Sparking with light and life, Grace Williams, welcomed me into her Central Harlem brownstone sporting stylish, tortoise-shell spectacles and a smile bracketed by deep dimples. Her cropped hair gleamed like polished silver each time she walked through one of the thick beams of sunlight that cut through the windows of her home studio. Grace moved energetically between artifacts and artwork, guiding me through decades of her life and creative output.
Hers is an art practice built out of memory embedded deep within her. She transforms Harlem’s residuum – everything from discarded toys and furniture to the guts of renovated buildings – into stirring, tactile chronicles of the events and personalities that have marked her life. Her practice evolved from the ephemerality of theater (she collaborated with Bob MacBeth, Ed Bullins, and Ntozake Shange) to the permanence of objects.
“#MeToo” is stamped across the paper clothing of a doll made disconcertingly lifelike with the shorn dreadlocks of her only child. A kinetic piece consists of a figurine and the discarded swing set from her childhood playground, Marcus Garvey Park (formerly Mt Morris Park). Vinyl records from the artist’s youth encircle the arms and legs of the seated figure.
“these things that touch your heart, that make you up… it’s really you. It’s your spirit.”
In 1997, Grace anguished at the news of Dr. Betty Shabazz’s death. She had a personal relationship with Dr. Shabazz and a love and reverence for her late husband, Malcolm X, on par with her fellow Harlemites. Grace processed this loss through a piece titled, “A House Divided.” It is a mosaic of colored glass squares set against a neutral background. The shapes are deceptively simple – triangles and squares – the basic building blocks of the first house many children learn to draw. But it lacks the innocent harmony of a childhood sketch. The roof, walls, floors, and windows collapse into a single plane to create a disjointed structure that teeters on sharp peaks beyond the possibility of balance.
A sculpture that Grace created to document the rise of Donald Trump captures a different kind of pain. Distinctive in its harshness, this sculpture consists primarily of bone and metal, the materials leftover when flesh and civilization disintegrate. The jagged edges of Donald Trump’s signature look like teeth imprinted into the bone. Emergency-orange tubing streams down from the bones like torn arteries. The phrase, “48 hours in the life of the immigration ban,” is distinguishable in fine print.
George Floyd, conscripted into martyrdom via police brutality, is featured in a separate construction of bone and metal. As the world reverberated with clamors for change, Grace crafted an elegiac record of the time. Masses of people with hearts ripped wide open, toppled monuments of ill-repute. The artist monumentalized Floyd’s experience by wrapping bone in pre-war tin tiling, now covered in a dark, corporeal patina. She inserted a photograph of his serene, smiling, unknowing face.
Long before recycling was a mainstream practice, it was the domain of the resourceful. Those who had less, repurposed their possessions until their original uses became indecipherable. This was particularly true for the burgeoning, dark-skinned populations of the pre-independence Caribbean. Perhaps this wisdom was already entrenched in Grace Williams’ blood when she left her girlhood home of Jamaica to resettle in New York in the late forties. It manifests in the discarded liquor bottles she collected from the streets of Harlem and transformed into vessels.
“This was cleaning up Harlem. All of the bottles that were thrown about? We started recycling way back.”
Each of these fascinating sculptures is a testimony. Consider a vessel housed in one of her numerous altars. It is particular to Grace’s story. Through the thick, imperfect glass of a pint bottle, the viewer can gaze into the eyes of a little girl decked out in full Sunday regalia, from her giant bow and bonnet to frilly knickers and white Mary Janes. She strikes a saucy pose and confronts the world from her place in history. Around her feet, a handful of rice, peas, and hot peppers, rests like fallen snow in a souvenir globe, establishing this child’s origins in Jamaica. The top of the vessel is covered in the pink frippery reserved for special occasions. Once a repository of liquid escape, this object, under Williams’ skillful attention, now depicts the story of immigrant dreams – a point of origin, family ambition, and culture preserved beyond dislocation.
Grace’s African ancestry lies at the intersection of her journeys as a Jamaican immigrant and an American artist. Her style of construction evokes spirituality, ritual, and memory. A dark orb with a metal handle and a surface studded with the narrow, serrated openings of cowrie shells resembles a ceremonial artifact one would find in a museum. Upon closer inspection, it is, in fact, the husk of a coconut that Grace purchased at a street fair for a refreshing taste of her island homeland. It has been rendered into something sacred and beautiful via Grace’s ability to transcend the physical present and receive inspiration from everything that exists within her.
“if we just open our minds. We can continue our work as a people.”
The work closest to her heart is framed on a wall. It features an abstracted cityscape wedged between a roiling body of water and an equally expressive night sky. Throughout the piece, celestial bodies are rising, falling, floating, and adhering themselves to every surface, like the first droplets of a rainstorm. These pervasive spheres vary in size, opacity, and colorfulness.
Above the troubled waters and through the falling heavens, a solitary figure navigates passage on a giant slice of watermelon. It is filled in with real seeds. The figure and the hull of the ship resemble the chalk markings of a Kongo cosmogram, imbuing them with a mystical dimension. The stereotypical denigration-by-association of African Americans with watermelon is turned on its head. Here it is symbolic of the ability of a marginalized population to anoint a chosen one and deliver him to the most powerful office in the world. Across the “troubled waters,” as Grace put it, the “city people” brought Barack Obama into power. Upon closer inspection, the rain that falls out of the sky and ricochets off buildings and the river consists largely of obscured replicas of Obama’s portrait.
“…when I first saw Obama, I was clear. He had mastered what America was about and how he would have to move through this.”
Grace’s materiality moves with the changing times. She explained that after witnessing her audiences interact with large mirrors in early pieces, she began to use mirrors as tiny, decorative layers in her work. This redirected the gaze of viewers from their reflections to the messages held within the work. Additionally, she described how she adapted to a scarcity of glass beads by using plain glass, a material that she knew would never be in short supply. Grace’s work with glass mosaics is meticulous and prevalent. She has taught herself to cut the panes of glass into tiny pieces, which she paints by hand and applies to surfaces with such accuracy that one can run a hand over them without encountering dangerous edges. As it became more and more challenging to move large, heavy, framed artworks, Grace, now a septuagenarian, began to make flags – wall hangings that she can roll up and move around easily.
Altars are everywhere. There are small ones lining shelves and tabletops and large ones tucked into corners or freestanding against walls. They are filled with the symbolic and the literal – icons such as Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman can be spotted amongst glass and twine, coins and sweets, shoes, bones, branches, candles, text, fabric, masks, sand, and roots. Grace’s ancestors are also present at every turn. They can be found in formal portraits and photomontages. Some of them have been worked into altars via documents, mementos, and images. This is how the artist empowers herself. Her intuition is strengthened by her conscious connection with her forebears. She offers those who can interact with her art a portal to this indestructible, ancestral energy. She has imbibed it and transmits it via tantalizing, visual quanta, to empower the rest of us.