that I couldn't survive on making bad art," he says. "I couldn't sell it, and I didn't want to show it to anybody."
Eventually, Herb decided that if he was ever going to make a living, he needed to better understand the inner workings of the gallery business. During his employment at The Foundry, Herb delivered sculptures to galleries and had the opportunity to observe the relationship between artist and gallerist. To him, it felt very glamorous and old world but, still, it baffled him. He couldn't understand how the system worked, how artists promoted and marketed themselves.
So he set out in pursuit of a gallery job, eventually landing himself a role at The Arts Company under the guidance of Anne Brown, a pioneer in the Nashville arts movement. Herb worked there for ten years learning how to market and sell his art. During this time, he created his first crayon piece. Crayons would go on to become his signature medium—an idea that came to him during an incredibly dark period.
"I drove myself a little crazy," he says. "I couldn't sleep, and I couldn't rest until I found something unique, something I thought was my own. And, honestly, I got to a point where I couldn't find it. I was so frustrated and dark and angry that I gave up. So one day I burned a lot of my work." That same night, an exhausted Herb slept for a solid twelve hours. "I had the most vivid dream," he continues.
He had imagined that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art contacted him and asked for a retrospective of his work. "I went to the show and wandered through, and there were sculptures of every different material you could find. I finally came to one of these little sculptures made out of crayons. I woke up and immediately began drawing in the sketchbook by my bed. I've been making them ever since."
Herb's crayon sculptures have been successful, in part, because the medium resonates universally with kids and adults alike. But there are often energetic, larger, sometimes even dark ideas attached to his bright designs. This is part of the unique grab of using crayons as a medium. They allow for grim concepts to be interpreted as playful which Herb describes as his "misleading hook."
These sculptures have been featured globally in galleries and museums. An Obama crayon sculpture constructed from 50,000 crayons and weighing 150 pounds was on display during the 2008 inauguration. The administration also commissioned Herb to design pieces intended as gifts for foreign dignitaries.
In September 2007, Herb partnered with Jeff Rymer in creating The Rymer Gallery. The pair traveled extensively, researching other galleries across the U.S. and abroad, before creating their own unique vision here in Nashville. Their mission statement is to "foster artwork that entices, engages and lures artists, collectors and enthusiasts to Nashville's expanding art scene."
Herb's primary role at the gallery is that of curator. He feels that, nationally, a bias exists. It's a belief that "Southern artists haven't earned their stripes." His mission is to dispel that partiality and bolster artists who haven't found the right breaks. "Opportunities aren't the same here as they are in Boston or New York," he explains. "I'm always trying to pair real international talent with local artists who are worth their salt and haven't gotten a fair shake."
By now, the tornado sirens have long since died down, and we can see through the window that the skies have cleared. Perhaps it's the sun that makes me feel bold. I ask Herb if the crayon sculpture work ever gets old now that it's become so popular.
"Once you're comfortable in what you're doing, you're kind of dead," he tells me. "The crayon work is obviously my most popular stuff. But I still do art in every material I can find." Variation (with painting and more) is what invigorates Herb, and ultimately helps him build on the ideas that have propelled him into success. The numerous boxes of crayons stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling in his studio are an indication that he won't be putting the medium to the wayside anytime soon. Yet he plans to continue to evolve the crayon sculptures into something new—he's just not sure what that means. "You've got to pay attention to the work you're doing. You can't regurgitate it. Somehow, it's got to be different and better or you're not growing—you're just treading water."
In his current Call of the Wild series, Herb features totem animals that celebrate the larger, mysterious world of the unexplained. The work is based on the idea that nature communicates through a spectrum of colors that we cannot see. "Amazing things are happening through their acts, but we are too busy to notice. We're missing the greater significance of the beauty that's right in front of us."
In addition to their homes in galleries, Herb's colorful animals can be found throughout Nashville on the walls of some of his favorite shops and watering holes. "They're kind of like my totem animals that give me comfort from being in this urban jungle," he emphasizes. There's a fox on a low brick wall outside of Rolf and Daughters, a bear on the loading dock of Yazoo Brewery, and a stag on the wall outside of Old Made Good.
"The graffiti especially is really exciting to me," Herb continues. "I love exploring what makes something fine art if you hang it in a gallery as opposed to vandalism if you put it on a brick wall. The questions about who it belongs to are so cool."
He later admits that he's not certain of the direction of the ongoing series, but that he's completely okay with that. "That's part of the beauty to me," he explains. "I'm still trying to tease it out. That's the best part of making art—when you're driven to create and you don't understand why, you just have to do it."
As we wrap up our conversation, my head spins with inspiration. The man is a creative type to the core. He's also a musician and songwriter, planning to cut his first album before he turns forty. He has a practice space set up in his basement and enjoys going out and listening to live music. Of his favorite local bands, Girls and Money tops the list.
Back at home, I immediately search for the Occupie and proudly put it out on display. I re-read his artist statements in their entirety and discover what I had not seen before. Herb's humor and mischief shines through his words, "If you're feeling like the 99%, at least you can eat like the 1%."
He's currently working on two different projects that speak to drought and flood issues, the first of which is in Texas. He draws inspiration from a poem about an aquifer (an underground layer of water-bearing rock) that runs dry. Sculpting the poem's words out of native clay from the now dry river beds, the poem letters will be a foot tall and wrap around an entire park trail. It will be a successor of sorts to his 2011 globally publicized, giant, melting crayon sculpture project for the National Ranching Heritage Center—a piece which exposed the conditions that stoke wildfires and the ungodly heat felt in Texas during its worst drought in history.
The other project speaks to the recent flood in Nashville, aimed specifically at creating resources that can route excess flood water to areas of drought. Herb is creating a sculpture that will be an enormous wave wall, with the wave's crest spiraling out like the scrolling at the neck of a fiddle. The wave sculpture, along with music acts and other art installations regarding drought and flood relief, will travel in a touring exhibition.
In addition, he was recently commissioned to create an eight-foot-long crayon sculpture of the Nashville skyline for the new Music City Center. The piece is made from 30,000 crayons and took four months to create. Also, the new Omni Hotel has asked him to create a large skyline installation in their bar area which will be made from 13,000 or so miniature liquor bottles.
Although Herb gets lots of love from Nashville, his work has been garnering some serious international attention. He's been asked to create a series of sculptures for an exhibition in China and Japan with sixty works of art, both new and existing. The project has not been finalized, but if it does come to fruition, the Asian tour would travel for two years to six different cities. The tour is mostly focused on his current body of work, Call of the Wild, though there is talk of a Taipei skyline sculpture—which would definitely put this well-striped southern artist on the international map.