The natural world is the common denominator in Don Williams’s art, whether sculptural or functional.
Artist Don Williams is continually inspired by the world around him to find moments where form and function intersect. A potter as well as a visual artist, he divides his time between creating sculptures and wall pieces and crafting serviceable clay items like bowls, pitchers, vessels and plates.
His mom, Elizabeth Williams, a junior high art teacher and artist, designed and painted tile walls in lobbies of Manhattan apartment buildings in the 1960s. “I’ve always been interested in art,” says Williams, who lives and works in Deerfield. “My mother worked with clay, and she always had tiles around that I could paint. Drawing was encouraged, and I gravitated to it.”
Having had exposure to such a creative environment since he was very young, Williams often notices connections between the natural world and mankind’s influence on it. He takes note of the tension created by that synergy in, say, aerial landscapes, civilizations built into rock and the destructive power of lightning, and he is inspired by these things to make art. He felt compelled to rescue architectural relics from a nearby home, for example, because he related to its history.
Williams gathers disparate items during his travels—to Deer Isle in Maine, the once-toxic wetlands of the New Jersey Meadowlands, the wildfire-ravaged California woods, or simply during walks in the woods with his dog. His studio, Don Williams Clayworks, is filled with charred wood fragments, distressed, nearly unrecognizable pieces of plastic, earthenware, industrial objects, jagged scrap metal and other manmade items weathered by nature and time. Williams combs through this dusty ephemera looking for a spark that will fuel an idea for his next piece of art.
Given how thoroughly immersed Williams is in his art, it is interesting to learn that he was originally a pre-vet major at UNH. He switched to ceramics in his junior year and graduated with a BFA in ceramic sculpture in 1977. From 2010 to 2020, he was a full-time senior lecturer in ceramics at his alma mater.
For New Hampshire Home, Williams explains his creative process and why he’s drawn to piecing together seemingly random pieces into thoughtful, original art pieces.
New Hampshire Home [NHH]: How has your environment contributed to your art?
Don Williams [DW]: Inspiration comes from a lot of places, and it’s not all conscious. I feel like the natural world has always inspired me and fueled my creativity.
I’m always seeing connections between things compositionally, in terms of shape and line, that I see in nature. I’ve also been interested in architecture since I was young, spending summers building forts and tree houses. I can remember building balsa wood houses, just for fun, when I was probably 12.
Traveling, I’ve always been interested in indigenous architecture—in the Pyrenees, walking through an old village where all the houses were made out of local rock; in Mexico, in the desert and seeing fencing made out of cacti. Something clicks. I become more aware of the connections between the manmade world and the natural world, and more interested in those relationships, that tension between them.
In the 1960s, driving to Newark Airport through the Meadowlands in New Jersey, where I grew up, was kind of apocalyptic. Back then, it was lots of mounds of burning garbage. But it was kind of mesmerizing to see this landscape with the skyline of New York City behind it.
Then I started thinking of aerial land-scapes, how things look from the sky. Flying in California, I was mesmerized by the agricultural landscape across the Midwest and the West with grid-like patterns and circles of crops, and winding rivers that went through these very rigid, man-made landscapes. That’s how my process started, doing wall pieces.
I salvage interesting artifacts, architectural objects, because I like the sense of history that they have and their tactile quality, how they’ve been changed by nature over 100 or 200 years. My work started to be a mixture of different elements from the natural world, from salvaged materials, and from things I would make out of clay.
NHH: Why do you work between sculptural art and functional items?
DW: When I started doing ceramics at UNH, I very quickly wanted to move away from the [potters] wheel. I wanted to make things that I could more easily change the shape of. I was always interested in sculpture and making functional work out of clay, but stretching the boundaries of it. I need to work back and forth across these boundaries, because the sculptural work is really stimulating. After I’ve done sculpture for a few months, going back and doing functional work is sort of grounding.
NHH: You collect things that remind you of someone or places you’ve been.
DW: We go to Deer Isle every summer for two weeks and it’s an amazingly beautiful spot. I collect flotsam and jetsam from the shoreline—things that have been tossed overboard by lobster fishermen, pieces of old buoys, even interesting rocks, a lot of driftwood—and they find a way into my work. Things that wash up at the beach spark my imagination. I think about the effects of the water and the wind over time. You still recognize the object, but it’s changed quite a bit. It has a really nice texture to it, or maybe the colors have changed. It has a history now outside of what it was originally used for.
And I’ve been collecting stuff from various scrap metal yards for years. It takes me weeks to figure out how to work an item into a composition. It really happens in a loose kind of way; I never start out with a concrete idea.
NHH: Is that frustrating? Do you wish you could just create something right away?
DW: When I’m thinking too hard about something, I get stuck creatively and I just can’t figure it out. If I put it aside and start doing something else, the solution will come.
Doing functional work helps, because I can go in the studio and start doing something familiar. Just physically working will just relax me enough so that ideas will come.
I also walk in the woods a lot, finding things that have a beautiful patina on them because they’ve been out there for 50 years. New England is full of stuff. People were throwing their trash in the woods up until probably the 1960s.
Recently, I’ve become interested in pieces of trees. Last April, we were in a remote, mountainous area of Northern California where my daughter lives. That whole area has been ravaged by fire every summer. It’s heartbreaking. I brought home some charred wood, which I’ve been using, because it reminds me of the experience. it reminds me of what we’re doing to the world.
NHH: Besides the beach, the woods or scrap metal yards, where else do you find materials?
DW: When new people moved into a house next door to ours, they took out all the old hand-planed 1700s paneling. It was beautiful. I started salvaging boards from a big scrap burn pile in their field. Some of the old timbers from the house had Roman numerals carved in them, so that when they put the house together, like post and beam, they knew what went where. Because I work with my hands, I know what it feels like to do some of that. For me, it adds another layer of meaning to the work to have those artifacts that connect to another human being in another place.