Happy Colors in Gloomy Times: A Mural and Conversation with Ty Williams
"Perhaps there’s no better compliment to an artist’s work than the simple sentiment of: It moved me. Whether it’s music, dance, film, a painting, or a novel, to feel something—anything—by an audience, is always part of the process. And when you see work by artist, Ty Williams, (frequent Banks Journal contributor/collaborator), the feeling unanimously felt is: happiness. Regardless of color palette, there’s something about the aesthetic in a Ty Williams piece that makes you smile. It’s precisely why, in the nick of time before the country forever changed, Banks Journal flew Ty out to paint a mural on the Vacancy Coffee/Banks Journal HQ building wall. A mural that, when the sun comes back out and people can play, will surely be enjoyed by all those near it. In an interview spanning nearly 6,000 miles (Oahu-Vermont), Mr. Williams gave us the backstory on this mural, and some thoughts about travel (or the lack thereof) in our hunker-down-days…"
Hey Ty! So, after (and, before) going to LA recently, you’ve been in Vermont, no? How’s quarantine-life out there?
Ty Williams: Not bad. I'm in Burlington, Vermont. My partner is here and her mother's here. Vermont’s a very progressive spot. I think a lot of people in Vermont try and think green and are in healthy mode. So, I think in a lot of ways they have a leg up on a lot of this, in terms of like, "All right, everyone hunker down on your farms and we'll figure out ways to get healthy produce to people." But we're also not far from New York, which really kind of threw a wrench in a lot of stuff. We got an influx of people fleeing.
I can imagine. So, tell me about this recent mural you did for the Vacancy Coffee/Banks office.
I was approached a little while ago. But Vacancy Coffee and the Banks Journal office occupy the same building. It's a really special little spot there in Newport near some classic surf spots like River Jetties. So, Vacancy Coffee—they're just an awesome shop that shares space with Banks. I painted one part of the building initially when they first started going. Coffee customers go outside and they take selfies and stuff in front of it and we're enjoying it. It became more of an art piece for the space.
But they reached out to Rama McCabe (Founder of Banks Journal) and said, “Hey this back alleyway isn’t really used to its full potential.” And, as you know, with everything in California it's like you want to get the space used. So, they went back there and built some furniture and tables and just kind of set it up so that people would be able to treat it more similar to working from coffee shops.
The color. It’s fricken RAD.
Yeah, at first I felt like this really wild orange makes me think of a 1970s Burger King. [laughs] But it was loosely based on the wall that Rama had seen on my Instagram that I painted in Sri Lanka. What he didn't know is I didn't paint the wall orange. The wall in Sri Lanka was already orange and all I was doing was painting white on it. But he was just like, "I love that orange." And I was like, "Oh, okay." And then he found that very orange.
And somehow, you painted this JUST before travelling—well, pretty much everywhere—got cancelled, no?
Yeah, that’s the real story here, the part that makes me scratch my head a little bit. When I did this mural, we were just starting to take this virus seriously. Going to LA, I was planning on doing a bunch of other projects while on the West Coast, but suddenly, while in LA, I could see the writing on the wall with a national emergency. So, I really just dipped under the lip of all this. Once I got back to Burlington, it started to become much more evident that all of a sudden, everything would change. In a strange way, painting in that back alleyway, it almost has some bizarre totemic feeling to me that's like...I don't know. It was like, all right, I'm really glad that I went and did it and got the little bit of sun that I did because it might be a little while before I get to do that again.
Obviously, all the other jobs imploded. Unfortunately, oftentimes the arts are the expendables, and we're the first to get cut from budget. So, doing murals and things like that might be out, but that doesn't mean that logos and branding are. It just means I have to be a little bit more open and say yes to things that perhaps I would have turned down in the past. At the end of the day, what I do is by no means particularly special or difficult. I just really, really enjoy doing it. It's fun. The process is the part that I really enjoy. Painting whimsical, tropical facades on buildings and doing illustrations, I really think a lot of people could do it. I actually think an 8-year-old with a box of crayons could probably do it. The differences is, I don't know if they're going to do it as much as I'm going to do it, and I don't know if they're going to do it up until their mid-30s. [laughs] I don't wish it on them, but at the same time, if they do, then I think it's great. But I really enjoy doing it and I think being faced with the alternative, all the other jobs that we could be doing, I feel really honored and I dare say blessed.
In contrast to these dark times at the moment, your work—at least to me—always seems to evoke a sense of happiness and vibrance. Is that intentional, or just what comes out?
Oh, absolutely, that’s intentional. And it’s funny, because I have had a few moments where I’ve looked back on my work and asked myself if that was what was true to what I was going through at that period of time in my life. However, I think it’s aspirational. Kinda like when people might compliment a musician for making beautiful pop songs, even if inside, that musician was struggling. I can be a very cynical, sarcastic person—but I’m also hopeful. Even in these bizarre, science fiction-esque times, I think that’s all we have. To see other people excited about the work and reach out and want some of the colors and aesthetic I create, I’m like, OK, I guess there are some legs to this thing.
But the colors…at the end of the day I grew up between Maine and the Caribbean (Virgin Islands), so I blame the Caribbean for a lot of the bright stuff [laughs], and I blame New England for my sarcasm. So, I’m a hybrid of the two, somewhere.
If you could go anywhere in the world during this state of “Stay At Home,” where would it be?
That’s a complicated one [laughs]. Because, it’s like, what’s the socially responsible answer, and what’s the one that feeds into my lizard brain? Of course, now, I am land-locked in a way, and forced to stay inside and be relatively isolated, and while I love being social, I think that where I am is actually the best because I’m with someone I care a great deal about and I know that my family is safe and near as well…So, while my lizard brain wants the Mentawais on a boattrip, [laughs], and even a knee-high wave would be great right now—I know those days are going to come. So, New England is where I’d like to be—which is where I am now. It’s where I’m supposed to be.
If you find yourself in SoCal and in need of a little cheering up, stop by Vacancy Coffee to grab yourself a warm cup of joe while you take in the newly improved view out back. Thanks again to Beau Flemister for a wonderful interview as always, and to our very own Jeremy Knies for the spectacular shots of Ty at work (or as he would call play.)