Listen to the episode:
In this episode, I’m joined by contemporary painter and printmaker Didier William. Didier’s incredible work explores the diasporan experience, as well as what it was like to grow up gay in a conservative Haitian community.
Over the past five years, Didier has had massive success in the contemporary art world. In this interview, we discuss his personal parameters for success, how he protects the sanctity of his creative work in the face of needing to make a living, and how he balances the ecosystem of his home and work life (especially since he and his husband welcomed a new baby!).
We also discuss the pressure that comes from belonging to an underrepresented community in the context of marketing and production. Plus, why it’s important to be mindful of “what the work can do, and what the work can’t do” when it comes to social activism.
More from the episode…
- Didier on defining success: “I spent a long time trying to sort of approach something that feels balanced, where the studio life, and the life outside of the studio, are in conversation.”
- How did finishing grad school at the start of the Great Recession affect Didier’s outlook on success?
- We discuss market forces, and the importance of protecting the sanctity of your creative practice, even as you earn a living.
- How becoming a teacher set his creative practice free.
- How and why Didier tries “to make sure that whatever I do during the day reserves the best of me for the people I go home to in the evening, my husband and my daughter.”
- Why, despite all of the cultural romanticizing, creating art is a type of labor (and why that fact demands that we prioritize self care)
- The importance of building thoughtful relationships with other creators out of a desire for connection and collaboration, rather than just “networking.”
- Didier describes how his artistic practice evolved to include printmaking, and how it underpins the message he wants to convey in his work.
- Didier shares the advice that helps him get started every day in the studio: “Always have something in progress.”
More from Didier William:
Didier William is a painter/printmaker, originally from Port-au-Prince Haiti, whose epic collage/print/painting works, among many things, explore aspects of the Haitian diasporan experience, as well as attempting “to get closer to a truth that makes sense for black and brown people.”
I met Didier within weeks of arriving in Pennsylvania when we both began work at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He was the chair of the MFA program at the time and I was the chair of the new illustration program.
Didier earned his BFA in painting from The Maryland Institute College of Art, an MFA in Painting and Printmaking from Yale University, School of Art, and is currently Assistant Professor of Expanded Print at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University.
Connect with Didier:
Saidiya Hartman – “Lose Your Mother”
Click here to read the transcript
ACPOD EP 015 – Nurturing your creative ecosystem, with Didier William
Didier William: The ecosystem I build inside my studio and the life I build outside my studio, need to know what one another is up to. And they need to be sort of deeply connected with one another. And when that relationship is symbiotic, then, then that is something that we can call success.
What does it really take to become successful as a writer or artist?
There are a lot of destructive myths out there about what a creative career is supposed to look like. We’re told we shouldn’t care about worldly success or money. We’re told that if we’re good enough, everything would magically fall into place. That’s a lie and it keeps us struggling, baffled, and hungry for any shred of information that might shed light on how to keep making the work we love. That’s why I get any two artists or writers or any creatives really together in a room. And it’s a foregone conclusion that the conversation will turn to money and the nitty gritty reality of being a professional, creative.
I’m cartoonist and creative business. Coach Jessica Abel.
In my own life. The studio visit back channel conversations with other artists where we share our insights and hacks anxieties and red flags have been critical to any success I’ve achieved.
And now. I’m bringing that conversation to you. This is the Autonomous Creative.
Didier William intro
I’m really happy to be here today with my friend Didier William. Didier is a painter and printmaker. Who’s powerful work, explores the diasporan experience as well as what it was like to grow up gay in a conservative, Haitian community in south Florida.
I met Didier within weeks of arriving in Pennsylvania when we both began work at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He was the incoming chair of the MFA program at the time. And I was the chair of the new illustration program. We were both trying to figure out this new culture together and as a result, we became friends.
He’s since moved on to teaching at Rutgers, but I deeply miss his clear and incisive perspective at the school. Not to mention chance encounters on the elevator.
Looking back to when I met Didier, it seems to me that he was at a career tipping point. He was of course already a wonderful painter and printmaker. Already showing in galleries. Getting great coverage.
But in the past five years, he’s been on a contemporary art rocket to the stars.
Or at least that’s what it looks like to the lay person. I am so excited to find out how that happened, what it’s like and how he designs his life to keep supporting his creative work, and vice versa, over the longterm.
We’ll dig in with Didier right after this message.
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Now let’s start the show.
Jessica Abel: Didier, I don’t really know what it’s like to be a successful contemporary artist. Assuming you think you’re successful. Do you, do you feel successful right now?
Do you think of yourself as a successful artist?
Didier William: That’s a great starting question. Um, I want to say yes until I talk to my parents who don’t care one iota and will bring me back down to earth in a matter of seconds.
