Art Crush: William Downs Reflects on Creative Life on the Move

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Photo by Karley Sullivan.

Atlanta Art Crush is an interview series bringing to light individuals who are making interesting contributions to our city. Look out for more photo portraits and profiles with our latest heartthrobs coming soon.

Christian Siriano on view at SCAD FASH in Atlanta through October 9

William Downs began his long series of relocations by moving from Greenville, South Carolina, to attend the Atlanta College of Art, where he developed his artistic skill and impressed his professors. His easy demeanor and ambition have helped him build the relationships that continue to prove essential to his artistic path—he happened into his first teaching job while still a senior when his professor was unexpectedly unable to finish the year. William filled the position while finishing his thesis, and in the 17 years since, he has taught at schools in Louisiana, Maryland, and New York while simultaneously pursuing his art.

Teaching recently brought him back to Atlanta as a drawing professor at Georgia State University. The seasoned traveler has reintegrated into his former home with ease. On the days he’s not on campus, William works in his studio, building upon his preferred techniques of highlighting simple lines and dreamy figures in pencil, inkwash, and watercolor.

He was soon tapped by Get This! Gallery to curate a show: In Unison, a collection of work from a geographically diverse group of artists, opened January 5 to a packed house. The show is as eclectic as William’s list of homes has been: musicians, photographers, painters, installation artists, and more. As we spoke at Octane Coffee in the Westside Arts District, he described the show as an “infinity mirror” of sorts. By bringing these artists together, they reflect the places he’s become immersed in and the impact their work has had on his life. As his first artistic home, Atlanta is a fitting place to hold a retrospective of everywhere he’s been during his sojourn.

Marc André Robinson, Hi Mom, 2010, digital C-print mounted on Sintra, 18 x 24 inches. Courtesy Get This! Gallery.

We met up on an unseasonably warm January day, sitting on the patio as we sipped our coffees. I was curious about how he decided to try out so many new cities, and how that affected his work.

BURNAWAY: Is there a philosophical reason you’ve moved around so much? Was it about chasing opportunities or wanting to start over and refresh—see what happened?

William Downs: I think I wanted to see a lot of places and live in a lot of places. It’s this personal journey that I have. I could be satisfied with any of these places, but I think it’s really exciting to uproot and plant roots again … to experience and explore. I just want to keep moving to see the world. Opportunities happen in those places, which is great. I’m excited that I can move somewhere and things could happen through the skills I have in my back pocket. I’m lucky to have manual labor skills to help make money until other things play out.

BA: And what are those?

WD: Construction, drywall, house painting, art installation. I know how to rig things. I can move anything. I can build crates—but I don’t like to build crates so much. Anything dealing with museum work … installations are my specialty.

BA: How did you learn those skills?

WD: Freelancing at an early age. When I left Atlanta, I had freelanced for a few people. Then when I moved to Baltimore, I freelanced for the Contemporary Museum there for three years while I was a bicycle messenger. From there, when I moved to New York I started working for some really big galleries and had my side projects going on at the same time. That’s how art handling became my main financial tool.

BA: Do you think it influences your art? To be able to do those things?

WD: It does. I’m really obsessed with finding new ways of installing something, in terms of gadgets or tools or painting materials. That influences my work in that it can hang anywhere. I always install my installations, when I do installations. The stamina I have when it comes to doing that …I can do it myself.

Photos by Karley Sullivan

BA: On your website I saw drawings. You also do installations?

WD: Well, drawing installations is how I see it. I pin, like, 500 drawings to the wall and create patterns or quilts of drawings. That’s primarily what I’m doing. I used to be a painter, and now I’m going back to painting. I think that’s something that moving around does to you … I don’t ever want to keep setting up a painting studio because it’s such a process.  But now I have a studio that I can do that in.

BA: I wanted to ask you how being an instructor in drawing has affected the way you see your own drawing and painting.

WD: Teaching foundation drawing has influenced me to craft my tools in the way of what I’m teaching my students. Meaning charcoal, conte crayon, inkwash, sometimes watercolor, sometimes acrylics. I try to use what I teach in my studio so that when my students do see my work they can say, “Oh, I believe in this now. I understand what charcoal means, and it’s not just painful. It’s not just making you dirty every day.”

BA: What are you doing in the near future?

WD: Working on some paintings. I have some shows in the works that I’m going to be a part of. Continuing with drawing. And I’m doing a mural at Octopus in East Atlanta Village.

