Remember shopping for school supplies in elementary school? Every new grade meant a new box of Crayola crayons. Popping the top for the first time and seeing the untouched flats of the soldier-straight sticks of color was part of every September. Anything could happen with a new box of crayons. Anything.
Artist Herb Williams recalled this experience and a bit more to me recently. He always had a small sadness when the waxy tip made its first mark on paper. There was also a bit of disappointment. The color on the paper never seemed as vibrant as it did when tucked in its box.
Fast forward to 2001. Now in his late twenties, Mr. Williams is a sculptor. The medium for his art varies—there is stone, steel and bronze. Night crept, sleep beckoned and inspiration slipped into his dream. Still in its clutches, he awoke remembering crayons forming a sculpture installed in an imagined solo show of his work. He sketched the images on a notebook kept by his bed and let sleep reclaim him.
He awoke and decided why not? Since then, Mr. Williams has created conceptual sculpture and installations fashioned from Crayola crayons. The crayons are used as raw material. Many times, the crayons are used whole. Other times, ends are lopped off to create texture and depth. Crayons are glued at the ends so their perfect tips or paper-wrapped sides create walls of color and shape.
“People don’t always realize the art is made from crayons,” Mr. Williams said. “The first thing they notice is the familiar shapes. If they look closer, they notice the art is made from crayons.”
Those who linger long may realize that the crayon sculptures conjure some serious thoughts. Like Mr. William’s solo show, Plunderland, at the Great Neck Arts Center Gallery (GNAC), the work mixes fairytale references to whip up themes of greed, hubris and despicable acts from those with power. The exhibition includes a “Cheshire-like beast” atop a snaking vine eyeing a rabbit in a crayon-made environment. Tabletop sculpture and wall works round out the show.
Beneath The Surface, a solo installation at the Children’s Museum of the Arts in Manhattan, also has a dark lining. The exhibition features sculptures of imaginary fish who have adapted to life spent in environments damaged by man. The show remains on view through January 9, 2011. Ultimately, the smile-causing crayons are the perfect material to raise troubling topics about life in the now.
“People take away what they want,” he said. “They can enjoy seeing the animals or smile at the fact that everything is made from crayons. If they look longer, they may see that there are dark things there and begin to think about what it could mean.”
Mr. Williams may cast a lighter tinge to works he’s creating for the White House. He’s been commissioned to create small crayon sculptures for the White House’s permanent collection and for use as gifts to international dignitaries. In December, his work twists serious again with an exhibit at the Scope Art Fair with RARE gallery during the Miami art fairs. A solo show at the Brooklyn gallery is planned for next year.
Besides his White House props, Mr. Williams holds the distinction of being the only individual in the world with an account with Crayola. He enjoys the texture of the crayons and the “easy way” they’re already familiar. The crayons bring him back to the time when every child was an artist and every child believed that was true, he said.
Crayons are a great medium to make fine art friendly. They’re fun to work with, allow for the unexpected to happen and radiate a pleasant aroma in large-scale installations. Mr. Williams gets to open cardboard boxes filled with thousands of crayons instead of a single box of 24.
Mr. Williams hopes his work encourages people to look at art and leave trepidation at the door. “Some people think they have to have an art degree to look at art,” he said. “Art is for everyone. No one should be afraid to look at art.”
Mr. Williams’ work has been exhibited across the United States and in France. Plunderland remains on view through November 29 at the Great Neck Arts Center Gallery, 113 Middle Neck Road, Great Neck. See greatneckarts.org for details. Mr. Williams’ art can also be seen at herbwilliamsart.com and rare-gallery.com.