June 5, 2024

Artist to Watch


Portrait of Rachel Eulena Williams in her studio. Image courtesy of the artist. 

NB: What are some of your earliest memories of making art, and how does it relate to what you’re doing now?  

REW: I’ve always been interested in collage, for me moving things around feels super powerful. I don’t know what it is, but I feel there’s so much interesting and amazing information in the world that there’s something very connecting about actually looking at an object and connecting with that object that you use in your every day. Collage is a way of inserting culture into any conversation that you’re having on a two dimensional surface. For me, collage has been that inspiration that began when I first started cutting up pictures or scrapbooking. Scrapbooking to me was so thrilling because information wasn’t just alone, it had a companion and a whole narrative around it.  You could save a receipt, or save a little pressed flower, and those are simply really humble and sweet things that we naturally do as humans.  

Then I turned it into my own practice. I feel like what I’ve done is I’m saving my own paintings and my own moments by creating those lines and marks, like scrapbooking them together so this collage is a kind of collective and personal memory. When I’m working I am remembering or  going through a certain moment as I’m making something. A lot of times I’m looking at what I’m making, and it feels like there’s these really free open things that then I kind of layer into each other. I can remember each of those moments when I’m working, and I can see how they connect over different works. That’s something that will always be really exciting for me, and I love that the painting is time and energy and abstraction in itself – it  becomes a ‘tool’ that I get to play with.   

Rachel Eulena Williams, Muddy Peace, 2024, Acrylic, printing ink, cotton, canvas, hooks, wire, and rope on wood, PVC and MDF panel, 64 × 48 × 6 inch.

NB: Can you walk us through your process?  Where do you begin?   What guides you through your composition and how do you decide when the piece is finished? 

REW: So as I mentioned, when I’m starting a piece I’m working freely and I’m not really thinking so much about the end product. I go into the studio and just work on these large splotches of paint and canvas. Then I sort of compose them and break them down and move them around. I usually have something in mind and I have sketches and I have drawings, but then those drawings usually just end up being more like a blueprint or a map.

I accumulate and gather all these elements over months and years, and then I work with them. I go into this awareness (or non awareness) and then build up the work over time. I know that for me, a painting is complete when every element is shining through and there’s a flatness that blends in and also moments that show the structure and the different color combinations. Each work is sort of a journey and it’s a lot like a mystery. It’s one of my favorite things to get lost in that journey.  

Rachel Eulena Williams, Star Root Crossing, 2024, Acrylic on canvas, rope, wood, PVC and fiberboard, 33 × 32 × 5 inches

NB: This is just tangential, but in your studio, do you have a cataloging of your materials or is it more of a free for all?  

REW: I would say because of the way I’m working I usually collect a lot of things and save them. There’s tons and tons of cut moments on the wall, and then tons of like cut fabric moments, and then there’s painted moments. They all kind of live on the wall together. So there’s this wall with just tons of hanging things. Then I have another area for my panels, so everything is ready for me to grab – one of my favorite things is having everything ready and allowing there to be fluidity so everything can come together.  

NB: So where do the materials in your paintings, like the pieces of canvas, rope, and paint come from? What do these represent?  

REW: For me I’ve always been very interested in working with rope and string. There’s always this kind of dual or double meaning and function for things, and for me it’s about the freedom that I get to do all of this very freeing stuff with it, going past the representation of the rope and go into the function. This is a very metaphorical, and symbolic representation of life and living. I’ve always kind of described my works as this sort of portraiture in existence or of my own existence without my body or actual physical representation of me in it.   

Rachel Eulena Williams, Soul on Ice, 2024, Acrylic, cotton, canvas, hooks, wire, rope, and fiberboard on wood panel, 76 × 68 × 7 inches. 

NB: So what are some artists that you’re looking at that inspire your practice?  

REW: When I have to speak at different schools or connect with lots of different audiences, I usually like to express all of the artists that inspire me.  Usually those are: Howardena Pindell, I love that there is both that function and symbology metaphor within her work, which is abstract, but also there’s just something that makes me feel so connected to her work. Then there’s Alma Thomas, who is a painter that I feel for me looks like collage. It feels like she’s painting a mosaic and she’s very intentional about how things don’t speak or touch each other. There’s also David Hammons, that I’m always thinking about, in some of his most simple works there is form, function, and materiality going past materiality.  I think about Theaster Gates as well and how there’s a lot of works that make me feel validated, you know, and how those artists make me feel validated.  

Yet, I think it’s important to look at all the work, you know? Especially as an artist, it’s important to appreciate the journey of art as much as you want people to appreciate the journey of your work. It’s critical because otherwise in your studio, you’re just painting in a vacuum in this kind of insular world, just painting iterations of yourself versus the actual world that we live in. 

Rachel Eulena Williams, Coded Healing Roads, 2024, Acrylic, dye, canvas, thread and rope on canvas, 60 × 50 × 1 inches. 

NB: Can you tell us about your most recent exhibition ‘Dream Speak’ at Canada Gallery? 

REW: For me ‘Dream Speak’ is an interesting and complex exploration about symbols. I think symbols are like speech, and sometimes it’s hard to find the courage to figure out the perfect way to say things. I wanted to go through some of my thoughts through symbology.

There’s a lot of pillow shapes within the show and a lot of small moments of symbols within the work that are made with rope, drawn, or painted. For me, there was this kind of imaginary ‘journaling exploration’, sort of what we were speaking about earlier, where the work is this collective of memories put together. I have a lot of different books and different glossaries of  symbols, so a lot of the symbols are added to the growth of previous symbols. Some of the first ones that I used were actually the inspiration for my first show at Canada Gallery and I wanted to create a second iteration of it.

NB: Just as a side question, when you speak about your work, how do you refer to them as paintings, sculpture and/or air reliefs?  How do you prefer people to refer to your work?  

REW: It’s a really hard question because some of the works feel so sculptural and others feel much more like painting, so there’s moments where I’m thinking of them as paintings and sometimes I’m thinking of them more as sculptures. For me, I find it really interesting that the canvas and the rope have the same properties – I use them together and there’s a transformation of what the canvas does and how it reacts gesso and paint and it all becomes one. I love the way that I’m looking at this canvas and I’m thinking of it as the fabric that it is and how I can sew it and move it around, playing with its physical properties. So I think that’s kind of where the painting and the sculpture are going in each other’s circles because the line becomes the rope and that’s sculptural, but it’s still a line within this painting.