Williams completes residencies in Florida, Mexico

Sandra Williams, "The Dance of the Animal Brides."
Sandra Williams, "The Dance of the Animal Brides."

Associate Professor of Art Sandra Williams completed two artist residencies in Key West, Florida, and Puebla, Mexico, during her faculty development leave during the spring semester.

“The goal of a residency is always the work, but embedding yourself in a new place gives you the opportunity to present your research in a new place,” Williams said.

Originally, Williams intended to travel to Australia for a residency in March, but the bushfires late last year devastated the region, so Williams cancelled.

Then, she learned that she had been selected for a residency at The Studios of Key West in Florida and traveled there instead from Dec. 16 to Jan. 14.

“The focus of my work is investigating the intersection between nature and culture, so when I was investigating the area, I became interested in the Key Deer, but also the reefs and Dry Tortugas,” Williams said.

The Studios at Key West offers a residency program for emerging and established artists and writers to encourage creative, intellectual and personal growth. Per their website description, the residency program is “community based and built upon the hope that visiting artists will take inspiration from Key West’s rich artistic past and present and will engage with—and be inspired by—the remarkable people and culture that surrounds them.”

Williams was in residence with Elizabeth Bernstein, a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, who is writing a book, and Joseph Cassara, a novelist who had recently won several awards for his book “The House of Impossible Beauties,” which is about drag queens in New York during the AIDS crisis.

“Elizabeth and I actually struck up a friendship quickly—the first night. It turned out that her first big article that launched her career was an interview with TATS CRU, this amazing graffiti group that is world famous now,” said Williams, who teaches the School of Art, Art History & Design’s Street Art: Art in the Urban Environment course.

Williams said she explored the island every day.

“No one in Key West is actually from there, so friendships come quickly and easily,” she said. “The island is small and walkable, and you discover so much by walking.”

While visiting a wildlife rescue her first morning, Williams discovered a middle passage memorial.

“I started reading a lot about African Bahamian history in the Keys,” she said. “I went to the Maritime Museum. I was able to get out to Big Pine Key and No Name Key to photograph the Key Deer, so a piece is coming about that. I’m still mulling the story I want to tell.”

Williams said she did a lot of hiking, snorkeling and photographing.

“I started with simple images of manatees and sting rays, and then I became involved in this big piece called ‘The Ghosts of the Henrietta Marie,’” Williams said. “It is so large and so intricate that I have to take breaks from it, so I don’t lose focus.”

Williams creates intricate cut-paper artwork, creating detailed imagery and text.

“When you’re cutting paper, some of the structure is as fine as a thread,” she said. “If you lose focus or your eyes or hands get twitchy, you can compromise the architecture of the whole piece, so I go back and forth between a few pieces. For a long time, nothing will be done; and then, everything will be done.”

In her earlier work, Williams created colorful layered paintings, but a residency at the Madre de Dios Biological Research Station in the Amazon Rainforest about six years ago made her rethink her process since she had to pack her art materials during three days of travel to get in and out and could not use anything with toxicity.

“I started cutting paper there because it made me think about the environment in a different way,” Williams said. “You can’t profess to care about the environment, and then work with these other materials. I turned to paper. I felt strange about it, at first, but it’s been more well received than other materials, and the work comes easily to me.”

Shortly after returning from Key West, Williams traveled to Mexico for an Arquetopia Foundation residency in Puebla from Feb. 15-March 20.

“Arquetopia was featured in Hyperallergic magazine,” Williams said. “[Local artist] Nancy Friedman Sanchez did it, and she said it was excellent. That was my main impetus to apply.”

Williams was there with six other artists.

“They really carefully vet people because you live and work together, so they need to make sure that everyone is going to get along,” she said. “And that’s part of the point. These residencies bond you because of the shared experience. You see through other people’s eyes who have different experiences.”

She made a piece titled “The Dance of the Animal Brides.”

“I had to make that one twice to get a really good composition,” she said.

She also created a zine, a self-published print work, about Axolotls to take advantage of the many screen printing businesses in Puebla.

“Mexico was significant because of the history of the technology of paper in the Puebla State and amate paper, made of bark,” Williams said. “They are part of that history of keeping ideas in a transportable way. I know other areas tend to claim that invention, but I wanted a broader perspective, so there was a material research I wanted to do.”

Williams said she is always looking for an experience that fills in the gap of what she has researched.

“You can read all you want about the Amazon, but that doesn’t necessarily prepare you for some of the things that happen there,” she said. “Or the new information that you will encounter that doesn’t fit into the dominant narratives that demand assimilation. That type of knowledge comes from interaction, new conversations from the people that live there and know and teach you to not be a tourist. How to safely interact with that nature and not cause harm to animals, environments—or yourself for that matter. And these experiences translate into stories. And storytelling communicates new information but also acts as a form of resistance. Art can close that gap between speaking and acting.”

While exhibitions are not always the goal of artist residencies, Williams has two potential upcoming exhibitions, including an exhibition at Stone Soup in Key West between Dec. 17 and mid-February 2021 and a potential exhibition and residency in Mexico City in the summer of 2021.

Williams has also been participating in an international online residency through Arquetopia, where she and 30 artists from all over the world attend meetings and have discussions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“[Director] Francisco Guevera is just amazing,” Williams said. “He and Nayeli Hernandez always say that action is the most important thing. That we were facing this pandemic, but we would collectively take action to face it together, so let’s do an international online residency. We might be alone, but we have a few hours every week where we hop on and discuss articles and enjoy each other’s work via social media and interact. It has been keeping me grounded.”

Williams said both residencies expanded her interests.

“The artists that are invited to Arquetopia often have an interest in or work with communities, and we have a lot of discussions about intersectionality,” Williams said. “But a lot of the real change happens when you get home, and that is what I’m puzzling through now. I love both places. I loved the people, I loved the places, I loved the experiences.”

Williams said residencies like these are important for artists.

“Taking you out of context allows you to open an avenue to ask an even larger question, even if you don’t have the answers yet,” she said. “Art making is like searching. I think I am present as a creator in a very different way than I am in my studio. I may decide to use my technique—or I may be pushed to use my technique in a different way.”

She also enjoyed meeting new people.

“New people are fascinating,” she said. “Where else was I going to meet a Navy captain that is working anti-narcotics and a Mexican pop star? When else am I going to hang out with a reporter from the Wall Street Journal? The point of residencies, in some aspect, is other artists. It’s about expanding your support community with like-minded individuals.”