But yes, I do. Uh, I do feel successful. I mean, I, I think in so many ways, balance is something that a lot of contemporary cultural producers are looking for.
And I’ve spent a long time trying to sort of approach something that feels balanced, uh, right, like where the studio life and, uh, the life outside of the studio are in conversation.
Maybe not, maybe equilibrium is the wrong word, but they’re in conversation with each other and they each know what each other needs, which is something that’s been important to me from the very beginning.
Understanding that the ecosystem I build inside my studio and the life I build outside my studio, need to know what one another is up to. And they need to be sort of deeply connected with one another. And when that relationship is symbiotic, then, then that is something that we can call success.
And I do feel like I’m at this point of symbiosis between those two systems right now, where my life as a teacher and a husband and a father and a son and a brother is deeply aware of what my life as an artist, um, looks like. And my life as an artist knows what the other parts of me need, and they’re constantly sort of negotiating for resources.
I think when that system is in good conversation, that’s what we can call a kind of success when, when, when those parts aren’t speaking to each other, uh, that can be a moment of fracture.
Uh, um, maybe saying it’s unsuccessful is a little extreme, but it can lead to a moment of fracture.
And right now they’re, they’re kind of, they’re getting along, which I, which I really like.
Jessica Abel: That is awesome. And you’re totally preaching to the converted. I mean, I, when I say what’s success, you know, we’re thinking like, oh, selling this or doing that, or being in this show or whatever, but you, you went there like right away, which I love. That’s awesome. Um, but so let’s to cast back to when you started your career, what would success have looked like for you then?
Is this what you were going for? Or did you have to come to this.
What did success look like at the start of your career?
Didier William: Uh, I mean, I had to come to this. I think I never imagined, I never imagined this. I think for better or worse, I had art teachers who really drove home the point for me that we come into this because we’re excited about ideas and we’re excited about, the sort of alchemy of material and the alchemy of intellectual curiosity.
We didn’t come into this to become wealthy. And I believe that, um, you know, whether or not that’s a good, a bad thing is a whole other story, but I really believe that like, oh, like, you know, if I wanted to be rich, I could have gone to law school or medical school or whatever. I’m in this for something else.
And so I never imagined that it would turn into this rigorous contemporary art practice. And certainly didn’t imagine so as a student of the recession.
I got out of graduate school in 2009. And I remember Lisa Yuskavage gave the keynote when my class graduated.
Lisa was also a graduate of Yale and, uh, she walked up to the mic and she paused for a second and said, “Congratulations, you’re the first class in the recession.”
Um, and we all just kinda like froze. But it was, it was awesome because she sort of brought us all down to earth and let us know that like building a long, sustainable life as an artist and as a thinker and as a maker, is not something that happens in a year or in a flash or in an instant. It’s, it’s seeds that you sort of plant in multiple parts.
And you sort of watch this thing grow into something that you may not know what it is, but you’re planting the seeds with good faith, and with thoughtful relationships, uh, and when it becomes this kind of forest that is, um, sustainable and fruitful, and fecund then you can kind of make sense of it if you’re lucky.
And so, you know, to answer the question, I didn’t imagine this, but once it, once it started to happen and once I started to take the momentum that it’s taking, I felt really, sort of secure in it because the relationships were with people who I’ve been friends and colleagues with for years, like people who I went to graduate school with. People who I knew when I just got out of graduate school.
Uh, actually just before this call, I was, um, texting with my gallery and the book or monograph just came out. And, um, several of the essays in that book are people who I’ve been in conversation with, for years, almost a decade. Um, so artists who’ve known my work since like when I just got out of graduate school and they had just finished their PhDs and I had just finished my MFA.
And we were in conversation already, you know, so they knew the work from the very sort of amoebic stages. And that, that’s the kind of stuff that for me in the beginning was just about building relationships and responding to people’s work, who I liked and who I was motivated by, more than like trying to build a career, more
Jessica Abel: Right. You like strictly speaking, networking, but
Didier William: Yeah
Jessica Abel: In the end
Didier William: Exactly.
Jessica Abel: That’s what ends up happening
Didier William: when you’re building relationships with people who you think are smart and doing things that are cool,
what ends up happening
Jessica Abel: is you have a network.
Didier William: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, their ideas sparked something in me and my ideas were exciting to them and so we’ve built this collaboration connection relationship over the years that’s grown into a practice that I really, really love.
And I should also say that in the beginning, I never imagined it being at the sort of hybrid between painting and printmaking.
Teaching at Vassar/printmaking
Didier William: Thank you for the wonderful and generous intro, but I, in the beginning, I just thought to myself as a painter, I never thought that printmaking would play such a huge role in my work. And graphic media would play such a huge role in my work.
