Paul Morris chats with artist Dale Williams about his melancholy characters, populating an imaginary borough, and the Phrygian cap of liberty.
I first encountered Dale Williams’ work last year at a silent auction benefit for One Story, their first ever Literary Debutante Ball, at the Old American Can Factory near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. An entire wall of that huge industrial space had been dedicated to the auction, which featured an eclectic mix of 40 or so original works of art, photography, and sculpture inspired by stories originally published by One Story. It was a brilliant idea, asking artists to render aspects of stories they felt connections to, making it one of the more memorable auctions in recent memory for its sense of interconnectedness. I placed bids on several of the pieces right away, but kept returning to one in particular, an oil painting of a man, a policeman, to be exact, whose somber expression, slumped stance, and faded uniform made him seem like some impotent military figure from a former Eastern Bloc state, looking both pitiful and sympathetic. No matter how bad a day I might be having, I thought, it would never be as bad as this guy’s.
The artist was Dale Williams and the piece was called “The Man in Blue Green,” inspired by a story of the same name, written by Ben Miller and published by One Story Issue #7 back in 2002. It was part of what Miller calls a panoramic novel entitled Meanwhile, In the Dronx… about a fictional sixth borough in New York City. According to the Artist’s Statement, “it is the story that introduces the antic and pathetic world” of Miller’s Dronx: “The officer in the ill-washed uniform forgets what my rights are and tries to fake the arrest, mumbling gibberish, straddling the bike path in a John Wayne way.”
I was the high bidder on Dale’s work in the end, and I happily took the piece home with me that night to hang in my living room. A few weeks after the auction, Miller sent me some chapters from this novel along with illustrations and a fold-out map, all by Dale. As it turns out, the artist who did The Man in Blue Green wasn’t simply connected to that single short story; he’d helped populate Miller’s entire novel with a cast of what seemed like hundreds. These Dronx characters were possessed of the same pathos as my sad policeman, and I loved them all. Or rather, they all broke my heart with their vulnerability.
As a result, I reached out to Dale and asked him to submit a piece for BOMB’s back page feature, The Wick. His original drawing, Nothing Trickled Down… appeared in BOMB’s 30th Anniversary Issue earlier this year and contains many of the singular elements and themes found throughout much of his recent work. The following interview occurred over the course of several months following a visit to his studio, located near the Gowanus not far from where I first encountered his work. His studio, like his cast of characters inhabiting the Dronx, was a like moody menagerie, full of despairing figures and lonely, abject wayfarers, each with their own story to tell. I wanted to take several of them home with me, if only to lift the spirits of my man in blue green.
Paul Morris How did you get involved with Ben Miller? What was it like to collaborate on that project?
Dale Williams I’ve known Ben for the past 15 years or so, since we began working together for the same publishing company. We shared our work with each other over the years and sensed a potential affinity of vision. The group of drawings I made for Ben’s novel, Meanwhile, in the Dronx . . ., was our first collaboration. I was supposed to make four drawings. I ended up making 22, hand lettering all of the chapter titles, designing a map, and cover jacket. We found out we worked well together.
PM Were the characters you created for him very distinct from what you were already doing? I’m curious if Miller’s project ended up influencing your other work at all.
DW It was a big influence. It basically got me out of an impasse with my own work. When I began the Dronx drawings I wasn’t doing much with my own work except doubting it. I’d always been involved with a kind of figuration not dissimilar from those done for the Dronx but it had never been the exclusive focus of my art. The group of pictures I’ve been working on for the past couple of years, Strugglers and Stragglers grew directly out of the drawings for the novel. Now I am focusing on the figures alone.
PM What’s the back story in the piece you contributed to BOMB’s 30th anniversary issue, Nothing Trickled Down…? There’s so much happening in this image, it seems to have a beginning, middle, and end, and yet there’s a great tension too. It’s sort of the antithesis of Man in Blue Green who feels trapped in time.
DW A 19th-century circus poster of Chinese acrobats balancing balls atop umbrellas was the source for this image. The figure in my drawing is doing a balancing act as well, albeit one that suggests an existential crisis not performed to entertain anyone. He is strenuously engaged in an impossible calculation and the outcome looks bleak. The Man in Blue Green was a very different subject. The disposition of that figure represented a sort of end point, giving up, no more struggle.
I was working on the trickled down image last autumn. The fate of the Bush tax cuts was in the news then. I wasn’t thinking of that subject when I started the drawing, but a fortuitous coincidence on the night I finished it linked the two. I was listening to a radio report on the tax debate while working on the drawing. The image felt like a metaphor of the debate: big money interests arguing for an extension of the tax break because it would help the economy, everyone would benefit as their reinvested wealth trickles down. I wanted my drawing to address this but didn’t know how. Later the same evening I saw an interview with former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, more discussion of the tax debate. In response to the idea of how the super-wealthy will reinvest their money and thereby aid the economy, he simply noted the use of that argument for many, many years, and how “nothing trickled down.” I wrote that phrase into my drawing.
PM You sketch a lot of your work on paper prior to enlarging them on big canvasses some of which are over 6 feet tall. Several of the finalized characters in the Strugglers & Stragglers series emerged from smaller renderings, divorced from the context of landscape in which you had originally situated them. Can you tell me a little about your process, what it’s like to draw at that scale?
DW The original drawings are simple sketches from notebooks about 3 × 5”. I redraw these with ink on slightly larger paper and scan them. Sometimes I make adjustments to the image using Illustrator or Photoshop—widening, lengthening, bloating, skewing—always with the intent of amplifying the inherent drama of the figure. The position of the figure in the rectangle also affects the overall dramatic impact, so I spend a fair amount of time working on its placement. Once this process is complete I lay a grid over the image in Illustrator to aid in the scaling up. Then I draw a similar grid on the large sheet of paper and sketch the image with charcoal. The final work is done with oil stick. So, it’s basically a traditional process aided by computer.
