Who: Lorna Williams
What: Sculptor and handcrafter
Artist’s chosen location for interview: In a small, grey studio at the Joan Mitchell Center where she is currently an artist-in-residence
Q: How do you like collections to be displayed?
LW: As considerate as possible. As a person who makes objects, presentation is everything. If you hang something from the ceiling or if you have it coming off of the wall, it is going to demand the viewer to be aware of their body. If you have a piece speaking on vulnerability and you hang it from the ceiling, and you ask people to stand underneath it, everyone has to trust that it won’t fall on them. You help people feel what you are trying to convey in the piece.
I’ve done this before with a piece where I had 1,000 exacto blades, and I’ve seen people almost cut themselves on it. The minute they realized that, they held themselves differently. Their energy was all over the place until they realized they were close to those knives, and then they came right into themselves. That was exactly what I wanted to happen.
Consideration is asking questions and it is at the root of presentation. That is how I like to see any collection, like an orchestra. If you walk into a gallery and there are sculptures everywhere, the first object you see should inform you about the next object that you will see. It’s a run on sentence that forms an equation, and at the end you get the equal sign. If that’s not clear then you’re not successful in your presentation and purpose.
I have these hexagons in my ear. [Laughing]. This fits into the question. The hexagon is this amazingly strong geometric shape. All six sides support the weight that is put on the shape and it shares that weight. Those six points that connect are an opportunity, and that is how I see everything – points and how to connect them. One opportunity informs the next, which informs the next, and that, then, informs the next. That is how the world operates and how perspective is formed. All of that is crucial.
My utopian vision is to have all these connections. You let people be who they are, you let them grow, you don’t shame them or point fingers down at them. It’s about figuring out how to dance with each other. And you can’t promise anyone anything forever, but you can promise them that you’ll be considerate. You’ll see them, you’ll keep them in the loop, you’ll be honest, and you’ll give them the space to let them be who they are.
Q: When is your favorite time to be alone?
LW: When I am taking a shit. That is such a vulnerable experience. To open yourself up, to release, to smell yourself, to wipe and clean yourself. You see all this waste and matter of what you ate, and I’m so fascinated by the digestive system. I’d also say I like to be alone when I’m showering.
Q: Who wrote you the best note in your life?
LW: I can go so many different ways with that. I’m a huge fan of Björk, and people will think I’m crazy, but I swear her lyrics are for me. There’s a part of me that is universal. Everyone has a soul, and if people listen to her lyrics with an open soul, they would probably feel seen and heard as well. I think it’s a universal language that Björk has tapped into. Maybe it is a fairy, Icelandic birthright she has tapped into. Her artistry and the way she is self-possessed and affirmed while being vulnerable and honest is something I relate to and strive for.
I feel similarly about Radiohead or James Blake, and a joke of mine is that I have all these white folks speaking to my soul. As far as my energy, though, we are all on the same planet, and they tap into that.
There’s also something I keep on my altar that my father wrote me. It says, ‘After a storm, birds chirp.’ The fact that it came from my father means so much. He gave it to me after Katrina and it was written on a pad of paper from a hotel. He gave it to me when I was going through a hard transition, and he was telling me not to lose my joy. Telling me that this, too, shall change.
A mentor of mine is a writer, and she was my English professor in Boston, and I have many words of encouragement and insight that she has given to me. I’m able to talk and express the way I am now because she gave me the language. She as a black, brown child taught me to trust my voice. She let me know that I am powerful and capable and magical. I carry those things to me very closely, and it is why I can look you in the eye and speak to you with all these vulnerabilities. I don’t know you. I don’t trust you. But if I want to trust you, this is what I have to do. I have to be open.
The last thing I’ll say about this is that the Bible was a huge influence. I grew up in the church. I was forced into the church due to sexuality and people not knowing what to do with that. What I learned about Christ is this notion and consciousness he operated in, and it is so profound to me. There’s a proverb that says, ‘Don’t praise yourself, let others do it.’ That to me represented ultimate humbleness. Also, someone sacrificing themselves for others – that as a notion is something I learned very early, and it has stayed with me. That kind of consciousness, that compassion, that desire to be treated as a human and the desire to treat others that way, is a part of survival. Those scriptures and those stories have had a huge influence on me.
