Ashley Eliza Williams is a painter, sculptor, and interdisciplinary artist exploring new ways of interacting with nature and with each other. She has attended residencies at Vermont Studio Center, MASS MoCA, Anderson Ranch Art Center, Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, RedLine Denver, Alte Schule, Germany and Shangyuan Art Museum, China. Her work is shown nationally, including at K Contemporary Art in Denver, Hersbruck Museum in Germany, The National Center for Atmospheric Research, Bronx Museum project space, and The University of Colorado Museum among other places. Williams has taught at The University of Colorado, Colorado State University, and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. She is a member of the research-based art collective Sprechgesang Institute and currently lives in Western Massachusetts.
"I am driven by a deep sense of wonder and curiosity about the natural world, especially landscapes that feel tentative, vulnerable, and in need of attention. When I walk in nature, I explore the insides of things: the furtive organisms found in the cracks of rocks, the fungi living between tree roots, and the bright patterns of insect eggs within a rotting branch. I’m fascinated by interior stories: the vein of history in a rock that describes an ancient disturbance, or an irregular tree ring that indicates solar activity or human impact.
My work is a series of “communication attempts.” Relationships between paintings, between objects, and between the work and the viewer are inspired by interspecies communication, conversations between living and non-living things, and a desire to mitigate ecological and human loneliness. How fully can we understand a cloud, a tree, or a rock? Can we develop a vocabulary that enables us to do that?
What does our desire to engage with the non-human tell us about ourselves? My central goal as an artist is to discover alternative, more empathic ways of interacting with nature and with each other."
Tell us a little about yourself and your background in the arts.
I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of western Virginia and I was an extremely shy kid. I envied trees, animals, fungi, and other organisms that could communicate through color, scent, touch, electric pulses, and chemical signaling instead of vocal speech. To this day, my work in rooted in an intense curiosity about the ways that other beings “talk” to each other, and what we can learn from the non-human world about relationships, community, and connection.
I’ve lived in the mountains my entire life: The Appalachian Mountains, The Colorado Rocky Mountains, and The Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts. I am driven by a deep sense of wonder and curiosity about the natural world, especially about creatures that are quiet, under-appreciated, or overlooked.
What kind of work are you currently making?
Recently, I’ve been making cut-out paintings of lichen-covered rocks. I call these works “Restless Objects”. I’ve been carrying these paintings around with me and photographing them in different locations. I’m interested in how lichens communicate. Lichens aren’t a single organism, they’re actually a mutualistic relationship between a fungi, an algae, and sometimes a cyanobacteria! I believe that lichens can teach us how to be better humans.
During my residency, I’ve been working on a new “Restless Object” painting that is 70” x 60”, one of the largest paintings I’ve ever made!
I’m also making a series of paintings of real and imagined moths that I call “Night Pollinators”. I love hiking at night: the perceptual strangeness of it, the way nocturnal plants and animals communicate through scent and sound and small flashes of light. With these moth paintings, I explore a future potential ecology: a utopian world where pollinators flourish and continue to evolve.
My recent work often includes “footnotes” or “field notes”. Last year, I had a life-changing experience working with saw-whet owls as part of a bird-banding census project. We collected data about the owls: their wingspan, health status, and also the conditions of the forest. We logged this information meticulously. Ever since this experience, I’ve been including "foot-notes" at the bottom of my paintings. These notes contain information about the weather conditions on the day I made the painting as well as a record of the conditions of my “inner world”.
What is a day like in the studio for you?
Currently I’m an artist-in-residence at MASS MoCA. The residency is fully-funded, and it is such an incredible gift to be here. I get up early in the morning and I paint in the studio all day. We have a mid-day communal meal with all the residents where we talk about art and the mysteries of life! It is an absolute dream.
When I’m not at a residency, I work from home. I live in a tiny apartment, in faculty housing, on the college campus where my partner teaches astronomy. I’ve turned our living room into a studio. My window looking out at the college observatory.
For many years I worked as an adjunct lecturer full-time, sometimes commuting between three different campuses. Today I feel incredibly lucky to be able to support myself through grant funding, art sales, workshops, and some part-time gig work.
I try to put in about 5 hours of painting time per day. I also try to spend several hours a week “in the field” learning about non-human communication of all kinds, doing research on lichens, rocks, and other quiet organisms, and engaging in citizen science projects.
What are you looking at right now and/or reading?
I’m currently obsessed with the Roni Horn photo book “Bird” and the strange and gorgeous abstraction in her photography.
I’m also reading Anthony Doerr’s “Cloud Cuckoo Land”
Where can we find more of your work?
My website is ashleyelizawilliams.com. My instagram handle is @ashleyelizawilliams. I have an upcoming solo show in July at a brand new art space/gallery in Kingston New York. I’m represented by K Contemporary Art in Denver where I’ll have another solo Project Space show this September. I’m also currently in a couple of group shows at New Hampshire University Museum and at Wasserman Projects in Detroit.