6 questions for artist and architect Amanda Williams
The visionary work of Amanda Williams—some of which graced 2015’s Chicago Architecture Biennial—further blurs the line between art and architecture, creatively exploring the social issues that affect Chicago’s cultures and communities.
by Nikki Snodgrass, Media Relations Manager
Amanda Williams is both a visual artist and a trained architect. She studied architecture at Cornell University and practiced in the architectural field for a number of years, before turning her full attention to visual art. Her installations, paintings and photographs acknowledge the built environment while transcending architectural design in the traditional sense. “Color(ed) Theory,” a recent Williams project, examined the intersections between color, black culture and urban blight, using abandoned homes and a culturally-coded paint palette. It was on display at the Chicago Cultural Center during the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial, North America’s largest survey of contemporary architecture.
1. What project have you enjoyed working on most during your career?
It’s going to sound cliché but I’ve enjoyed all of them, each for different reasons. Obviously, “Color(ed) Theory” has garnered the most response and that has been rewarding. My inclusion in the exhibition “Harlem World: Metropolis as Metaphor” at the Studio Museum in Harlem launched some powerful threads in my work that I’m still unpacking today. When I practiced on the West Coast, I had the privilege of being on several civic projects. All of these offered an opportunity to think through what I wanted my role to be in shaping better versions of cities.
2. How does the blurring of the line between architecture and art influence your work?
For me they are the same thing. The blur is my line. It always has been. Anyone who belongs to a “both/and” category can identify. I think that, historically, each discipline has increased in its need to preserve a specialness about its existence. Who gets to claim da Vinci or Imhotep? These cats were engineers, astronomers, painters, architects and musicians—above all, innovators with curiosity. The process of struggling through big questions and ideas trumps media or discipline. I’m not saying that every artist who likes to think of dimensional work and city space should be called an architect. Jeanne Gang is the truth, but so is Mark Bradford. Both are invested in shaping cities.
3. What has been significant about participating in the Chicago Architecture Biennial?
I didn’t know that such a simple gesture could resonate with so many audiences at the same time. From residents on the blocks of painted houses to heads of international design firms, “Color(ed) Theory” sparked conversation about very messy, difficult, layered questions surrounding architecture and its role (or lack thereof) in shaping the potential for cities to thrive.
4. How would you describe the inspiration behind the “Color(ed) Theory” project, and what did you hope to convey?
“Color(ed) Theory” comes from a very selfish place of wanting to personally understand how art and architecture needed to work for me—painting at the scale of architecture, and contemplating the distance between representation and abstraction. The mark is on the subject itself. What happens at the end of a piece of architecture’s life? We don't teach for that moment. We don’t design with the intention of architecture contributing to a community’s failure. We absolve ourselves of that moment. Is that a missed opportunity? The project was/is about questions and not our typical desire to provide answers through object-making.
5. Would you describe yourself as an architect, an artist, a designer or a combination?
I’ll take all of those titles and seven more. Whatever title is most useful for communicating with whomever might be inquiring. Most people get nervous when you can pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time.
6. How has Chicago been an inspiration for your work?
Growing up with such an amazing taxonomy of architectural greats was hugely inspirational, as was knowing that Chicago’s first non-Native American settler, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, was of African descent. Architecture is in our collective DNA. Seeing the residue and aftermath of large portions of Chicago’s landscape being “designed” via erasure, systemic neglect, racism and an imbalance of resources also left an indelible imprint on my creative psyche. It’s palpable if you're someone like me, who intentionally moves through the entire city on a regular basis.