Briefly describe the work you do.
In my work, I’m interested in addressing the various aspects of identity—race, gender, and spirituality. I am driven by personal self-exploration, balanced with who I am in relation to my surroundings. Delving into the nuances of my identity causes a constant cycle of observing this internal and external relationship. My work embodies these ideas and observations.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I was born and raised in an African American household in Los Angeles, California. Due to my mother’s strong urging, I ended up attending a Chinese school in Alhambra, California for my educational upbringing. I was constantly challenged with emotions of being the “other” or “outsider” and had interesting outlooks on attraction and beauty because of my schooling. I adopted many culturally Chinese traditions and followed a great deal of Chinese pop culture. This, I believe, was a major influence in my personal paradigm of the world. Being completely immersed in a different culture, while coming home to the dynamic of my family, created an internal dialogue about identity and bred a love for racial liaisons. Since those elementary years and still to this day, I have been very concerned with ideas about identity, while finding myself migrating from one culture dynamic to the next with great ease and an incredible ability to have cultural exchanges. I love seeing one cultural dynamic sustain its richness. Observing and even experiencing the pride, traditions, and rituals within a culture enraptures me. On the other hand, due to passion, leading and facilitating eye -opening dialogue on how to receive or even perceive other cultural dynamics is a daily occurrence. Reflecting back, I see how my elementary years truly formed the foundation of a great deal of my work, and built a love for the identity of an individual.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
My studio is rooted within my home. I live with two other artists, and we have made our studio a major part of our home. Our house is filled with materials strewn over desk tops, photography gear tucked under chairs, and canvases tilted against hallway walls and base boards. To say the least, our studio is a welcome space for creativity. But what truly invites me to sit and paint is the sense of community. I’m extremely community driven. Though I have yet to see great examples of a social studio space, I am in the process of spearheading what my studio practice looks like to me. The days filled with a roommate working at her desk editing photos the other tucked in a corner on the floor working with fibers, while Beyonce competes with the three of us laughing, are the best days. I know there are dynamics to that electric and lively atmosphere that motivates my art making. The laughter leads to deep conversations of relativism or feminism and almost always a much needed critique, all of which, are refining. Literally, are studio often becomes conceptual painting parties. When socializing, painting flows with ease, and art-making seems incredibly enriching and freeing, rather than taxing or even task- driven. As I continue to develop and mature in my art- making, it is integral I develop and mature in social aspects within my studio space or my artwork will suffer.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I never envisioned myself as an artist that would have a foot in commercialism as well as conceptual art. Attending an art college set me up for the insane idea that I would “just make it”.
That nebulous idea, held so much weight to me, and haunted me for a good two years after college. . “To make it” meant to make it my way without any compromise and any hard work. My idea of success was that it would just happen to me.
But now, as a full-time freelance artist, it’s a requirement that I create work for the client, while still creating work within my studio that is fully inspired by me. My job is rooted in giving what the client wants. Some projects go against my paradigm or ideology, and other projects seem so far from the richness of making work to address identity, etc. But, it has struck me that freelance is an entitlement, and if I can adopt the challenge of making work within limits and boxes that still look aesthetically valuable, I get the privilege of evolving. The safety of a style or personal idea can be a silent strangler. Instead of being repulsed by the opportunity, I’ve come to harmonize with freelance endeavors. With that in mind, I feel very privileged to call freelance art my occupation, and hold no regret in the duality of my work.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
I feel very much inspired in evenings and into the late night. Because I am a freelance artist, I have been more disciplined in working throughout the day, but my tendency is to work in the evenings.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
My work has evolved, along with my self-exploration. My priority in my earlier work was solely addressing race. I would say it was slightly obsessive. In this current series of work being developed in my studio, I am addressing spirituality. Inspired by a difficult and existential period of life, I began the series as a means of having visual documentation of my spiritual inquires. The paintings act as abstract prayers, mournings, and spiritual encounters in two dimensional forms. While these paintings are new territory for my studio practice, in a linear fashion, all my works are self-portraits or some sort of self-reflection. I’ve always been inspired by the compartmentalized pieces that make me—me. The tug of war with spirituality is currently my muse.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
When first developing my love for aesthetics, I was enraptured by Monet’s lilies. I remember the gestural mark making and the reflective water was so breathtaking to me. As a nine year old girl, I would continuously scan over large, heavy Monet books purchased by my mother as Christmas presents. His lilies and haystacks moved me with their color and composition. But, as concept began to hold as much weight as aesthetics, I fell in love with Iona Rozeal Brown and Kara Walker. Connecting with their forms of visual exploration, both women, gave me permission to be provocative and dramatic. I then attended a show opening of Cindy Sherman which was key to my work. Sherman birthed the desire to use my body as a vulnerable vessel. My body, face, hands, and hair became all so very accessible and controllable. Since that inspirational revelation, my form shows up in a great deal of my work.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
Growing up in a social justice-driven home, I believe “helper”is written into my DNA. My father was incarcerated at an early age, which loomed as a dark cloud over the duration of his life.
Towards the end of his life, he became very involved in a half-way house helping parolees adjust back to everyday life. My mother, my hero in many ways, got a Masters in Gerontology and continues to run after hope for the elderly within housing avenues. As a little girl, stories of bringing home homeless men, feeding the elderly for Thanksgiving, and hugging tatted and pierced parolees run through my veins. These stories and memories are grafted into my being and I find myself drifting to want to be a helper. Advocacy and activism inspire and compel me. I don’t believe art and advocacy are mutually exclusive, but if art wasn’t my occupation, I would be some sort of helper to people experiencing oppression.
Originally from Los Angeles California, Brittney Leeanne Williams is now a Chicago-based studio artist. Her work addresses identity. Confronting her personal identity as well as humanities identity, she uses various mediums and platforms in search of answers. Charged by unresolved questions, Williams seeks some sort of balm for these overwhelming issues rooted within the lack of not knowing ones self. Her works dialogue with ideas of Blackness, femininity, and spirituality.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.