The difficult thing about the enlarging is to get the figures to feel as alive as the small sketches. That’s the attraction of sketches: their immediacy has a quality of the soul laid bare, a feeling of necessity. The larger image must feel like it has evolved and has its own life—that it isn’t just a filling in. I want the presence of the large works to be overwhelming, like an emotional tidal wave.
PM How large do the oil stick drawings get? Are they paintings, drawings, or something in between?
DW Most of them are 60” tall by 44” wide, a few are 86” tall and 60” wide, and the last three are around 110” tall by 60” wide. I suppose they would have to be called drawings, because of the prevalence of line, although the later works, given the introduction of color and the degree of re-working with the oil stick, become quite painterly in parts.
PM Your characters are often malformed and melancholic. They elicit our sympathy. It’s as though you’re asking the viewer to share your compassion for these misfits. And yet there is sometimes a threat of violence that has been grafted onto them as well. How do you reconcile that sympathy with the aggression inherent in the characters?
DW A few of the figures that show signs of violence seem to do so in self-defense—I’m thinking of Thin Ice or 401K as examples of this. A character that is apparently distraught and acting in self-defense, despite threatening violence, might still draw our sympathy; or rather, we might empathize with their situation. Then there are others like the Boar where the aggression of the figure is unquestionable. I believe that even such an image is not outside of the reach of human empathy—we can imagine feeling so enraged.
PM There are several recurring motifs in your work, from the red cap to the ant to the cinderblock, which viewers would miss if they were not looking at the characters as part of a group. Can you speak a bit about these themes and what they mean for you as an artist, what they might mean for the group as a collective whole?
DW The cap is a Phrygian cap, the cap of liberty. I started to use it in my work after reading about the French Revolution a few years ago. The cap was worn by the sans-culottes, the working-class enforcers of social-democratic ideals in Paris during the revolution. Their role was complicated: advocates for a new and radical egalitarianism on one hand, and yet they were also involved in some of the more violent episodes of that period.
The characters I’m drawn to depict usually appear beaten down. Their malaise is a discomfort with living in the world as it is: something is missing for them. So when they wear the cap it means two things: it’s a vestige of political idealism, all the hope left to them in a world where increasingly political effectiveness is linked to money; and yet it suggests potentiality, albeit an unknown potentiality that may lead to constructive or destructive action.
The ant is the metaphoric lowest common denominator of all the many figures that populate my work. It is a seemingly insignificant little creature and is often shown facing enormous disaster. Another aspect of the ant that I like is its physical strength, the ability to carry objects many times its own weight. These two characteristics could describe all of the figures in my work.
The cinder block is one of the four symbols I included on a flag of the Dronx that I made a few years ago for a reading Ben Miller gave. The lone cinder block is rubble, not construction material.
Taken all together—although these items don’t often appear together in one work—they suggest a depleted world struggling to reform itself out of things that are almost nothing.
PM Have any particular experiences or people inspired your characters? I’m wondering if you ever try to recreate emotion that you witness in passers-by on a day-to-day basis?
DW Well, this could be a long answer, to speak of where images come from. But as far as the emotion embodied in an image I’d have to say it is more cumulative than related to a specific single experience, or event or person witnessed. I’m always seeing things, people or events that feel like my subject. I remember these by making little drawings or notes. But it’s infrequent that these notes are the sole source for a work. Sometimes things I read or hear trigger an image: the painting of the Cobweb Seller was inspired by a scene in Zola’s L’Assommoir although it doesn’t depict anything that is described in the text. To me the cobweb seller is someone I can see anywhere today, given the precarious economy.
PM How did the Strugglers and Stragglers group evolve? Did you envision relationships between characters that influenced the next character’s creation? I’m wondering if there is any sort of sequential narrative, in your mind, from one character to the next.
DW I had a lot of sketches and drawings of figures that never managed to get into my more major works, and I wanted to make use of them. I felt I had been avoiding something by not using them—too antic in their desperation, too close to the bone, maybe. Before I began I knew I just wanted the figures alone, nothing around them. And I wanted to be able to work through them quickly, so, oil sticks seemed a good medium—half way between paint and a drawing tool. I like the black oil stick because it has the feeling of rain, and of light reflected off of puddles. I wanted that quality.
I knew right away which image to start with: Boar was the first image I completed. After that I’d go through a reviewing process of drawings trying to figure out who came next. This was partly intuitive, and partly reflected my desire to ensure I had a mixed cast of characters: if I completed a figure that had animal features, perhaps the next would not have that, and so on. I did give a lot of thought to which figure fit best into the company of those completed, so perhaps that implies a series, but it was never thought of in terms of a coherent narrative. That’s why I always refer to them as a group: no definite sequence.
PM What are your plans for the group of drawings, will they ever all congregate in the same space down the line? They feel so varied and disconnected emotionally from one to the next, but there is a solidarity that emerges when you see them adjacent to one another.
DW I haven’t done anything with this group since January. The last few were closer to painting than drawing and so I’ve gotten back to oil painting after not using that medium for about ten years. I’ve recently thought of a few figures that fit with the “Strugglers & Stragglers” idea and I have plans to make those. Future additions will probably be in the Shromp scale, over 100” tall—that had been my original idea for these figures. As far as bringing them all together in the same space, I can only hope such opportunities appear.
Watch a slideshow featuring more of Dale’s work.
Visit Dale Williams here.
More from writer Ben Miller at One Story blog.
Paul W. Morris is BOMB’s General Manager, Digital Media.