Painting From Rural Roots: An Interview With Sarah Williams

by Lauren Moya Ford November 7, 2020
Sarah Williams, West Crocker Street, 2020

Sarah Williams, West Crocker Street, 2020, oil on panel, 18″ x 24″

Small houses, small streets, small worlds: Sarah Williams keeps her paintings small, she says, because she feels that they need to speak softly. But sometimes a whisper is as powerful as a shout. With their glowing colors and captivating details, Williams’s nocturnal scenes of sleepy, small-town America hold an unsettling, cinematic charge. But beyond her mysterious, marvelous visuals, Williams is an artist who deeply respects her roots and her craft. “For me, painting becomes about the labor for the image,” she told me. I recently spoke with Williams about Off-ramp Communities, her latest body of work now on view at Moody Gallery in Houston, Texas.

Lauren Moya Ford: When I first saw the title of your exhibition, I was trying to imagine the places in your paintings somewhere off of I-10, but it just didn’t fit. Then I realized that you’re depicting scenes from your home state of Missouri. Can you tell me more about your connection to Missouri, where you live, and to Texas, where you completed your MFA?

Sarah Williams: I grew up in a tiny town in north Missouri. The population was just over 4,000. Our town had the only large grocery store in a 30-mile (as in 30 miles of pasture and cropland) radius. Even though no one in my family or community was an artist, I have had a strong interest in it since I was a kid and knew I wanted to focus my life in that direction. Eventually, I moved to the DFW area to pursue my MFA in Painting and Drawing at the University of North Texas. That was my first time living in a city. After a very difficult year or so of trying to adjust and making somewhat hollow work, I made this serendipitous decision to just paint what I knew best since I felt like I didn’t know anything in my new surroundings. It was comforting to not only address imagery of my home but also to let my mind wander to those places and memories while I painted.  

Years later, I ended up moving back to Missouri for a job at Missouri State University as a professor of painting and drawing. I never thought I would live in my home state again. True, Springfield is quite large and on the other end of the state than where I grew up, but the geography, the structures, the atmosphere and pace of life is much more natural to me than what I came to know in Texas. It was only after living here again for a little while that I realized the real purpose of the work I had been making in Texas. It was to deal with my homesickness. I guess I could feel it but I couldn’t articulate it at that time. That realization gave me an entirely different perspective and understanding of how I use and address imagery.

LMF: I was struck by the frankness and intimacy of your exhibition statement, especially the following sentence: “Even though I eventually took a job back in my home region, I am understanding that I’ll never be home again in many ways.”

SW: I left my childhood home, Brookfield, in 2002. Even though I visit, through all these years and experiences I’ve had of living in bigger places, traveling to different countries and interacting with different people with other home experiences, it has given me a perspective that has changed the way I see and relate to my hometown. I wouldn’t be able to make the work I’m making if I hadn’t left. I wouldn’t be able to see it and understand it without the perspectives I now have. This is what I mean when I say I can never be home again. I’m a different person now and see my home in a different way: sometimes with longing and sometimes critically.    

Sarah Williams, North Lily Drive, 2020

Sarah Williams, North Lily Drive, 2020, oil on board, 12″ x 24″.

LMF: How does that feeling come through in your paintings?

SW: At the moment, I think this is being manifested in how I’m creating more paintings that focus not on the structure, but on yards and the lots surrounding the structure. This was another one of those instinctual things that just started to show up in my work and then I actually realized why. The distance I put between the viewer and the structure (the structure has always been what I’ve focused on in my work for its ability to act as a surrogate for a person or even a region) symbolizes my distance from the place I grew up. Just like anything, my town has changed. Not only in how I see, relate to, and understand it, but also the town itself. Rural communities everywhere are struggling. Every time I go home, I notice another vacant storefront on Main Street or the absence of a house or structure I always related to as a kind of landmark because of some unique characteristic it had. There are so many layers of history in small towns. But, without upkeep or usage, they deteriorate and fall in. Many times, they are replaced with a somewhat ubiquitous Morton house structure. While the intention of my work has never been to simply record the way something looks for posterity, I find that the more the town changes in these ways, it forces my work to become some sort of strange souvenir. It just happens. I’m curious to see how I’ll relate to these paintings in the future.  

Sarah Williams, Denton Drive, 2020

Sarah Williams, Denton Drive, 2020, oil on board, 12″ x 24″

LMF: Even though they focus on quotidian subjects like humble suburban homes on quiet streets, your paintings have a strong pull: I wonder who inhabits these lonely buildings, and I long to peek through their closed windows and doors. 

SW: I’m so glad you feel that way! To be quite honest, I hope that their dynamic colors and the play of light in the darkness is enough to draw a viewer across a room. I keep the paintings small because I feel like they need to speak softly and not yell like they might if they were large. I almost pretend that getting a viewer to walk across a room to look closer can also make them go to small towns, and do their shopping at local stores where a family might have run the business for generations. It’s a sort of sympathetic magic, I suppose. Because in the end, the structures and the locations are quite mundane. But they are obviously something I care deeply about. I hope that comes through in my work.  

Sarah Williams, “Off-ramp Communities,” installation view at Moody Gallery, Houston

LMF: Can you tell me more about the human element in your work?

SW: These structures are meant to stand in for the person or people who live there. I think homes, what you might be able to see through the windows, how they’re lit, what’s in the yards and even the evidence of people coming and going by foot or car tracks left in wet pavement or snow all speak to how someone lives in and exists in a space. I’ve always been an observant person and tend to notice small details that suggest a story to me. I love allowing my work to have a certain sense of mystery about the people I paint. I want to give enough visual clues that my viewer feels pulled to investigate all the subtleties I like to play with in my paintings. To let them bring what they know instead of speaking explicitly about a specific identity that could be expressed by showing the actual person or people who might live or work in a structure I’m focusing on.  

