More than skin deep
April 30, 2010
Sarah Williams is an avid listener. She has heard confessions ranging from “I used to sit on our front porch and watch the thunderstorms,” to “I met my nemesis when I was six — my first grade teacher,” all the way to “I ended up seeing this girl who was an acid distributor. We had a really trippy Christmas.”
Williams documents these confessions, charting the progressions of 24 lives from their beginnings and outlining significant events and emotions. She listens to both the young and the old — students, professors and residents of Williamsburg.
These “human core samples,” as she refers to them, are currently on display in the Andrews Hall foyer for her honors thesis show, covering several walls.
The samples are laid out visually, painted onto mylar paper; they appear as small organic structures, with roots branching down from the bottom tracing a subject’s early years, more roots reaching upward at the top, to suggest their thoughts and plans for the future, while colors and patterns illustrate everything in between.
An elaborate key and her small, scrawling handwriting map out for the viewer how to decipher the cores.
Tacked near the charts are scraps of paper with snippets of the interviews, which are tiny details of complex biographies. Nearby are handmade tea bags filled with small scraps of materials left over from the creation of the project.
“The tea bags symbolize the connection and conversation between me and the interview subject,” Williams said. “There’s so many beautiful stories that I hear and want to remember.”
Williams’s passion for this type of art stems from her interest in other people’s personal histories.
“I’m so interested in people’s pasts; there [are] a lot of similarities, really specific similarities between people who don’t even know each other,” she said. “I’ve had people who say their life isn’t interesting, but that’s not true at all.”
Williams’s own story began in Roanoke, Va., growing up in the back of her parents’ toy store. Along with her sister, she began exploring creative outlets, and quickly discovered drawing and painting. Williams originally used traditional methods, churning out oil paintings inspired by the Italian Renaissance and the Dutch masters.
“This summer I got tired of working with oil on canvas, and started looking at contemporary art — forms of more conceptual art. Maybe I will go back to classical painting but it doesn’t interest me right now,” she said. “Over winter break, I latched onto this concept.”
Her concept embodies two different projects. In addition to the core samples, Williams has collaged figures, drawing on information gathered from her interviews. Williams says that the figures represent people in different periods of their lives, not specific people. Delicate tissue paper butterflies settle on the abdomen of one figure, while another crouches, knees drawn into its chest while it listens to assumed sounds coming from headphones.
“It’s more active and tactile,” she said.
Williams constructed many of the figures from scraps from other pieces of artwork and remnants of her own life experiences.
“A lot of the imagery is created by ripping up other work I’ve created,” she said. “My dad currently works at a furniture store and he sent me a box of leather. I’ve thrown on paraffin and twine. I sometimes rip up canvases to make thread.”
She gathered Spanish moss on a spring break trip to the Okefenokee Swamp, an aspect of her fascination with certain aspects of the natural world.
“I love mold — natural textures, lichens and fungus, they’re all wonderful things,” she said.
Williams said she aims to incorporate more scientific visuals into the project using dissecting pins to hang her work onto the walls.
“I’m approaching it as if it is a scientific experiment and so I want it to have a scientific aesthetic,” she said.
Williams’s interest in scientific fields actually culminated in the project. Friends donated old textbooks from various fields from geology to biology for her to look at. The structural systems that run throughout all of nature particularly interest her.
“I like the insides of things more than the outsides of things,” she said. “I got into systems, architecture and blueprints. It may not make sense, but it was all related to me. At one point I was exploring ideas of tunnels and underground cities, drawing on unstretched canvas with charcoal and linseed oil.”
Art professor Elizabeth Mead said she sees the project and the core samples as a scientific tool in their own right.
“[The samples are] the way to understand the position of ourselves to others — finding the visual correlation, the core sample of a person shows both the physical and psychological,” Mead said.
The most important aspect of the project for Williams has also been the most personal aspect of the project.
“[The stories are] almost addicting,” she said. “I get so overwhelmed at the end of every interview. It’s a part of me. It’s definitely making this semester.”
Interview subjects have been equally as interested in telling their stories, as Williams has been in charting them.
Daniel Wolfe ’10 said he was eager to share his story.
“I wanted to know if my core was withered or not,” he said. “I kept making jokes that a portion of it was going to be black and shriveled up.”
Wolfe’s interview began with what he had in his pockets, and continued for three-and-a-half hours.
“It was long, but it was very good. I saw it as an opportunity to share a lot of myself with her, and not feel guilty,” he said. “We compartmentalize ourselves around people. This was like a counseling meeting with a full baggage drop.”
Others said they were unsure of what exactly to expect during the interview with Williams for her project.
“The interview was surprising. I wasn’t expecting to open up so much,” Andy Josselyn ’10 said. “But before you know it, you’ve spilled your life.”
After the interview is over, Williams has the task of translating the stories and details into a visual format. Her subjects usually like to see what she has come up with.
“It’s difficult to show someone their core sample,” Williams said. “Who am I to interpret their lives?”
However, her interpretations of the interviews usually go over well with those that see the final product of their core samples created by Williams.
“I was very moved and touched by the whole thing. I was emotionally reserved and she was engaged during the interview. I was just telling the story,” Wolfe said. “But for me, the emotional involvement came afterwards, looking at it. It’s very physical, to see your life on paper.”
Beyond their own story, the overall presentation of all the stories created a whole new dimension to a personal narrative.
“It was cool to see it in conjunction with everyone else’s,” Josselyn said.
The 25th core sample is Williams’s interpretation of her own life. Her core sample is larger and different in scope, as she had to dig through her old journal entries and own memories to create it.
“It’s fun to look back at your life in a way,” she said. “Middle school is just as painful as the first time.”
The section of Williams’s own core sample project right now is looking pretty good though.
Her entire honors thesis has been displayed in Andrews this past week to be viewed by visitors, along with Kiernan Lofland’s ‘10 thesis work, which was featured in the last issue.
Next, she will show her work at the senior show May 3, also presented in Andrews, which will be a final culmination of many hours spent in the studio.
“People comment all the time ‘Why are you in there working constantly?’” Williams said. “But it doesn’t seem like work. It’s exactly where I want to be. I’m doing the right thing for me.”