BA: You’ve said your drawings come from observations of human behavior, and also from dreams. How do those interact in your work? How do you think about them as you’re working?

WD: I think about them in terms of psychoanalyzing the dreams. In my days of walking around or riding my bike around, or meeting people or socializing, my brain is recording the activity that’s happening. So with that it becomes part of how my figures take on different kinds of physical activities in my drawings. That experience versus the dreams … I feel like my dreams are a kind of cinema. I try to remember them so that they can become drawings.

Brian Deran, Illi, 2012, oil on panel, 12 x 12 inches. Courtesy Get This! Gallery.

BA: Do you buy into any dream interpretation? Freudian or Jungian? Or do you take it as a personal, you know, “This is what my brain did last night?”

WD: Kind of both. I do question some dreams, and then when I make drawings about them it’s like, “Ah, what does this mean? What’s going on?” Which is great because it becomes this universal image for whoever is standing in front of the drawing.

BA: It becomes like a dream for them.

WD: Yes, exactly. Or an experience. When I was in undergrad I studied psychology at a different school. So I took classes in psychology. That helped inform me in the way of analyzing the dreams, choosing which psychologists would be my hero or which camp I would be a part of. Knowing all those guys … it’s really rusty now because it’s been so long … but I still keep a little bit of those guys in my brain so when I’m making things I kind of wrap the narratives around those so that viewers can have this experience.

BA: If nothing else, thinking about those guys gives it a common language to showing your dreams to other people. Even if you don’t necessarily buy it, you’ve heard Freud talk about it one time, and now I see it in this drawing. Dreams are such an abstract thing that, if you don’t have some unification for how to describe them, it’s kind of pointless. I think it’s important to have some way … to have a sheet of paper we can point to ….

WD: … to articulate. Exactly.

BA: I’d like to talk about In Unison. I was really interested in that web you showed me of the artists in the show and how they connect back to you. It reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut—he did the same thing when he was planning Slaughterhouse Five. He started with one thing and kind of branched off into different timelines …. [At this point, Downs opens his journal to another mock-up of the web] Oh, wow! How many times did you draw this?

WD: A lot.

BA: Can you walk me through it?

WD: This is how my brain needed to think about each person and how each person is a slice of me. I chose them because their work influences a larger art world, but at the same time their work influences me.


BA: So you’ve got here: “bands, music business, nightlife, living together, school, construction, work ….”

WD: “… professors, jobs …”—these are artists who are similar to me in the way they live life. Meaning they do a lot of things at the same time as making art and maintaining an art career.

BA: Did you know that this was how you were going to curate the show?

WD: When [Lloyd Benjamin of Get This! Gallery] asked me to organize a show, I wanted to organize a show that would make me excited about the artists. And I wanted to show artists who did a lot of things: “Art workers.” Also, music has been a huge part of my life, so that was another element that I wanted to tie into the show—to juxtapose people that make it, play it, experience it. Even in the work, in the visual elements of certain people’s work for me, I connect that to sound.

BA: How does that work together?

WD: It works in the way of studying and understanding Kandinsky. The way that he related sound to instruments. The bass drum would be either bold reds or blacks … [Margot Walsh’s paintings are] like two bass drums pounding, because the black is radiating. Or Michael Gibson’s painting is probably like the sound of a violin or some string instrument. That silver to me is a screechy sound.

Photos by Karley Sullivan.

BA: Are there any other connections that these artists or their artwork have, other than being connected to you? Even just as you were putting together the show, did you see similarities you hadn’t realized before?

WD: Landscape, identity, sexuality, theory … I think that as I selected everybody those images were flooding my brain because that’s what I’m interested in. Everybody’s work, to me, carries some of those things. Moving things around the space, they became clearer. That’s what the show is about. Some people made work that’s brand new, so a lot of it was a surprise because I had only seen their older works. That’s another thing about these people … their work changes a lot.

BA: What’s the impact of having these artists, most of whom are presumably not going to be shown in the same town again, in one show? Do you perceive connections might be made between them as a result of this show?

It’s my favorite people in the same room, on the walls. From that, I feel like I would like to share Atlanta with these artists. It’s kind of like a mirror. I’m exposing them to Atlanta, and then the viewers—I’m exposing them to these artists. People that they would never think to go look for in New York or wherever. That’s the main impact.

William Downs will appear for a talk at Get This! Gallery on Saturday, February 16, at 12 noon.

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