Sarah Williams, South Kates Street, 2020

Sarah Williams, South Kates Street, 2020, oil on board, 24″ x 36″

LMF: The colors in this series are gorgeous, and the Christmas decorations and atmospheric weather imbue such an entrancing, otherworldly quality to these paintings.

SW: Thank you! Visually, I’m so interested in pitting atmospheric light against the artificial lights of the holiday decorations. Aesthetically, those colors and the value systems I get to play with are such a fun puzzle to consider in how I present a space to a viewer and lead them through it. I’m a colorist all the way, and if anyone visiting my studio ever sees my resource images, they are surprised. I take terrible little snapshots (I never took a photography class) on this old point-and-shoot digital camera. I have them printed at the drugstore and paint from them. Basically, they provide me with information about the structure, where the main light sources are, and that’s about it because they are quick night shots. I go wild with the colors and make up a lot of the combinations just based on what I want to express about a place and what looks good to me as a painter. I use color and light contrast in a way to add a sense of significance and intrigue to an otherwise seemingly insignificant and drab subject. It’s my way of asking the viewer to slow down and consider something that can be so easily passed by or disregarded.  

Sarah Williams, “Off-ramp Communities,” installation view at Moody Gallery, Houston

LMF: Did you grow up looking at art? Who were your early influences?

SW: Growing up in a very rural area of Missouri, trips to the cities and art museums were few and far between. I remember making an immediate connection to the regionalist painters like Grant Wood, George Ault, Thomas Hart Benton and Edward Hopper, whose imagery I could recognize and relate to. I believe my strong sense of regional pride began while looking at works by these artists which depicted scenes of small-town America.

I’m sure I was influenced by Grant Woods’ paintings, drawings and lithographs which are characterized by inventive approaches to stylization of the everyday imagery of the Midwest. The meticulous handling of grass, crops in fields and the various structures that symbolize farmland influenced my sense of work ethic as it relates to the art-making process. For me, painting becomes about the labor for the image. The sincerity of their beliefs and earnestness in which they approached their practice plays a major role in how I relate to my work and my studio practice. 

Sarah Williams, Orchid Street, 2020

Sarah Williams, Orchid Street, 2020, oil on board, 18″ x 30″

LMF: These works reminded me of the photographer Todd Hido and the painter Edward Hopper. Like them, there’s a very American melancholy present in your paintings, but your careful attention to detail and luminous colors also lend a sense of vitality. Who are your major creative and artistic influences nowadays?

SW: I agree with you about the sense of melancholy often present in Hopper’s and Hido’s work. I also feel this about Ault’s work. I have so much pride about being Midwestern. I want that to come across in my work. Recently, I’ve really gotten into Lois Dodd. Especially after seeing a retrospective of her work at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. I love how her work celebrates everyday life and communicates the poetry of noticing. I also appreciate the deftness of her color selections and brushwork. Susanna Coffey’s recent night paintings have also been inspiring me lately. I just came off my first sabbatical during the Spring 2020 semester. I had so many plans and so many things I wanted to spend time investigating that of course I didn’t make it to all of them. One thing I’ve done on and off over the years is make plein air paintings. I’ve tried various setups to paint out in the night (actually from my car. I have a little set up I built for my steering wheel). Coffey’s paintings make me want to drop everything I’m doing and just nocturnal plein air paint!  

There are so many artists I’m influenced by, I could go on and on! But, a few I feel I must mention that are always somewhat unexpected are Tara Donovan and Sarah Sze. I discovered them in grad school and the way they elevate everyday, low-brow objects in their work, and how changing their context elevates them. Learning about them gave me some strange sense of permission to address something mundane in my work and made me question how I could give it significance. 

Sarah Williams, Kettle Avenue, 2020

Sarah Williams, Kettle Avenue, 2020, oil on board, 18″ x 36″

LMF: The night scenes that you paint are so peaceful and quiet. They seem free from the social and political tensions that have exploded in our country in recent years, and especially in recent months. In the exhibition statement, you wrote that “art should originate through a painter’s personal experiences in her home environment.” You’re from Kansas City, MO, a place that, like many others in the US, has a fraught racial history. When did you make this body of work? Did any of these past or current tensions factor into the way you approached the subject?

SW: I’m actually from Brookfield, MO which is about two hours from Kansas City. You are correct that KC has some incredible and profound racial history. As a kid, my parents would take my sister and me to the city for the weekend every once in a while. We would visit different museums and sites in the city to learn about the history that was integral to KC’s identity and its place in the region. I’m so thankful for those early experiences and my parent’s efforts to expose us to people, culture and the often challenging reality of historical events in our region. KC’s identity is different than Brookfield’s identity. While Brookfield is much smaller, it has its own racial history that, quite honestly, deserves more attention and acknowledgement. I don’t use my work to address social or political tensions. Disturbing current events in our country today definitely have been on my mind and are providing yet another lens or form of perspective for me to apply how I look at, experience and understand my home town and why I approach it the way I do. Because I have been thinking about this a lot, I look for these topics to surface in my work. But I anticipate that like in the past, it may take me a while to actually realize what is happening in a way that I can then consciously consider it and apply it more meaningfully. White supremacy, police brutality, and institutional oppression are incredibly important realities for everyone and I want to make sure I have spent the time and energy to reflect on, investigate and inform myself before I consider if it is right for and how I would address that in my work. This is too important not to think about.   

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Williams: Off-ramp Communities is on view at Moody Gallery thru November 14, 2020.

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