In Its Absence: An Interview with Amanda Williams

By TK Smith

Amanda Williams is the recipient of the 2022 Public Art Dialogue Award for achievement in the field of public art. To mark the occasion, in February 2022, PAD member and scholar TK Smith conducted an interview with the artist. Together, they discussed Williams’ recent public art projects, the value of color and material, and the body in its absence. An excerpt of this interview appears below. The full interview will run in a future issue of Public Art Dialogue.

A monochromatic storefront
Amanda Williams and Andres L. Hernandez. A Way, Away (Listen as I Say). Pulitzer Art Foundation and Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts. PXSTL 2017. Photograph by Michael Thomas.

In the collaborative public art project A Way, Away (Listen While I Say) (2017), y’all took down a building at 3721 Washington, right down the street from where I was living in St. Louis, MO … I also worked at Saint Louis University, which is across the street from the site. I was watching the progress of the project over time — the painting of the bricks and the deconstruction of the building … A Way, Away (Listen While I Say) was so powerful to me as a person living in St. Louis for so long. The building had come down and the bricks given to local people and organizations, not some unknown entity — the building is there and then it disappears into nothing ... I’ve also written about that project in ART PAPERS. In an article titled “St. Louis: Navigating the Brick City,” I mention your project as one of the efforts transforming the material and bringing it back into the present conversation. I wanted to ask you to speak on that project and its relation to the concept of absence.

When we learned that the building at 3721 Washington had been condemned, my collaborator Andres L. Hernandez and I thought about the process of watching things go away around you and not having control – and the sensation it engenders – was a poignant moment to help people empathize who haven't experienced that in their lived environment. We could use what we called “the disappearing” or removal of this building as a way to slow down and show the phases and investments from different communities or stakeholders, to really show the impact that it has on various levels and scales, and then, to be forward thinking and generative with the material itself. The material is not going away. "The building is going away, but not the parts. So, could we gift the components of the building and spread them out, almost like seeds, throughout the rest of St. Louis?

This cycle that y’all created gave the building new life by breaking it down into its components and invigorating it through the lives of other structures. Why paint the building gold before demolition?

A house pained Crown Royal purple
Amanda Williams. Color(ed) Theory: Crown Royal Bag, 2014-2016.

I had just come off the project that catapulted me into notoriety, Color(ed) Theory, just six or seven months earlier. Andres and I sat down and thought about how color could be infused into some of the questions that we are asking as we evolve the framework of the project in St. Louis. I began thinking about gold, which I had worked with before along with brick after I realized that there was an industry —invisible to the lay public— of salvaging this brick and selling it for ridiculous amounts of money. The imbalance of labor, inequities in who benefits… the symbolism of all of that.

The gold prior to the project involved gold leafing individual bricks and using them to talk about the value of people, making this association between the brick, as this undervalued asset in the community, and the human beings in these areas. Was there something I could do to help the people who live amongst this great resource, this viable financial vehicle of brick salvaging? How loudly do I have to scream to get people to understand that they are sitting on a gold mine? The answer came in a conversation with a good friend of Andres and I, L. Anton Seals Jr., a community organizer in Chicago. Seals and I were sitting out in a vacant lot, and I said, “we’re literally sitting on a gold mine” and he said “sitting on a gold mine, but is the gold mine?” We laughed about the alliteration, the double-entendre… but I went home immediately and was like, “how can I make the ground gold; how can I make these bricks gold?” I ended up gold leafing these brick pallets. Quite laborious, to gold leaf a ton of bricks… basically, a pallet is about a ton and that’s how they create the units for pallets in Chicago. I spent the summer gold leafing 570 bricks. To then be presented with an opportunity to turn an entire building gold in St. Louis, with the same materiality, seemed like a perfect transition.

The previous work also sparked the idea of a building’s life cycle —the phasing. The shrouding, mourning, or celebrating of something that has to go away is often a stage that gets missed. Thinking about, if you imagine a building’s death, the idea of wakes. Obviously, Christina Sharpe has done a beautiful job of deconstructing wakes in a variety of directions, but I think the idea of a wake —watching over the body— has its origins in a pause or acknowledgment of a presence, of an existence, of a moment. A wake is an opportunity to pause and pay attention to this thing, this entity, this person, this building, this material before the pain is inconsolable.

We thought about black. We thought about actually putting a shroud over the building, but then the gold seemed like an opportunity to call attention to this building that maybe people had taken for granted. The color would exist as a strong phantom memory —people will remember the brief time that the building was gold. We make these positive associations immediately with value. Then there was also the hope that once these bricks were dispersed, there would be these little shimmers of gold that you would be able to see on, for example, Vega’s restorative justice circle or on a beautiful table with little glitter sparks in aggregated concrete made by Chris, the one who pummeled the bricks.

