Successful grad brings his art back to BSC
“Terrible, terrible art.”
For sculptor Herb Williams ’96, terrible art led to a dark night of the soul—a night in which he burned most of his work, haunted by the ghosts of great artists before him And that dark night brought him a colorful revelation.
“I had a dream that night. In the dream, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art contacted me and said, ‘Mr. Williams, we would like to give you a retrospective.’ And I asked, ‘What is it that you like?’ Then it was me going to the exhibit. There were hundreds of sculptures made out of different materials – stone, steel, glass – all the traditional materials.
And then it became more obscure – paper clips, Q-Tips, erasers, and finally, crayons.
“I woke right up.”
In the years since that middle-of-the-night breakthrough, Williams’ art has been displayed around the world, and he is reportedly the only individual to hold an account with Crayola – the company ships him 50-pound cases containing 3,000crayons in a single color. He has made appearances on NPR and CBS, and his sculptures are in private and public collections, including museums, hospitals, and the White House. A crayon sculpture featuring President Obama was included in an exhibit of inaugural art in Washington, D.C. He created a crayon sculpture replica of the 2016 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover featuring supermodel Hannah Davis.
His latest exhibit “Master Heist” will be on display through Nov. 22 at Birmingham-Southern College’s Durbin Gallery. The pieces offer his own take on iconic art throughout time.
“It’s all about ownership and inspiration throughout the ages,” Williams said. “Picasso said, ‘Bad artists copy, good artists steal.’ I’m responding to this idea on a much more blatant, ridiculous scale, and paying homage to all of the artists. I’ve ‘stolen’ from the Louvre, the Met, MoMA.”
Williams said one of his favorite pieces of the new collection is a five-foot Ming Dynasty urn he titled “Stolen Dynasty.”
“I used tens of thousands of crayons, but only in white and sky blue. It’s so iconic and satisfying. You just look at it and – boom – it’s so apparent: it influenced Wedgwood china. These little thefts of inspiration are just so human.”
The pieces in “Master Heist” aren’t Williams’ first to be displayed at BSC. "Leeway," a steel sculpture he built his sophomore year with Branko Medenica '72, still stands outside the Kennedy Art Building.
Williams was introduced to Medenica by Professor Emeritus Bob Tucker, who was Williams’ faculty advisor. Williams graduated from BSC with a BFA in sculpture. He now lives in Nashville with his children, Clay, 14, and Maggie, 11.
“I credit Bob Tucker with the path I’m on today,” Williams said. “He was such a guru, kind of like a Buddha of knowledge. Art students have a lot going on in their heads and he was a strong, deep-rooted man that opened my eyes to see through a larger lens.”
Williams said that lately, witnessing others as they find inspiration is what fills him with joy.
“My happiest place right now is not in the studio but at home. Clay is learning songs on the guitar. He’ll learn a song, and my daughter Maggie will sing. He’ll record it with her. He says, ‘OK, Dad, I’ll send this to you.’
“I have to stay away when they’re recording, though. I know if I go too near them, I might ruin it. It’s magic.”