Fabian Williams is an Atlanta-based artist best known for his colorful outdoor murals depicting icons of the Civil Rights movement and commenting on issues of social justice.
The Luminary Award-winning artist’s portrait of gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams at the corner of Edgewood and Boulevard prominently encourages passersby to get out the vote, and his most recent commission from the Atlanta Opera for one of several lobby murals for an upcoming production of West Side Story has introduced the artist to a new genre.
ArtsATL recently caught up with Williams by phone to talk about his thoughts on the governor’s race, opera, his fear of heights and the motivation for abandoning a successful 13-year career in advertising.
ArtsATL: Are you climbing on a scaffold as we speak, Fabian?
Fabian Williams: Not yet! I’m working on the first outdoor mural for Morehouse College. It’s over 100 feet long, called Black to the Future, and documents the journey of Morehouse men from ancient Africa to contemporary America to the future. This project doesn’t call for a scaffold, so I’ll be up on a ladder today.
ArtsATL: What’s the highest you’ve worked from on a ladder with no protection?
Williams: About 20 feet. . . . It was my first day working on the Martin Luther King joint [Rise Above], and I didn’t have scaffolding. Prior to that, I’d always used Peter Ferrari’s rented equipment for Forward Warrior projects, so I really hadn’t considered the practicalities of painting a mural until I was on location with my ladders and CNN was there to film me painting. At first, I was like, “Oh snap! I’m gonna need scaffolding.” But then I was like, “The ghost of Martin Luther King, Jr., is not going to let me fall off the ladder, so I’m just gonna do it!”
ArtsATL: Do you have a fear of heights?
Williams: [laughs] I do!
ArtsATL: How did the commission to paint Stacey Abrams’ portrait at the corner of Boulevard and Edgewood come about?
Williams: The people from Millennials for Abrams hit me up, and we talked about doing a guerrilla piece, like I usually do. But while trying to select a wall, Grant Henry, the owner ofSister Louisa’s [Church of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium], let us use her building as a canvas. I referenced two different pictures, and I wanted Stacey to have sort of a smile, but not really — kind of like the Mona Lisa, where she knows something we don’t know. That look of confidence. It was one of the most difficult murals I’ve ever done.
ArtsATL: Were you a fan of opera and musical theater before the Atlanta Opera reached out to you?
Williams: I’ve never sat and listened to any opera, though my friendLayla Felder has been pushing me to take an interest in it. It hasn’t worked, but she keeps trying! I watched West Side Story for the first time a few nights ago at the Opera’s headquarters. It was cool. And growing up, I saw musical theater like Little Shop of Horrors, Spike Lee’s School Daze, and I really liked The Wiz. I can tell you that my mural for the opera will be about how opposites attract; it’ll have hands, and it’ll be lit up.
ArtsATL: You say you got out of advertising because you wanted to tell the truth. How has the shift in your focus changed you?
Williams: I have a purpose now . . . beyond trying to sell you stuff. We’re flirting with Fascism 3.0 as our political systems are manipulated by foreign entities, and I’m trying to ask the right questions, without words, and encourage people to sit and think logically about the way things are going and who deserves their trust. We’re in a permanent news cycle, and there’s so much stuff that comes at you that I feel like the artist’s job is to deliver an editorial. I’m trying to translate what’s coming at us in a big-picture visual language. I almost feel like a journalist.