My first teaching job out of school was at Vassar, Vassar College, which I just absolutely loved, loved my students at Vassar loved my colleagues at Vassar.
And I was hired to, um, Richard Bossman, an incredible printmaker was retiring and I was hired to replace Richard. And I was basically just given free reign over the printmaking area to able to teach whatever I wanted to these students who were voracious, um, in their appetites for, uh, critical thinking and being challenged.
And so the seven years that I spent teaching at Vassar was like, you know, I’m, I’m glad I got to teach my students while I was there, but it was also deeply, uh, impactful for me to, to start to think about how these languages can weave their way into my studio practice.
After a certain while had to do demos so I just the demos into things that I was already thinking about in the studio. So I would do demos for my students and then at the end of the day, pack them up and a bunch of newsprint and then take them back to my studio and work on these little paintings that I never really showed anybody.
And now all of that hybridity and all of that alchemy has turned into this practice that is thinking about the relationship between the matrix and printmaking and the singularity of painting and how those two things can kind of productively antagonize one another.
And using that language as a way to talk about, um, a kind of cultural locations, particularly a blackness, and, and of, uh, the reality that I think an immigrant can, can occupy more, or, or more closely than, than, uh, than a native, a person who’s native to the land that we occupy.
So, um, it’s been, it’s been a really great 10 years of like taking these different parts of the system and putting them together. And now over the last, maybe five years, seeing them kind of grow and burgeon and is, is super exciting.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. I mean, certainly looking back as I was doing research for this interview, looking back over, you know, what I could find interviews and images from mostly from the last five or six years, this arc of change, that seemed very, very cohesive and very much like one process developing. It was very cool.
Didier William: Yup. Yup.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. Um, that’s kind of one of the things I like best about doing these interviews is spend time getting to know people’s work.
So you’re talking to me from your studio right now, and I can see a really cool new piece you’re working on, uh, behind you. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Growing up in Miami as a Haitian immigrant
Didier William: It’s a painting that’s based on a pool in Miami that my brothers and I was visited a couple of years ago. And we all of course grew up in Miami. And a lot of my current work is reflecting on Miami. Um, and the first few years I spent in Miami, uh, which were very much about retaining something from Haiti, but also becoming as American as possible.
And I was the youngest of the three of them. I was six years old when we moved.
So I’m constantly thinking about those years, and the excitement of those years, the trauma of those years, the confrontation in those years. Especially for figurative painter to think about what the body means in the context of a place that one doesn’t consider home.
What happens to the physical body in that formation? If the grounding agent that home can provide is gone, um, what is the body relinquished of and what can the body require at the same time, um, really has been the practice.
And I identify that with a particularly immigrant reality. The imperative of forgetting home, especially when immigration is a product of necessity rather than choice there’s an imperative to forgetting home that I think it happens not just on an emotional level, but quite literally on a physical level.
And I think I’ve spent the 10 years since leaving school, trying to figure out what that looks like in a discrete object, such as a painting.
And so currently, that locus of investigation is Miami and the anecdotes and the stories and the spaces and the things that happened when I was living in Miami as a kid with my brothers and my mom and dad who still live there. All of them still live there.
So a lot of the paintings take place there and this particular one behind me is borrowing its composition and its color and its ornamentation from this particular pool experience with my brothers in Miami.
Jessica Abel: It looks super joyful. I mean, it just really makes me happy.
Didier William: Thank you. Thank you. They are a lot of fun to make.
Jessica Abel: And they have, for those who are not familiar with Didier’s work, they have a sculptural element too that they have these kinds of, and I’m going to get back to this in a few minutes with a question about it, but like they have eyes actually incised into of the bodies. Really small that ended up looking sort of like an overall pattern.
There’s like a patterning of all of the bodies that sort of hides the details.
Didier William: Yeah, the eye, the eyes are cut right into the surface of the pan.
So I work on wood panel, um, uh, not canvas and the eyes are cut right into, carved right into the wood panel. And if there are any print makers, uh, in the, in the call, um, it’s basically a wood cut that I don’t print. It’s a woodblock that, that I don’t print.
And so by definition, it’s a kind of discreet matrix that, uh, within the traditions of printmaking would be intended for repetition, would be intended to turn into an addition, but my practice is very much about trying to think about what the matrix could be if we aligned it’s discretion with that of a painting.
Um, so if we take the singularity of a painting and we take the singularity of a print matrix and combine them and actually deny the matrix potential to become an addition, could that object be something else? And what are the languages involved in trying to figure out what that something else is?
