Anna Williams: An Unquiet Mythology
The Warren G. Flowers Art Gallery is pleased to present the work of Ottawa-based artist Anna Williams. This is the first Montreal exhibition of Williams, who has created technically and conceptually complex prints and bronze sculptures which reinterpret female roles, gender conformity, and attitudes towards nature in classical Greek myths.
Born in Ottawa, Anna Williams studied sculpture and printmaking at Mount Allison University (Sackville, New Brunswick), before returning to Ottawa, where she continues to work, garden, and live with her wife, children, dogs and an excessive number of houseplants. Her artwork employs the animal and narrative to examine the construction and manipulation of myth, female identity and power relationships in contemporary society. Through an exploration of poetry, drawing, print, sculpture and installation, Williams articulates her struggles with mental health, self-image, and identity.
Williams has had solo shows in both Canada and the U.S., and has works in the collections of the Canada Council Art Bank, the Government of Canada (Embassy of Belgium and Luxemburg), the Ottawa Art Gallery, the City of Ottawa, and Humber College, as well as in numerous national and international private collections. Williams has also created public works in Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal.
The artist acknowledges the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the City of Ottawa.
AN INTERVIEW WITH ANNA WILLIAMS
On a recent Thursday evening, two visual arts students, Ella Gauthier and Alessandro Ruvo, were given the chance to ask Anna a few questions.
EG: Bronze is a very challenging medium to work with. It can be really frustrating to manage, yet your pieces come off as beautifully effortless. Why have you chosen this medium despite its downsides?
AW: My mum was a potter so I grew up working with clay. I’ve had dozens of pieces break during firing because I was always pushing the limits of what clay can do. So, when I went to art school my mom said, “you’ve got to go somewhere where there’s a foundry.” The great thing about having studied in a foundry was learning all the steps involved in the process (wax and rubber molds) – so I can do everything except for pour the metal into the molds. I grew to comprehend the material and create more complex figures with it, but at the same time clay and metal are very similar. Sculpting wax for bronze is a balance of hot and cold as clay is working with wet and dry. Both can be used to create organic shapes, and both have their downsides. But again, I had initial knowledge of working with such materials, and my relationship to bronze was meant to be in some way, it made sense to me and it all came together.
EG: It's been said that you like using materials from nature to create relief prints, sculptures and other works. Why do you like to use these unique mediums and what have been your favourites to use?
AW: I am always searching for ways people can have different views. Bronze was historically used to create weapons and memorials for powerful men who did terrible things to people. So I feel like there's a power in working with bronze, changing that narrative and taking that power into my own hands.
I created a piece (not in the exhibition) of individually cast bronze leaves. I love the meaning that can be found behind it of reminiscing childhood memories of jumping in piles of leaves in the fall. A pile of leaves can almost act as a cushion—as a child you carelessly jump into them—but once cast in bronze, it's almost weapon-like. The points become sharp and dangerous, and I was interested in that contradictory idea. The childhood innocence of jumping into a pile of leaves, but once they become bronze this conflicts our safe memories.
EG: As mentioned before, bronze is a challenging medium to use. It is most commonly found in large-scale pieces, but you have made many small intricate works. What makes you choose a small scale, and what are the challenges you have experienced while making such pieces?
AW: Bronze works well with large pieces, but I love working with smaller formats because there is an intimacy that contrasts nicely with the weight of the material. I love getting close to my pieces and making them easily fit onto my lap, but I really love the contradictory aspect to it. When picking up a small bronze work, you wouldn't expect it to be heavy, like a leaf for example. It's vulnerable and intimate, but once it's cast in bronze it becomes practically indestructible. Casting it in bronze disrupts these expectations and makes the viewer rethink their assumptions about hierarchies and permenance.
AR: In researching your background, I came across a statement in Ottawa Life magazine that said you’d been working as a pilot and pursuing a degree in science. You were adamant in saying that art as a career was not something you personally desired, and yet now can’t seem to ever find yourself away from. Even while being raised in an environment that encouraged creativity, do you believe your experiences in those other avenues of life have shaped the way you make art?
AW: It’s hard to know what would have been different. My siblings and I grew up in an arts and science based household. My mother is a potter by trade and my father is a doctor, and the traditional values of a formal education system streamed me into science, and though luckily I was encouraged by my family to go against the prevailing currents to explore art. One of my brothers went into industrial design, another into architecture, and I pursued Fine Arts. In some ways, we’ve all found a middle ground between science and arts, involving planning, problem solving and cross-pollinating between mediums in our processes.
AR: Works featured in your series of She Wolves sculptures blur the boundaries between humans and the animals that they have placed themselves above. Similarly, the display of Remedy organizes elements from nature in a manner reminiscent of apothecary practices. Based on these examples, among others, I wanted to ask: What do you believe to be the relationship between artistic and natural creation?
AW: I think that it differs from one artist to another. We’re reminded of a primal creation, of how uncaring nature is. Repetition doesn’t matter; nature won’t care if it rained yesterday or if it was dry, things will happen as they will. In this, there is a metaphor for creativity, and what we do in art; the world is indifferent to what happens in the studio. The rawness present in nature is something I hope we find in art in some way.
AR: A significant portion of your work features aspects taken from Greek mythology. I can’t help but ask, why have you chosen these myths and these stories specifically when adapting them into your work?
AW: Around 2015-2016, there was a sort of regression of how women were treated in society. A lot of this came to a head during the MeToo movement. To watch so many of these men in power who had done terrible things be protected, it nauseated me. I’d been reading works by feminist thinkers about building womanhood, and it got me to look at Greek vases and the way women have been left out of so many of the stories we are taught. Even looking at the Renaissance and the 18th century, these classical periods from which so much of our language is derived, and noticing how women were pushed aside in these myths for the sake of the construction of the Hero archetype. Look at stories such as those of Hercules, which focus on his feats, to the dismay of aspects like his PTSD, or how he murdered his sons and wife, Megara. This erasure may have affected men as well, but those are not my stories to tell. You could look at someone like Hillary Clinton and how she’s treated and notice how women are supposed to maintain a standard that is so unrealistic. Many of these attitudes are ingrained in contemporary society — derived from the misogynistic Greek philosophers and distorted versions of Greek mythology we know of today. Working in the Renaissance style has made me uncomfortable at times. I tend to think about how do I get people who are of completely different affiliations, political and cultural backgrounds, to pay attention or to recognize the vocabulary in my work. The stories of Greek mythology and the sensibilities are so compelling and familiar to people, and this is what allows me to sort of pull the rug from under their feet with my work. These stories created a narrative of fear that twisted women into people capable of destroying the household and their images. I can use these stories to reach a broader audience and make it possible to present my perspectives on them. But I am not the answer, I don’t have the answer!
AR: Viewers have to create their own answers!
After the students had finished asking their questions, they continued to converse a bit more informally. During this conversation, Anna asked everyone a question. It is one that her mother would ask her whenever she would visit exhibitions with her: “What would you steal from this show, and why?” The question is interesting and encourages the viewers’ perspective and subjective experience of the work. When Anna was asked the question, she replied, “Well even if I am the artist, I make works that I cannot afford to buy!” From the works of An Unquiet Mythology, Williams said that she would steal Remedy, citing reasons such as a history of mental illness in her family, making it and seeing it as a part of the healing process, and the ongoing relationship she continues to have with mental health. She says there is a monumentality imbued within that, and notes that its fragility and delicacy makes Remedy her piece of choice.