Brett Williams, studio visit, Cape Town, South Africa
Before recent trip to South Africa, I did an image search for "Cape Town figurative artist." Images of Brett’s work were very close to the top and I found them quite beautiful and exciting. I started to communicate with him through his tumblr site and twitter account as I had not found his actual website. He did not respond right away and when he did, he turned down my request to have a studio visit as he is focusing on his acting career more than his painting skills these days. When I suggested that also makes an interesting story, he relented and accepted to be interviewed. That was lucky for both of us. I met and chatted with several South African artists and galleries here but he was the only real in-depth interview that I had had the time to research and arrange.
When we looked at the map to see where Brett lived, my husband, who used to live here said hmmm, swanky neighborhood, that will be a nice house and it was but it’s his mother’s house. Mom has a lovely home with lots of beautiful art on the walls, some of which is Brett's. Brett and his 17-year-old son share the home with mom and a very lucky little stray cat who wandered in one day and stayed. Pussycat settled in on Dennis’ lap while Brett and I chatted.
Brett is a very good-looking fellow, something that I’m sure helps him with both his acting and artist careers. At 39, he's a colorblind self-taught chalk pastel artist. I had not noticed the chalk drawing medium when looking at his artwork which has very smoothly modelled skin on fleshy nude torsos and not a lot of line or edge which might have given more clues to its origins.
Brett grew up in Cape Town and enjoyed drawing as a kid, especially airplanes, but was kicked out of art class because he was colorblind. What a terrible idea! He moved schools in grade 11 and happily the new art teacher was a fantastic freethinking hippie woman called Rose who encouraged her students and allowed them to flourish. Here he was exposed to new mediums and approaches. Water paints and oil pastels were available in the art room. He was immediately drawn to the oil pastels, loved getting his bare hands right into them, smearing the color using his fingers directly and making the medium sing under his touch. In grade 12 he did his first chalk pastel portrait of a girl posing and it turned out very well. His teacher begged him not to go to university as he was off in his own fantastic direction already. He went anyway but only lasted for six weeks as it just wasn’t a good fit for him and life had other plans for him. He became a father at 21 and spent the next few years flitting around the world and being a distant dad. His time in London saw him working in a dark Goth style, very dramatic and melancholy.
Landing in Australia at 24 with his son in tow, he studied acting and started to find his niche. While staying at the local Backpackers Hostel, he did a very accomplished piece that he was quite pleased with. The Backpacker manager, who was a complete jerk, walked into his room one day and made a big smeary mess on his picture, rubbing it with his fingers saying what the hell is this rubbish and you’re making a mess in my hostel. Thankfully Brett kept his anger in check and moved forward. He studied at drama school from 2000 to 2002, moved back to South Africa, bouncing back and forth to Australia with his acting. In 2008 he decided to focus more on his artwork.
He doesn’t get inspired easily, has to work on that, working with models and looking for a photograph from the session that ignites his imagination. These large images (195 x 150 cm) have to be framed under glass but they're fixed with spray as he goes along and of course when they're finished. He used to work with the paper flat on the floor but as it has grown in scale, he works on it upright now. He tapes his paper down on a big piece of MDF and works freehand with no projection or grid system, making careful measurements to keep the pose accurate.
A big dilemma for figurative artists is where to get models. He used Gumtree, something like Craigslist, and put in his first ad for artist looking for nude models. He interviewed them over the phone carefully but the first two he met with were terrible and he couldn’t work with them at all. Such a challenge! The next one who answered his ad was a 19-year-old woman. He said okay, let’s try, not thinking much would happen in the session as she was so young but as she pulled some poses, everything jelled and they had a good photo session. This first portrait of this woman took about a month to do in Australia.
He flew to Melbourne to shoot a male actor he'd met, a great character in both acting and in life. Back in South Africa on holiday, the man who bought his mother's house asked if he could take a look at his artwork. He said it reminded him of Lucien Freud's work and Brett said "Who's Lucien Freud?" You can imagine the window that opened when Brett looked into that connection! The man bought both of Brett's portraits for $6000 total, a great start! These first two pieces were large with the bodies about life-size.
Brett entered the Australian portrait prize contest The Moran Prize with a $100,000 purse and became a finalist with his third picture. He showed some new works at the Sydney Art Fair but his new works drew a harsh reaction from the critics, saying they all looked like drug addicts and they did not sell well. Ouch. Being a single father, he came back to South Africa and settled down. He had a piece in a group show at the prestigious Cape Town's Everard Read Gallery but they've declined to take him on as a gallery artist because they think his work won’t sell well here. It doesn’t fit South Africa, It’s too raw. I hope they change their minds.
