As any former budding 4-year old artist will know, crayons are one of the best introductory forms of colourful expression. That weird thing where the wax starts to melt and lift off the page no matter how hard you press can get pretty old, pretty fast though. Then in comes someone like Herb Williams, who translates the vivid colour of those little sticks into giant sculptures and makes us re-think their use. And hey, if you've got Obama wanting to use the crayon creations to grease up other politicians as gifts, you've got to be doing something right.
So, why crayons as a sculpting material?
You know, I think I've come full-circle. I've always been an artist, but have never been satisfied with any one medium. You know how a musician has to find their own voice? I felt like the new frontman for Boston when I would complete a sculpture, having a lot of fun, but feeling like I was standing on the shoulders of giants. So after years of experimenting with every different material I could think of, I came back to crayons. I credit the birth of my son for helping me rediscover them. I made my first crayon sculpture in early 2002 and it has been the one material that I haven't grown tired of yet and that I feel as though I'm bringing something new to the table.
Have Crayola already approached you for some sort of sponsorship deal? And if it's not happened yet, what do you think you'd say?
Crayola have had me create a sculpture for their corporate headquarters. Also, when I was asked to show during the inauguration, they sent some major press my way. But aside from being a wholesaler of their product, no, they are pretty hands-off. They get approached by every art teacher in the world for donations, so they are pretty careful with who they donate to, or sponsor. I want the autonomy to create works that are relevant, and sometimes being sponsored can hamper that, so I'm pretty happy with our relationship. Don't get me wrong, they are in my five on speed dial. When I order, I get my single colors in quantities of 3,000 to a 50-lb case.
Were you big on crayons as a kid? Or is this a sort of late adult reaction to their awesomeness?
It is completely a delayed reaction. I was super into them as a kid, but I think as an adult, I can appreciate their newfound use with a tempered playfulness. I experimented with casting my own crayons and even trying other brands of crayons, but every time I would create them, they felt disingenuous without being Crayola.
What's your artistic background like? What do you think drove you towards this type of quirky sculpture?
I was formally trained in sculpture, with a minor in Pre-Columbian Art History, I trained off-campus with a few professional sculptors, and then after college went to work at a bronze foundry in West Palm Beach. I think what kept driving me was to find something that I could speak through that would have a commonality to the everyman, and not just the art elite.
Herb at work on 'Plunderland'
Who are some of your inspirations for visual and architectural work?
Where do I begin? Ai Weiwei, Jim Dine, David Hockney, Liza Lu, Sandy Skolding, El Anatsui, Frank Gehry, Charles Ray, Wayne Thiebaud, Anish Kapoor. I could go on and on.
What have been some of the weirdest commission requests you've had, since people caught wind of your crayon work?
I was asked to create a Torah for a Bat Mitzvah, a pair of gold men's briefs, a nine-foot tall cactus, and a yellow Enzo Ferrari.
Do you ever feel like the crayon sculpture eclipses your previous work? Do you get tired of talking about it (kinda like right now)?
Of course it's been my most popular, but I still have several of my older works in my own home, and a few collectors who ask when I will revisit a certain theme.
Which of your own pieces are you proudest of/do you like the most?
That's like picking a favorite child. I think I am always most excited about what I am currently working on.
And what's next for you, Herb? We've seen you're a gallery curator as well as artist & sculptor, so where do you see your priorities falling in the next few months?
My work as a curator keeps me inspired, and my finger on the pulse. My next projects are working with Jack Daniels to create a large-scale installation and break seven world records in one day, to create a series of outdoor wildfire sculptures that will actually burn (melt) down to educate in the Midwest where wildfires are devastating, and to create a sculpture that the president can give to other foreign dignitaries as a gift of goodwill from the United States.
To see more of Herb's work, head to his website here. Or just keep an eye on the news for Obama handing over a crafty crayon sculpture to some diplomats.