One of the exciting things for me is that sometimes my work is, put into painting shows. Sometimes it’s putting into printmaking shows. Uh, one time my paintings were called reliefs and sculptures and, and I just loved it, because all of those different languages play a role in how they come to be. So I sort of welcome that poly medial land, looking at the work.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, for sure. It seems very consistent with all of the concerns that, that you brought up.
What does your work day look like?
Jessica Abel: Um, all right. So what does your, uh, work life look like? What do you do all day?
And just, I mean, you have to sort of average it out obviously, cause you teach and there’s time and summertime. And so just give us a basic picture of what, what it looks like for you. Cause now you also have an extremely adorable child in your life.
In the last year, right?
Didier William: She just turned one in April. And she is my universe. Uh, I there’s no other way to put it.
And you know, in terms of like what my day-to-day looks like, uh, when I’m not teaching- if it’s a teaching day, it’s mostly a teaching day.
I try to keep teaching days sort of isolated. So, usually I teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays and on those days, I’ll try to not do much studio work at all.
If it’s a day where I’m thinking about my students, the whole day is just committed to thinking about my students. Teaching class, I’m emailing, I’m doing whatever. Um, if it’s a studio day, then I usually get to the studio about 8:30.
Uh, Ava, my daughter is at home with Justin, and usually when I come in there’s stuff already in the works.
So I work on about three to six paintings at a time. I’m almost never working on one painting from start to finish.
When I was in graduate school, I realized that sometimes a work will answer a question for another work.
And so I’ll take I’ll, I’ll follow the energy until it’s exhausted. And if that happens to be to the point where the piece is considered finished great, if not, if it’s a gesture, if it’s a moment, if it’s a figure, if it’s a background that’s fine too.
And I’ll shift to the next work and come back to the previous work when I feel like that question has been answered. So usually I’m working on about three, four, or five paintings at a time.
So when I come into the studio, there’s almost always something I can jump right into, uh, which I also love so that I don’t feel like I’m restarting, completely from scratch the next day. And I’m using
Jessica Abel: That’s such a huge question for people, right. That how do you get practice started? And I know you work with students and so this question with them all the time, trying to help them figure out how to do that.
Didier William: And that’s, that’s a piece of advice I got when I was in school.
Uh, one of my teachers told me, always have something in progress. Always have something you can jump into rather than feeling like you’re going to go to the studio, stretch a canvas or a panel, or, you know, push the Boulder up the hill all over again.
Before you leave the studio have something that’s like in the middle, so that the next day when you come in, you can just dive right in without feeling the burden of refreshing all over again. And so I always have that even if it means just like cutting paper for collages, uh, or making individual prints, that will then be collaged.
Uh, so I’m usually in the studio, before I had a baby I’d be in the studio till like seven, eight.
Now I have a hard stop at usually about four thirty because I protect the evening times for her.
I think in many ways, like that’s the pragmatic kind of, what am I doing with my hands and with my materials.
But, but sort of much more holistically like I try to make sure that whatever I do during the day reserves the best of me for the people I go home to in the evening and my husband and my daughter. And, and I calibrate that just depends on what they need.
So maybe it’s a short and studio day. Maybe it’s a longer studio day. Um, and I also have an assistant who is incredible and who I adore and who I would not to do any of this work without, without his help.
And he’s fantastic and I can leave him very detailed instructions for things to accomplish when I’m not here.
And then I also should mention that, like, I think I, I think about groups of paintings.
So as I mentioned earlier in the call, right now I’m thinking a lot about Miami and the first few years my family and I spent in Miami.
Before that I was thinking about the stage quite a bit. Before that I was thinking about a late Baroque, early classical landscape painting and the sort of effects of that visual imagery, particularly on the Haitian revolution, and how we conceptualize and think about, uh, um, the Haitian revolution in the, uh, imaginary.
So I’m always thinking about these like broader narratives and then what are the groups of paintings? What are the groups of images that make up that moment in time or that moment in my practice?
And so I’ll just do tons of sketches, hundreds of sketches, some of which will turn into paintings and some of which will just stay, you know, me just thinking out loud. And then I’ll take those sketches and bring them into the studio. And decide if they’re going to be compositions for paintings or if there could be prints, or if they’re going to be patterns, if they’re going to be etchings.
And, and go from there and sort of whittle it down until I get to the series of images that make up the narrative, I’m trying to talk about for that period of time and every now and then something will sneak in, a non-sequitur will sneak in out of left field that I didn’t see coming.
I’ll be driving to the studio. I’ll be having a conversation with my brothers or my parents. Um, and I’ll think of something that, that I think would make a great painting and I’ll come to the studio and check.
You know, to, to bring, bring it back to the point about balance we were talking about earlier. I try to make sure that the energy is distributed as evenly as possible, but life is organic and every now and then things shift my intention in other directions,
Jessica Abel: Yeah. Got it. how does your creative work fit into your, uh, into making a living basically?
