Color Me Impressed: The Crayon Sculptures of Herb Williams
As children, opening a new box of Crayola crayons was one of the most satisfying and exciting experiences of our days. The fresh, sharpened tips and the smell of unused wax was intoxicating; the box held so much potential for the creation of art and enjoyment. Over time, that sense of anticipation waned for many people, as adulthood crept in and eliminated the free time for playful drawing and scribbling in coloring books. For some people, like Herb Williams, the fascination with crayons never dwindled, and the joy of opening a single box of crayons is only multiplied when he opens a crate stuffed with 3,000 crayons at a time. He needs that sort of volume to create his unique and mind-boggling sculptures, made completely from crayons that have either been, cut melted, or bent to built his colorful generation gap-spanning art.
In his developmental years, Herb worked construction, which gave him a solid understanding of physics, form, and function, which is so important when using his unusual crafting material. His degree in sculpture and his experience working at a bronze foundry added even more aspects of talent and creative pools from which to draw. Since 1998, he has been working in Nashville, where he regularly gets his cartons of Crayola crayons delivered directly from the factoriy. He is one of the only people in the world that has a standing account with Crayola, because there are very few individuals or organizations in the world that might need 500,000 crayons for a single project.
After getting a formal art degree and training in a difficult material like bronze, it seems like a strange jump to move into massive crayon sculptures, but he is fascinated with nostalgia, and the human connection to the past. As he says, "Crayons are a gateway drug", and for many children, their experience of art and creation is based on those early years of coloring inside the lines with their Crayola 64-packs. The initial exposure to art and personal creation is something that lasts inside of our psyche, whether we realize it or not. The reason that his art is so intriguing is that it combines a medium that everyone is familiar with, but uses it in a unique way, to create objects that wouldn't typically be associated with childhood or simplistic artistic tools.
His work is based in the idea of "play", and that unexpected juxtaposition alone lends the work deeper meaning and significance. When people walk into one of his exhibitions, the art affects more than just the visual aspect. The room is filled with the overwhelming smell of wax, taking people back to memories they had nearly forgotten, and the sight of so many perfectly placed crayons in staggering volumes and delicate placement links memory with the senses to create a cathartic or moving experience.
Crayons are so inherently tied to childhood (or parenthood) that placing them in a form which raises issues of politics, sexuality, commercialism, or social inequality seems almost grotesque. It is difficult for viewers to separate the natural associations of childhood from an image of an American flag, a nude model, or a Ferrari. The two spheres of our mentality don't typically cross, but his art argues that the modern world is losing its boundaries, and innocence is being lost through oversaturation, growing up too fast, and the anticipation of entering "the real world".
He creates serious art that is respected throughout the world, but it doesn't take itself too seriously, and frankly, it can't. Here is a man who spends months placing tens of thousands of crayong in rows to create skulls, mosaics, fashion designs, and household objects seemingly at random. He is like a kid in a crayon store with a blank check, forgetting that crayons are not Legos. By twisting the function of crayons into a permanent structural medium, he comments on the nature of crayons, which destroy themselves in the process of creation. Some of his environmental work, like the installment shown above, comments on the same facet of human beings, creating more and more throughout the world, yet simultaneously destroying it in the process.
Plenty of Williams' work is also quite fun and whimsical, paying an homage to the traditions of the medium, but there is always a tinge of significance or depth. The instinctual reaction to seeing crayons creating objects that depict sex or fashion resonates in our coscience, and it feels slightly dirty or inappropriate, despite its aesthetic appeal and the impressive level of skill it took to make it. There is also an inherent simplicity in using the same medium, unaltered in color or form, to create larger works. He is limited by the medium in terms of texture and variety, yet he is able to create powerful and moving work with massive swaths of color. In this way, he is like a Fauvist from the early 20th century, chasing down Matisse's dream of connoting emotion and meaning simply through the instantaneous associations and reactions that people have towards color.
His unique style has gained international attention, and he has exhibited in Japan, Belgium, Australia, Canada, and a handful of other nations that want to dive into the complexity of grown-up art made from childish things. He is beginning a six-city, two-year tour of his work beginning in Taipei and carrying on through China, and he is frequently commissioned for large works across the United States and beyond. The sheer volume of work involved in making a sculpture from half a million (or even 10,000) crayons is a daunting task, but as long as Crayola stays in business, Herb Williams will continue to thrill the world with his fresh and thought-provoking work. Conversely, as long as Herb Williams continues to order crayons by the truckload, Crayola will probably stay in business!
The innocence that we lose as grow up often keeps us from coloring outside the lines, so to speak, and the art of Herb Williams reminds us to break out of conventional thought, embrace creativity and innovation in all that we do, and try to have a little fun along the way too. What do you think? Does this make you want to run out and start building sculptures out of Pez dispensers and action figures?
If you want to see more of Herb Williams' stunning sculptures and learn more about his intriguing philosophies on art and creative interaction, visit his website!
All images are subject to copyright by the artist.