Artist Shirley Nette Williams Channels Whitney Houston, Florence Ballard and Others
Name Shirley Nette Williams
What can art enthusiasts expect to see from you at eMerge?
I’m showing a series of portraits that are made with teabags. The series titled “A Nice Cup of Tears” is partly in response to the untimely deaths of Whitney Houston and others. Following Whitney’s death, I began to reflect on the tragic lives of talented singers who, although constantly surrounded by people, seemed to have lived relatively lonely lives.
Whitney Houston, Billie Holiday, Tammi Terrell and Florence Ballard are featured sitting around a table, sipping tea and pouring out their troubles. Would this simple sharing have saved these beloved women from such tragic ends?
Tell me about the process of making your pieces.
My first teabag portrait was made after I noticed the interesting colors and marks left behind. I proceeded to use the dried green teabag as a base for a portrait. After a few hours of stitching, I was pleased. I had no desire to repeat the process. I thought the exercise was just a one-of experiment. Until I was asked by Souleo [co-founder of eMerge] to create a series for eMerge after he saw the original teabag portrait while on a trip to London last summer.
I started by researching the lives of iconic female singers and then narrowed my search down to African American females. I was inspired by the location of the exhibition. By the time it came to making the series, I had built quite a collection of used teabags. I selected four based on their unique coloring and texture, which are randomly created by tea stains.
I carefully pinned each bag to a separate piece of fabric. I proceeded to stitch them after securing the fabric in an embroidery hoop, keeping the teabag taut. I worked directly from printouts of each of my subjects and started drawing with stitched marks. I used very thin sewing needles and domestic thread to pierce through the fragile paper bags that still contained tea leaves. As I carefully created my images, the challenge of working with very little room for error began to diminish.
I’ve presented the teabag portraits on matching gold-trimmed white saucers.
At what age did you declare ‘I’m an artist?’
I’m a late comer to making art, although I ad always been identified as ‘someone who could draw’ throughout my childhood. I still struggle with the title ‘artist.’ It mainly depends on my mood or confidence, whether I identify myself as such on any given day. I do know that I enjoy making art and need to do it to remain happy. I’m pleased with most of what I create and enjoy compliments from others on my work. Does this make me an artist?
What is your proudest accomplishment to date?
I have many things that I am proud of accomplishing to date. The ones specifically related to my creative life are often related to my background in fashion and costume design. I have designed and made fashion garments that have [been] featured in fashion magazines such as I-D, The Face and Vogue Italia. I’ve also worked with dance companies and choreographers that have toured nationally and internationally, wearing costumes that I have created. I’m extremely proud of these past achievements. I’m proud of myself for starting my art-based business called Pub Art School, which helps to make art more accessible and fun for others.
What is your greatest inspiration?
It’s really difficult to pinpoint my greatest inspiration. I’ve been greatly inspired by stories of people who are successfully living their creative life. I’ve come across many such stories and people, but I’ll try to narrow the list down to just a few that inspires me in different ways.
Joetta Maue is an artist working in photography and textile/fiber art. Through her blog Little Yellow Birds, I have discovered many artists such as her who make meaningful art using needle and thread. Joetta’s lifestyle is hectic but very productive. I admire how she manages to juggle her artistic career, a busy personal life and still finds time to inspire others.
Matt Small is a contemporary portrait painter based in London. Matt is probably my favorite artist. I love the complex textures in his paintings of young urban subjects who are mostly unaware of his gaze. He paints his unusual portraits directly on used pieces of metal, which are often discovered in the same urban landscapes as his male subjects. Matt’s work has inspired me to seek an alternative approach to portraiture.
Gino Hollander is a self-taught American abstract expressionist painter. I discovered his work on a video that gave an insight into his incredible life. He has painted all his life, yet his paintings have a modern feel. In the video, the 78-year-old says, “I don’t want anything to tie me down…stay loose.” In my opinion that says it all.
Sheena Rose is an incredible young artist from Barbados, best known for her hand-drawn animations. I love Sheena’s artwork and her thinking in relation to making it. She is prolific in her output from her little island in the Caribbean. Sheena enthusiastically reaches the world through her extensive blog and multiple exhibitions. She’s truly an inspiration although I sometimes have to stop myself from feeling like an underachiever in comparison.
How do others describe you work?
I’m not too aware of how others describe my work. I’d like to be able to say that I wouldn’t be influenced by other people’s opinions but my sometimes fragile ego cannot deny the truth.
I was however quite pleased with my stitched portraits being described by Creative Depart last year as, “Each face is sui generis, provoking one part melancholy and two parts curiosity.” I think this is my favorite comment, even though I had to look up a phrase contained within.
What kind of satisfaction do you get from your work? What kind of satisfaction do you want me to get?
I’m very much interested in the relationship between my subjects and the medium that I use to represent them. I use stitch to draw in an intuitive way and the slowness of this process gives me time to contemplate. In ‘A Nice Cup of Tears,’ the disposable teabag simultaneously represents the temporary nature of stardom and the fragility of the lives of these four women.
As I normally work from photos or magazine cutouts, I have never met my subjects. Their images have been altered by make-up, photography and printing and then again by my interpretation of them as a piece of art. Do these stages of reincarnation represent the multiple faces/personalities we present to the world?
Unlike traditional “sitters,” my subjects are unaware of my attention. Much like the stranger with whom you shared a speechless encounter with in the street and then realize much later that you’re still thinking of them; my subjects will never know of the intimacy of my gaze.
The fact that Whitney, Billie, Tammi and Florence are no longer with us increases this position and is further complicated by my feeling that although I have not met them, their images are so familiar to me.
I derive a certain satisfaction however from knowing that I have made a likeness of them that will live on, maybe in a happier place and hopefully will be enjoyed by others.