I had a conversation early on with Tom Hart and he missed out on this question. He’s like, after the interview, he shot me this question. He’s like, I want everybody to talk about, “is it worth it to me to learn how to market myself in order to stay autonomous as a creative, or is it worth it me to bend to the market, to keep working in my field?”
How does your creative work fit into making a living?
Jessica Abel: know, everybody makes choices based on these priorities and I just wonder how you feel about that.
Didier William: Whoa, that’s a big, I mean, that’s a big question. I think that’s a big question, especially for fine artists who are toggling these really complicated questions about representation.
Particularly artists from populations that have been historically underrepresented in major institutions. As we know institutions all over the country and perhaps the world are undergoing a kind of corrective right now where they’re trying to correct the fact that women aren’t equally represented in their collections, people of color are equally represented in their collections, queer and trans individuals aren’t equally represented in their collections.
I mean, you know, you name it. And so in many ways, in some ways, what that has done is like turned the complex systems of coping that we all use to survive into these commodifiable, uh, identity formations that sometimes if one isn’t ready and equipped to take that on professionally, and even emotionally, um, can turn into a, uh, a not so healthy system.
What that has meant for me is in the beginning, I, I was lucky enough and supported enough to get a teaching job right away. I got out of graduate school in 2009. I started teaching in 2010.
And aside from having a great teaching job at Vassar that paid my bills and gave me health insurance, I loved it because it meant that I didn’t need to sell a painting to pay my rent.
My work could be a place where I’ve thought through ideas and I could make horrible mistakes and I could make really shitty paintings for awhile and not feel the pressure of, oh my God, I have to get this ready for a show or somebody is buying this. That, that stuff wasn’t on my mind in the beginning, I was just, um, sort of upending my practice in ways that I felt like I really needed to.
And that was a particular kind of privilege because I had a job that was paying my rent and it was paying, um, to put food in my refrigerator.
And so I think in the beginning, when young artists especially are trying to build that infrastructure for yourselves, it’s really important to protect the sanctity of the creative practice, as much as possible, because in the beginning it’s really tough, right?
Like there’s a lot of pressure to commercialize it. There’s a lot of pressure to commodify. There’s a lot of pressure to bend to a kind of market system that wants to turn your production into something that is sellable as quickly as possible. Very often so that other people can make a profit off of it and not necessarily even so that you can make a profit off of it.
And it’s really tempting to sort of take that on as your responsibility, but as much as possible, try to protect that. Get, get your checks when you need to get your checks, but at the same time, understand we’re trying to do this for 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years not a few years, while a particular subject is hot.
And then when the market moves on, we then have to sort of upend our entire practice to fit, to fit that market strategy. That’s a very unstable and unhealthy way work, or at least I’ve found that to be, uh, a very unstable and unhealthy way to work, that I’ve tried to avoid as much as possible. For me that meant going into academia.
I don’t necessarily think that that needs to be the case for everybody.
But it, it, you do need to find a way to protect the sanctity of, of your output, for all of us, you know, derived from something very personal in the first place and that’s important.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, I think this gets back to how you’re talking about your to create your version of success, which is this equilibrium in your life. You can’t do that if you are willing to sort of chuck everything over and follow the demands of the market You can really throw yourself off.
Didier William: Well, I mean, and, and even just, you know, it doesn’t even have to be super, um, sort of heady. We can think about it practically. Like when we talk about talent and we talk about skill and we talk about all these really words, really what we’re talking about is labor.
We’re talking about a calibration of physical energy that has to be expended over and over and over again, either by us or by partners or collaborators.
And to do that, you know, ad nauseum assumes that your body isn’t without exhaustion and isn’t without fatigue and isn’t without desire and isn’t without, you know. You have to consider all of that within the conversation as well, because ultimately in order to make these paintings, I need, I need my body to be able to bend over these panels and to be able to carry them and to be able to mix paint and to carve into the surface and do all this stuff.
You know, so it’s in our own interest to think about what all of that means in combination with this conversation about the market. The market is an engine that exists independent of us and will exist independent of us. Um, so it’s important to sort of understand it as such and not as something that is, um, you know, the market doesn’t care about us.
Um, the market will do what the market does and to the extent that we want to sort of take part in that conversation, we have to understand our own autonomy and our own agency within that system as well, and, and challenge it and hold it at bay as much as we can.
Jessica Abel: Yeah.
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Okay. Back to the show.
Identity and representation
Jessica Abel: So, um, that you actually set up my next question or my next kind of conversation really well with what you said about how historically underrepresented people are maybe under particular pressure right now to potentially conform to market forces.