Brett’s main job is as an actor. South Africa shoots a lot of commercials and television series. We'll see him in the upcoming ABC drama Kings and Prophets, or Black Sails which he's currently working on. He’s starting to work in films behind behind the camera as well as in front. This one minute film that he and partner made depict karmic payback as a killer slips and falls on the ice and his life flashes before him, quite dramatic, a good marriage between the worlds of acting and art. When I asked him if he had done acting in high school he laughed and said “No, it was the rugby team versus my pals who were "skater scum" and drama was just not an option.” Currently his acting takes precedent and he works on his artwork about four hours a day which is as much as he can put in in one session. It’s a time-taking process and very physical. He works with his bare fingertips, stopping only when they're raw and bleeding.
Like many artists, he’s not good at the marketing side of things, not sure what to say about his work. It’s very visual and visceral. Ask 100 people to look at it and you’d get 100 different reactions. He enjoys everyday models and real skin with real panty lines and bra lines, real flesh, real faces telling a story. He saw Jenny’s Seville's 1999 bustout show with her dominant massive women in art magazines. Subconsciously he created a piece with a similar pose with arms crossed and the woman looking down upon the viewer. It’s a beautiful piece but was unconsciously derivative. Unfortunately that comparison has stuck with him and set him back a few paces. It’s very sad if that's what defines him as his work goes far beyond the derivative. Where Jenny Seville’s women are victims of abuse and violence, Brett's women don’t come with that violent baggage at all. Both of Brett's careers, acting and and art are very subjective. No one likes to take criticism, it makes us vulnerable. His friends, family and critics often offer what they assume must be constructive criticism and direction like "You can paint and draw so beautifully, why don’t you make stuff that people will like?" That really doesn’t help. Another good gallery said they loved his work and would like to take it but this should be a different color here or this is too strongly defined here or this is too undefined there. Very frustrating.
Personally I can’t see anything glaringly wrong with his works. They're spectacular in scale, beautiful in surface and lovely in composition. His color work is very subtle and even though he’s colorblind, he’s not making any wrong color choices in my opinion. They're quite realistic. His works sold in Australia for more than art work sells for in South Africa. He rolled and shipped his latest two large pieces to London, to a Nigerian collector who found him through Facebook and commissioned them, keeping his art dreams alive.
He works on 300 gram Canson paper bought in 10 m rolls and cut as needed. The big pieces are 195 x 150 cm. He starts with the eyes and face and then works outwards as the pose calls for, spraying and fixing each area and working forward, leaving dark hair for last as it's quite messy working with dark chalks and he doesn't want to pollute his clean colors and whites. He uses Faber-Castel and Cretacolor predominately.
Artists he admires include two Australians, hyper-realism sculptor Ron Mueck and colourful painter Ben Quilty, another one of my favorites. H Craig Hanna is another favorite of his. He only works from his own photographs, rather than from life as pieces take a long time, the large pieces one to two months, smaller portraits much less than that. He might move towards portraits next as time and inspiration dictate. He's getting his work out into some locations here in Cape Town and he’s busy reaching out to Europe and other connections online.
He finds his chalk pastel work horrible, enjoyable, soul destroying and never just pleasurable. The first half of any piece is always the hardest, the most awful and unformed. It’s only after that, when things start to really come together that he starts to enjoy the work with the instinctual subconscious guiding him.
His son is a longboard skate border, sometimes getting up to 60 mph! Brett was a skateboarder and has the scars to prove it but not a long border. He built this motorbike from the ground up before he even learned to ride and he’s 10 hours into riding now.
His mother has a lovely art collection and is of course a big supporter even if she doesn’t care for the subject matter. Although Brett draws and paints nude women he feels it’s not sexualized at all and women love the bra strap marks and panty lines, showing them in their natural and imperfect beauty.
This interview was a treat for both of us; a treat for Brett has he doesn’t get show these huge older works too often or even see them himself. Well, we certainly loved them and enjoyed meeting him and hearing his interesting story. I hope you enjoyed it too.
Thanks Brett! Leaving Cape Town soon and heading towards Amsterdam and Berlin. I wonder who we'll get to interview there? Wait and see.