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Mirrored Spirits

The Art of Grace Williams

Grace Williams, Global Warming (2010)

In the Augusta Savage Gallery in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, a radiant jewel box awaits. If you enter, it will change as you change. Even if you don’t, it will be there, shifting and shimmering in the altering light. This is the work of Grace Williams, a Harlem-based artist who composes luminous mixed media works of paint, glass, mirrors, metal, and wood. These works display Du Bois’s own desire to “let this world be beautiful,” as well as Zora Neale Hurston’s “will to adorn” it. Williams’s canvases are saturated with orange, mint, peacock, gold, rose, and green. They flaunt intricate textures that recall Williams’s work as a costume designer. They revolve around points of white light, mosaic pinwheels, and round mirrors that resemble lockets or cameos or eyes. As you gaze at this work, it gazes back at you.

“The work I do is spirit work,” Williams says. It is meant to generate a “personal experience” of beauty and abundance. When Williams sets Shepard Fairey’s Obama HOPE icon in a field of glass flowers, this work is more about hope than it is about politics. Or, we might say, the political or social function of Williams’s quasi-representational art is to insist upon what poet Elizabeth Alexander calls “power and possibility” in spite of a capitalistic system that thrives on meanness and fear. Paint erupts into green glass and red, orange and purple beads beneath the sunburst of In Bloom, so that the piece blooms not only up but also out of the flat canvas. Part ocean, part flame, Global Warming is a mosaic fresco in deep blues and sandy golds that evokes a map of the world. It features obsidian circles that look like holes but turn out to be reflective mirrors—deep, still pools in the midst of steady drift, suspended descent.

These are “power objects” in which glass moves and paint shines. Each is a very personal spiritual offering. As Williams says, her work is “done in a very caring way, with you in mind—because I’m sharing me with you.” She continues, “My intention is to touch the soul. . . to touch a place that people normally don’t even think about.” Texture is an important part of this process: “It’s usually the texture that runs through your body and makes you say, Ooh!” Textured elements such as metal and glass give Williams’s works an unmovable power—“these things don’t give”—while their reflective surfaces also ensure they don’t sit still. They change throughout the day, responsive to the movement of people and light through the space. This is Williams’s distinctive contribution to the ancient art of mosaic—“the idea of seeing something change all day long, or take on different moods. To know that you can create something that will never stand still.” Even her colors refuse stasis. They bubble up behind glass and shade into other pigments: gummy gold-stemmed mint flowers are flecked with silver; a door is a color field of garnet, sunset and rose.

Some of these works pay tribute to recognizable black leaders such as Marcus Garvey and Barack Obama. This “ancestor work” is crucial since, as Williams notes, “we are not documented as we should be. And I am not one to complain. I will do what I can with what I have.” These pieces are about leadership and power, other futures and alternate beginnings: the historically fraught watermelon becomes a gondola floating through a cherry-red city, beneath banners, through stars, and over a force-field of bubbling globes in In the Beginning. For all their beauty, these works of memory maintain a subversive edge. Poles of mirrored glass, fur, and beads feature newspaper clippings of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King as well as blackface minstrels. The stained glass image of Traveling Musicians is hooded by nails. The billowy gourd of a pollen-faced doll with dark eyes keeps watch atop a mosaic chair lined with cowrie shells and mirrors in the striking Woman of Two Faces.

Grace Williams, Geechie Girl (2001).

Williams also pays homage to the anonymous or unexpected, as in her dreamlike Geechie Girl. Here, set into a lime-colored mosaic cabin window is a sepia photograph of a black girl with calm, bright eyes. A powdered tangerine moon brightens the dark sky above her home, and beneath it the green glass of the land bulges into a wave that carries so many eyes. Whether these eyes signal fish, lights, or ancestors, the wave makes the log cabin an ark. More self-contained than expectant, the girl is blessed in ways she may not yet see, by the beauty of the world Williams has conjured. I have heard women in the gallery say they see themselves in the girl. In this sense the photograph is another of Williams’s mirrors.

These many mirrors signify the literal and symbolic ways in which Williams’s art reflects the light of yourself back to you. She “wants people to have the experience of having their spirit awakened—just for a minute.” In a world where people rarely have time to quietly explore their own thoughts and desires, her work models the art of attention—of meditative focus, meticulous care, and bold aspiration toward beauty and power. As she says, “Find out who you are, because if you do that work, you are going to be so happy with yourself.” These pieces aim to dispel fear and to intimate, as Williams says, that “you’re going to be okay.” As reflected in the mirrored eyes of these works, you might even be radiant.

Grace Williams: Coming Out On the Other Side is at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst’s Augusta Savage Gallery through October 25.

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