And I, you know, I want to dive into your history and find out how you got where you are today. You’ve already talked about a bunch of things, which is great.
But I wanted to frame that discussion in your work and your ideas cause I was talking to Ron Wimberly, another guest, last week and he and I were discussing how uncomfortable he can be sharing personal details about himself or even photo, like even a photo or a drawing of himself because it risks like flattening the impact of his work, um, reframing his work as connected to his personal story as a black man.
And he felt, he’s sort of like it hands people too many intellectual shortcuts. They can kind of package his ideas and say like, well, it’s because he’s a black man, you know, and of sort of diminish it.
And that seems like a risk you’re highly attuned to. I mean, your draws directly on your cultural background and your personal history, but it’s last few years with the eyes and the abstract figures is so interesting.
You talk in a couple of interviews about this idea of nefarious curiosity of the gaze and your interest in portraying bodies that are
tougher to consume to, um, retain their agency somehow in this protective armor of the eyes looking outward. I dunno. Just, I find that so interesting
Yeah, what thoughts you might have about that.
Didier William: I, uh, I love that question. And I have lots of thoughts on it if I can sort of get them together.
I mean, one thought I have on it is I think it’s hard to, I’ve found it difficult to have a conversation about the lives of black people broadly, my own life as a black person, specifically, without thinking about this larger ecosystem that has involved me arriving at this moment, which personally includes my mother and father, of course, culturally includes, the Haitian Revolution and my ancestors in Haiti.
Also includes my own adopted relationship as a, a black person here in the United States, which isn’t an ancestral relationship, but is an adopted relationship with the kind of American blackness.
Um, mythologically includes worship rituals that span from Christianity, to Haitian Vodou. So there’s, there’s this whole sort of ecosystem of information and content and bodies and ancestors that have coconspired to, uh, allow me to arrive at this moment.
And I, as an artist and as a maker, I’m not interested in sort of compacting that into something that is easy or legible, quickly legible, to consume.
I want the complexity of the act to be fully present materially and conceptually, uh, as much as possible. I’ve always trusted that that’s possible in a work. And that it wasn’t too didactic or too complex or too heady or too whatever. I wanted to believe that that was possible.
So I’ve, I’ve made that my mission to try to bring all of those things together into a singular object of a painting as much as I could.
But then, to the other part of your question, I think my, my way of resolving, uh, or, or dealing with that is that I’m working with my mom, I’m working with my dad, I’m working with my brothers, siblings, sometimes friends.
And in order for me to bring them into the work, as characters, I need to think about them as characters. I need to think about them archetypally. I need to think about them mythologically, even though I’m working with this image of my father and image of my mother or a photograph of my father, right after Hurricane Andrew, when he was dancing jubilantly in front of a barbecue grill that I then turned into a painting about queerness with my husband.
You know, those two people are of course incredibly important to me, but in order for me to fit them into my ecosystem in the paintings, they have to sort of stop being my father and my husband. And they have to become agents of my own making.
Uh, they have to become characters of my own making. And I think particularly when we’re working with deeply personal content, it’s really important to give yourself as an author, that kind of space, part of which I think comes from acknowledging what the work can do and what the work can’t do.
And of course, a lot of this is really personal stuff and I, I bring that stuff with me to the studio, but I also acknowledge that, you know, some of his work is it’s almost unfair to ask my paintings to sort of take that on.
But there are things that the paintings can do that perhaps I can’t do in my day to day in real time.
Um, but it works in painting time and it works in art historical context. It works when I make space for mythology or kind of magical realism that’s borrowed from Caribbean worship rituals combined with, you know, deeply personal anecdotal narratives.
Um, and I also think, you know, that’s exciting stuff for me to grapple with and painting, but it’s also the reality of, uh, a immigrant life.
I think this isn’t, this isn’t a story that’s unique to me and many of the people I know who moved here from another country are constantly doing this work because the imperative is omnipresent that the, the, the stability of life you left behind has to constantly be contended with. And I would push that even further and say that one has to even begin to question the value of that stability as a kind of necessity in the way that we construct our lives.
So it’s, it’s been, it’s been a super exciting challenge to see how to take those things and bring them into painting language and turn them into color and material and surface and texture in the paintings and make them make, them material concerns in the paintings which, you know, in my own case, I think the stratification of printmaking and then layering of printmaking, uh, made the most sense for them. That’s a long answer to the question.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, no, but I mean, I think it’s so fascinating. It, you bring up this idea of essentially fictionalizing
. people in your world, characters in your paintings is something I just really. I don’t think I ever quite thought about in that way for single image works as a narrative artist, myself, you know, as a cartoonist and thinking about, you know, always making work, that’s much more explicitly storytelling.
