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Sculptor exhibiting in Hinson turns crayons into fine art 

By Luanne Williams

Wingate’s visual arts coordinator, Charlene Bregier, won’t forget the first time she saw the work of Herb Williams.

“On a trip to Nashville, I walked into the Rymer Gallery and there’s these life-size animals made out of crayons,” Bregier says. “My first thought is, Who is this artist? And can we bring him to Wingate?”

Turns out she could. Williams is coming to Wingate’s Hinson Art Museum on Wednesday and bringing with him a number of his works, as well as his passion for his favorite medium.

“Crayons are a gateway drug. To most adults, the sight and smell of crayons produce specific memories of childhood,” Williams says. “The twist in the road to nostalgia is the creation of a new object from a medium in which it was not intended.”

Although he’s always loved Crayola crayons – he carried his around in a fruitcake tin as a child and now orders single-color cases of 3,000 at a time – it wasn’t until the early 2000s that he realized they were truly his vehicle. Growing up in Alabama, Williams carved sculptures into the red clay of hillsides, his own temporary Mount Rushmores. As a teen, he worked in construction and took his growing understanding of form and materials to Birmingham-Southern College, where he earned his bachelor of fine arts in sculpture. From there, he worked at a bronze foundry in Florida, helping cast hundreds of sculptures prior to moving to Nashville in 1998. 

Williams received the Joan Mitchell Foundation Museum Purchase Grant in 2004 and the Next Star Artist Award in 2008. He earned a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2011 and was commissioned in 2019 to provide artwork for a wing of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Although some of his well-known works include melted crayons, Williams’ most distinctive creations are not molten, but formed from crayons in their original form. He cuts the sticks down to the length he needs and then bonds them to a form he has carved or cast, completely enveloping it. 

"Whether I use the tips or the butts of the crayons will change the look of it, make it more kinetic or more illustrative,” Williams explains in an episode of Nashville Public Television’s “Tennessee Crossroads.” “There is such promise in that little box of crayons that everybody gets because there are so many possibilities before you even put one to the paper. And that’s a lot of what drove me to work with the whole stick of the crayon, because when you put it on the paper it is never as saturated and rich and thick with pigment as it is in that stick. There is just something so primally satisfying about working with it and working with hundreds of thousands of them.”

It’s that satisfaction of creating something new and unexpected from an everyday object that Bregier hopes Williams will spark in students in her Art 404 Creative Process class. She also expects he’ll inspire the 50 Unionville Elementary fifth-graders set to visit the museum on Wednesday, thanks to trustee Ron Hinson and his son, Unionville art teacher Eric Hinson ’95. 

Gifts from this past year's One Day, One Dog are helping fund Williams’ exhibit and a sculpture, “Ripple Effect,” that the museum will add to its permanent collection. 

Williams initially took more than four months and 40,000 crayons to sculpt a brightly striped deer drinking from a similarly colored pool, part of his nature-inspired Call of the Wild exhibit. Williams says his use of the same spectrum of colors in the pool and the animal speaks to the idea that the simple act of drinking from a source has deeper significance than the human eye can perceive.

“I’m really interested in the idea that there’s more happening right in front of us that we just are too busy or too distracted to notice,” he says. “There’s this condition called synesthesia, where you hear a sound and see a specific color. It got me to explore the notion that nature and the animal kingdom use a higher-functioning form of synesthesia in every simple thing they do.”

Although he melted crayons to create a finished surface look on his original work, the piece he will bring to Wingate is one he created specifically for the University with the same sculpture form but using the unmelted crayon tips. He’s also altered the colors a bit, Bregier says, leaving the top portion of the deer white, with the colorful spectrum beginning at the top of the legs.

As excited as she is about adding the sculpture to the collection, it’s the interaction between Williams and students that she looks forward to most.

“With our increasingly diverse population, including many low-income and first-generation college students, access to art through Hinson Art Museum artwork, artists and exhibits is something many may have never had the chance to experience,” Bregier says.

Similarly, Williams says that crayons keep him connected to his own blue-collar roots. 

“There weren’t any museums in my town. I don’t think I walked into a gallery until I was in college,” he told Nashville Arts magazine. “I want to give a window to a lot of people with humble beginnings that will enable them to smile at something and to want to approach it, and open doors for them to embrace more in the art world.”

To make the experience even more inspirational for youngsters, the Union County Community Arts Council is providing a box of crayons and a sketch pad for each of the visiting fifth-graders. The elementary students will be on campus from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Feb. 23, to meet Williams and see his work before having lunch. The Artist Talk for the campus community is set for 2 p.m. Wingate students will need to pre-register for the Lyceum event since museum seating is limited to 75.

Feb. 18, 2022