Your Source For The Arts In Atlanta

(Photographs by Karley Sullivan)

In the studio with William Downs

The most surprising thing about William Downs’ studio is that there’s almost nothing in it. Everything is on the walls, which seem to pulse and vibrate with his surreal images and vivid brushstrokes. ArtsATL recently visited the Atlanta-based artist and Georgia State University professor in his southwest downtown studio to chat about his process, his upcoming show at Sandler Hudson Gallery and Day and Night Projects, the artist-run gallery space adjacent to his studio that he manages along with fellow artists and studio neighbors Steven L. Anderson and Mark Leibert.

ArtsATL: Did you paint the walls of your studio as part of your process? A sort of practice?

William Downs: It was a project for applying to awards and grants. I thought I could show something new rather than my works on paper. I felt like I’d rather be judged on the pursuit of something new instead of being judged on past works.

ArtsATL: So you photographed it and submitted it as a mural?

Downs: I call it wall drawing because I’m using ink wash and other drawing tools. I didn’t consider it a mural. I approached each section as a section. The works on paper will be in my solo show at Sandler Hudson that’s coming up [May 11]. We’ll build another wall and do my wall drawings on it. The works on paper are going to be applied to the wall just like that. I like to have the two life forms — paper and drywall.

ArtsATL: Does your show at Sandler Hudson have a title yet?

Downs: It does. [reading from his phone] I think the show is going to be called The way that the night knows itself with the moon, be that way with we.

ArtsATL: How many drawings will be in the show?

Downs: I’m going to curate it to be very minimal. I’m thinking about 10.

ArtsATL: Do you always draw on a wall, even for the works on paper? They hang on a wall and you create them?

Downs: Yes.

ArtsATL: Right here where they are?

Downs: Yes. I have to keep working.

ArtsATL: Do you turn on music when you work?

Downs: I always have a soundtrack on. I think that’s how the tone of the work feels. At least that’s my goal.

ArtsATL: A particular music or is it just whatever you’re listening to at the time?

Downs: When I wake up in the morning I try to figure out what the soundtrack is going to be like so I curate the music that’s gonna help drive the narratives in the drawings. If I want to feel melancholy, I’ll get all the melancholy songs. If I want to feel funky, I’ll get all the funk music. If I feel country, I’ll get all the country. I kind of bring it in that way, just let the songs and words merge with the lines.

ArtsATL: I typically think of a drawing as being done with a pencil, but you said you use a brush.

Downs: This is ink wash. I use a bamboo brush. Boar’s hair is the best for holding water. It’s a traditional Japanese process that I’m using to make these . . . You have to trust yourself to get these value changes because once the water saturates the paper, you never know what you’re going to get. There’s always the chance for disaster and surprise.

ArtsATL: You dip the brush in ink and apply it to the surface of the paper or wall. That isn’t painting?

Downs: No. In the history of Japanese calligraphy, they didn’t call it painting. I’m keeping within the tradition. 

ArtsATL: And the part of the figure where the shading is a different color, that’s a different ink, yes?

Downs: That’s adding more water. You add water to get really light grays. Less water to get more black ones.

ArtsATL: It almost doesn’t look like that shade of gray came from that shade of black.

Downs: I love the mystery of ink wash. That’s why I choose to use it. It’s like watercolor in a way where you have to get a certain value change, but you have to do a lot of them to get that sensibility to know how much water to put in the brush versus ink. There’s a balance you have to keep. It’s a strange process that a lot of people hate. You can’t get the mid-range sometimes. I love it.

ArtsATL: Can I see some of the brushes and ink you use to make a wall drawing?

Downs: This is my travel kit.

ArtsATL: So if you’re tapped to draw on a wall, you just grab it and go?

Downs: Yes.

ArtsATL: And this ink is permanent? It will stay on a wall?

Downs: Oh, yeah.

ArtsATL: Have you ever studied Japanese calligraphy?

Downs: I’ve only ever had instructors who taught me how to use it for drawing. I would love to learn calligraphy. I feel like I don’t have the patience for it.

ArtsATL: Tell me about the gallery space Day and Night Projects that’s connected to your studios.

Downs: Through the pseudo-window you can see the work from outside or inside. That’s what I love about the space. We try to make it wide open for an artist to do whatever they want. No parameters. We like to see it as a functioning space that can even be used for things like readings or yoga.

ArtsATL: How long have you been in this space? How did you find it?

Downs: I’ve been here for two years. Tori Tinsley was invited in, and she called me. Steven and Mark also asked to check it out. Tori moved to a home studio recently. She’s going to have a baby.

ArtsATL: You run a pretty tight ship. It’s so neat and spare in here. Some studios you go in, and there’s almost too much to take in.

Downs: It comes from being an art handler for so long.

ArtsATL: When you create a drawing, obviously it starts as a blank piece of paper. Would you say that you see a mental image of what you want before you start and then you try to depict it, or is it more a process of making marks on paper and seeing what develops?

Downs: It’s in my brain, and then I draw it out.

ArtsATL: So you saw this before.

Downs: Yes. When it comes out, it doesn’t always fit what’s in here. But when it’s translated, it takes me on a different journey.