This is something that comes up all the time for people in my world. You know, if you’re using, either you’re doing non-fictional work or you’re doing work, that’s, you know, you’re doing memoir or are you doing something that just draws really directly on real people, what is your responsibility to those people?
How where’s that line? It’s just something people struggle with a lot. So it’s just super interesting to me to hear your perspective on that.
And I usually wait for the end to ask questions, but actually Lou has asked really relevant question for this moment. So I want to add that in which is, did you ever struggle with feelings of obligation or responsibility rooted in your culture when it came to art making? And if so, what was your breakthrough moment like? It was a great question.
Do you struggle with feelings of obligation or responsibility rooted in your culture?
Didier William: I did in the beginning. I did. And I, it took a while for me to recognize that a lot of that pressure wasn’t coming from me, it was coming from other sources. It was coming from audience. It was coming from environment.
And, and yes, in the beginning it was kind of a awkward moment of feeling a weird sense of obligation. And, you know, ultimately, I did a lot of reading. I did a lot of soul searching to come to the realization that, that the story that I wanted to tell I was, I was the, the biggest authority in that story.
And my, in my, um, obligation to my characters and my obligation to the people that I was working with, uh, as content, um, needed to be protected. But at the same time, my voice also needed to be protected.
I think, you know, something I talked to my grads about is like, consider if you’re working with people, if you’re working with characters, if you’re working with archetypes, if you working with, mytholo- mythologies, all of those things have different relationships to narrative, and to storytelling, different relationships to obligation.
And something I’ve always, uh, insisted is that the bodies in my paintings are not people. They’re not, they’re not- they’re apparations. They’re ghosts. They’re characters, certainly. They live in the kind of imaginative space, but they’re not, they’re not people.
And even if, I borrow the composition of a photograph of my father, that’s not my father. That’s a kind of totemic construction that I’ve put together, sourced and kind of remembered from my father. It’s not, it’s not really my father, um, and distancing it that way gives me the space to not feel like my obligation belongs to something other than my curiosity in the studio.
And then, you know, the other part of the question is again, knowing what the work can and can’t do. Right. I have friends who are deeply involved politically and phenomenal activists and, uh, deeply involved in civic, state and federal government. And I know that that’s not what my- that’s not my work.
My work is something else. And understanding those boundaries, I think particularly early in your career, when you’re trying to find your voice as a maker, is really, really important because it lets you know, where your voice can be the most impactful. And that’s been really productive and sort of grounding for me.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. And I think actually, probably your work is a prime example of that, where you, you do have a very vivid voice about your experience, your community, uh, all of the things that you’re representing in your way through your lens. You can help signal boost those kinds of by being engaged with them with your own work.
Didier William: Yeah. I mean, and I, like I said, I think the story I’m trying to tell is a story about a kind of immigrant reality. You know, one of my favorite books is Saidiya Hartman’s, Lose Your Mother, uh, which in many ways is about this kind of toggling between different conceptions of home and, um, sort of dislocating the necessity of grounding home in a singular space or in a singular location.
And trying to think about what it means to treat that as a kind of imperative. And I vividly remember conversations with my parents when we moved here that were very much about a, kind of a hard cut, like, you know, we live here now. And this is home now and we’re going to acclimate to this space. And my parents were very particular kinds of people.
but it was, you know, now at 37, I’m thinking a lot about what it must’ve been like for a six-year-old, particularly at six years old, to move to the United States, uh, right at the end of the Bush presidency and approaching the beginning of the Clinton presidency. You know, Aristide in Haiti was just beginning to be removed from power and Papa Doc had just been- or Baby Doc, I’m sorry, had just been removed.
Um, there was a lot of conversation between Haiti and the United States. It was a really rich moment for conversation around immigration, especially in south Florida, which has the largest Haitian population outside of Haiti.
And so I don’t think I’ve ever really sort of focused my lens on that time as much as I am right now. And so in terms of obligation to go back to Lou’s question, it’s much less about obligation and much more about confronting what I know to be an unstable historical narrative, which with my own lens, as a creative, thoughtful person who experienced all of this stuff, you know, what does it mean to, to collide what, what we know to have, have happened with the perceptions of a six year old or seven year old.
And what kind of realities, what kind of truths can sort of be cracked open in that process? And many ways I think these current paintings are, are trying to do just that. Whether or not they succeed or fail is another story, but that’s, that’s the approach.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. I want to get into a little bit of your history and how you got, you know, we’ve heard from sort of Yale on.
it from being a six-year-old immigrant to Miami, to graduating from Yale MFA program.
How did you get to where you are now?
Didier William: I had great teachers and great parents. That’s, that’s the schmaltzy answer, but it’s the truth. It’s really the truth. I had really great teachers and super supportive parents.