The second part with color, something that often gets missed, is that we spent a lot of time with landscape architects thinking about the kinds of grasses that could grow there to create a color gradient. There's this beautiful gradient that went from a soft light green to a super deep purple, consisting of sweet potato vines. We were able to plant in topographic contours, this kind of ombre of green, that you don't typically get to do at that type of 1-1 scale. That’s something you usually do in a painting. To really have to grapple with how to make that gradient real so that a passerby could see different colors in the grass, is actually a lot harder when grass is the material. I feel fortunate to be testing out these crazy things, in real time, at full scale.

Would you consider the use of gold as an extension of the Color(ed) series or an evolution? In my mind, when comparing the colors, I’m thinking We Buy Gold, the currency exchange, a Jesus piece. What is “gold” to Black people? The valuation is different in our communities and in our cultures. It’s interesting to parallel those two projects and the making of these alternative valuations apparent, and at the same time, elevating some of these cultural signifiers to say they are just as valuable as gold, if to no one else, to us.

Yes, I was mounting Chicago Works, my first solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art − Chicago curated by Grace Deveney, who's now at the Art Institute. There was a real interest in translating the public activations that I was doing into a museum institutional context. Once again, that's incredibly difficult to do —different audience, different expectation for what should be in that space and who should come to that space. We used gold. We joked at one point; she was like “how many more gold things can you get in this show?” I had the gold leaf bricks, I had a gold painting, I had a gold room that was the scale of a typical Chicago city lot. Again, reiterating this idea that we’re sitting on and not able to access the gold. The interior of this room was gold leafed by residents in neighborhoods that can't often buy the land that sits next to where they live, or the land they live on. They don’t have access to what seems like huge amounts of vacancy because of invisible factors —the residue of redlining, policy, zoning, and all these things that are barriers set up to keep us from actualizing our spaces.

The gold was all stirring, and then figuring out how to then express that visually outside of your own brain. So, then to have a whole building to test it out was great. I don't always talk about these projects together because I saw so much of what we were describing with the building —erasure, the disappearing, the subtraction, all the things about a building cycle— being critical to St Louis’ narrative and their relationship to bricks. In the longer arc you can see that it makes total sense that the next step of me painting full scale permanent architecture, would be gold, because gold is a culmination of exactly what you said. If you were to mix the value proposition of all these things to a particular community —Ultra-Sheen, Herald’s Chicken, the currency exchange— they are all gold. That building is almost a terminus, it was the beginning of the next thing, but the further you get from it you can kind of see that I create this urban rainbow and gold is the color that emerges from the full combination of that palette. And to be able to use the same material, that's an homage, or a hearkening to my training as an architect. I understand the value of the material itself or the time invested in that material as part of what I'm exploring.

Would you say your training as an architect is what made you look to public art or toward public facing work in your practice? Would you say that public facing artwork is a mission for you?

I didn't realize it was, but yes. I didn't realize that the intention has always been on making these environments that I existed in better. That can be at the scale of something you can comprehend —something to make your wall beautiful. My body can produce art with these dimensional limits, in this amount of time and in this amount of space. Then there's the scale of the city, or the scale of the built environment, which seems like an equally accessible palette to me. The training as an architect allows me to go back and forth in my brain seamlessly between my hand and something my body can't occupy, because it's as big as me. That always necessitates participation. People are always like, “how do you get the community involved?” First of all, I am the community and second of all, I can't build this thing all by myself. Why would I do that if there are other folks that want to get involved that also live here? Let's all alter this together.

I think my training in architecture also helps guide that process. There's always inherent guilt when you try to do this communal work in these environments that have been under resourced or under invested in for non-melanated people. This is not a charitable endeavor for me. I am an expert. I have trained in this. So, while I'm going to partner with people who look like me, who grew up with me, I know things that can help this process of construction. It's not coming in and saying “now what does everybody want, what do we think we want here?” That's not how I start the process. My process is, “can you imagine if this is a swimming pool?” There's an energy that I can bring that's an expertise that's not about hierarchy, but also requires that you respect that I have a mastery of this. My goal today is to get everybody to dream and to make you be able to see what you dreamed. Architect in that definition, is very different than what I thought I'd be doing, but it's exactly why I wanted to do it. Public art is this great combination of artistic expression and architecture that gives me a framework that people can hear and understand.

Summer 2022 | Volume 14, Issue 1
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