Q: What material do you wish you could design into your pens but you haven’t found a way yet?
LW: The whole idea of these pens is that people will find a utensil that I created, even though I don’t know them, and when they come across the pen it fits with them. The colors, the weight, the design. There can be a moment when they look at me and think, ‘How did you know?’ I want that to translate and inspire them to write. So much is technology based today, which is totally fine. There is also something about writing and talking and interacting in a way where you make declarations with your hand.
Your signature makes something law. That’s something very powerful for me, especially going back to being this brown, black person. My body is my lineage. I have a social security card. I have certain documents I have to have. I am owned. The signature, though, is ours.
I want to make a beautiful object that people feel they can use to make their own declarations. I place that into the pens and pencils that I make. I want the objects to inspire a dialogue and conversation about how the object inspires them. Maybe it will help them write that novel they’ve been wanting to write. Or write a letter to the person they have been missing. I want to put that energy into the pens and pencils.
Right now I’m designing the casings, and eventually I want to design all of it. The tip, the clips, everything. I’d also like to work with more precious stones. Amethyst, onyx, and other stones that are tools for energetic and spiritual work. And sound. Sound is something I’m really wanting to gain more knowledge around.
If there was a way to put sound into my pens and pencils, that would be awesome.
Q: What is something you think a lot about and never expected to think about?
LW: It’s hard to know how to start with this because when I was born, or at least as far back as I can remember, I didn’t expect to think about eating or putting on clothes. I now think about what the next meal is and what I should put on my body. That is source-and-base thinking, and since I’m a root thinker it is hard for me not to immediately think about those ideas as an answer.
Something kind of personal that I’ve been thinking about more recently has been anatomy. I am a sculptor, I love doing portraits, and I’m black, so I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be in this body, to look the way I do, and to have all of this history and culture around the body. I’m told it is something I should be proud of and also something I should hate, so there is this strong and interesting duality there.
I am wanting to visually process that, and that started with drawing the figure. Once I had the figure it is a question of flesh tones, and the energy I want to portray in that flesh tone. I would collect images and make collages out of those images to apply to the pieces. I couldn’t have the portraits be only about the skin. From there, though, I couldn’t have it only be about the spiritual. I started thinking about the digestive system, and how no one ever explained that to me. I started to realize that I have all these body parts that no one ever explained to me. No one is talking about gas and shit and how certain foods will affect your specific body in a certain way. You simply learn that on your own.
Then I apply that to other parts of my life. If I’m working on a project that I’m totally engaged with, I may work on it until 5 in the morning, and then I’m supposed to show up for a meeting at 10 in the morning, but I’m not rested and my body is not rested. Yet, I’m supposed to be full and present. Only experience has allowed me to understand that and adjust to that.
Those nuances in the body have been on my mind. The concepts of gender have also come alongside of that as well. My hormones influence my body and my mind, so thoughts about what it means to be a black woman and a black queer woman has helped me think a lot about masculinity and femininity.
I have thought about where I fit on the spectrum, where I feel comfortable on that spectrum, and why I feel comfortable there. I question why I may feel safer wearing a typically male shirt, or why I feel beautiful when I wear a particular set of earrings. I started investigating that down to my actual body parts. If I’m not attached to having breasts, why is that? Is that due to a certain stigma or does that have to do with my personal response? I find myself questioning and trying to place myself so I can decide who I am and not let anyone tell me who I am.
Lorna Williams exhibits her work, including her handcrafted pens and pencils, at the Art Garden on Frenchmen Street Thursdays through Saturdays, and she will also be displaying her work at Luna Fête. this week and weekend. To learn more about Lorna and her work, you can follow her on Instagram as well as visit her website.