When I was in school, um, like during the art hour of the day or whatever, I would make my little sketches.
And my teacher at the time, Ms. Judy Williamson, who was our third grade teacher at Little River Elementary School. She would take these sketches and kind of store them and put them in a drawer. And then she called my parents in for a meeting and my parents thought I was in trouble and she told my parents that she felt like I was talented, that she felt like, I would be better served at a different school.
And she said there was this thing called a magnet school and he could take art all day. And my parents said, this sounds excellent. Sign us up. To their credit they were not afraid. They were not scared. They weren’t nervous. They said let’s do it. And so I had to take a bus an hour and a half each way cause we lived in north Miami and the school was in South Miami.
So I’d take a bus an hour and a half each way from sunup to sundown. My dad, we lived outside of the city limits actually, so I had to take, I had to drive into Miami City with my dad in the morning when he was on his way to work, he would drop me off at the school bus and I had to take the school bus to South Miami and then do the reverse in the evening.
And there, I took three hours of art from fifth grade right up through ninth grade. And then went to New World School of the Arts in Miami, where I continued to have really amazing teachers. And it wasn’t until New World that I saw that I started to witness examples of people who were turning this into a career, a life, um, artists, you know, I could call artists who were doing this thing that I was excited about and they had a life doing so.
while I was there, I applied to MICA, Maryland Institute College of Art. And actually when I was at MICA, I thought I was going to be a painting and sculpture major. Thought I was going to double major. And I’m only mentioning that because I’m starting to do some sculpture work in my studio right now.
You know, some people are like, oh, this is new and I’m like, sculpture has always been there. I’ve always, I’ve always had a 3D itch.
But while I was at MICA I realized if I wanted to be a double painting and sculpture major it would’ve taken me five years and I would have never finished. Um, so I just did painting and loved it. I mean, my education at MICA was amazing.
It’s an incredible school. Um, was convinced by my faculty to apply to Yale. Even though at the time I was a bouncer and I just thought upon graduation, I would keep my job bouncing, get an apartment and move to somewhere in Baltimore and just kind of keep doing my thing. And my teachers, for whom I’m really grateful, all said, no, you need to apply to grad school and you need to apply to Yale.
So I applied and I got in. And I went to Yale and studied with amazing people. Rob Storr, uh, Rochelle Feinstein, Catherine Murphy, uh, Sarah Oppenheimer. Really, really amazing people. Um, Sam Messer. Just, uh, uh, uh, world-class faculty. Sarah Lewis…
and then I got out of school and started to sort of build life as an artist. I sometimes like to think that the recession of 2008, 2009, was it blessing, because for many of us who got out of school during that time, it sort of forced us to, sort of slow down. The system was in such a fragile state that, um, the frenzy of commercializing one’s practice, wasn’t really there. The urgency of doing so it wasn’t really there.
So I really value those first, like three years after grad school, where I felt like I had a whole other opportunity to deep dive into the alchemy of my studio practice. And a lot of those ideas, quite frankly, are coming back now are like, know, coming back into my work now. So that’s the, that’s the short version.
Jessica Abel: Wow, I mean, that is like the straightest path from this sort of unlikely, you know, location of the beginning to end that I’ve think I’ve ever heard. That’s like, lined up like dominoes.
Um, so the, I guess the one question I have about that then is, are there any professional trained artists in your family?
Are there any professionally trained artists in your family?
Didier William: No. My mom is a chef and my mom has a restaurant in Pembroke Pines, Florida. And I think the alchemy with which she treats food is the same that I borrow and apply to artwork. The same way she thinks about food is the same way I think about art.
And, and she’s just as creative and just as brilliant and just as curious and, you know, we didn’t grow up wealthy by any means. And so my mom was always throwing stuff together and we ate really well because my mother is an amazing cook.
And you know, she wasn’t using fancy stuff. She was just taking whatever she had and making these like world-class meals. when she was 13, she started working at the kitchen in the American Embassy in Haiti.
And she worked there right up until we moved to the United States. And so she had this hands-on experience, right from, uh, a very early age. And then when we got here, she started in the restaurant business. She still, she still doing that to this day and refuses to retire.
Jessica Abel: It sounds amazing, and she sounds incredible.
but the question I have is not, you know, it sounds like they’re just totally supportive all the way through, but it did your trajectory and just sort of getting used to, like, what does this mean? And what does it look like? And especially since you said, right at the beginning that your, your parents will take you down a peg, if you think you’re successful, like did, has this required any like reorientation or like adjustment on their part to just get their brains around, like, what does your life mean? You know, what, what are you doing? Like, what is this thing?
How does your family think about your work?
Didier William: That’s a good question. Yes and no. I mean, my, my one brother is a pharmacist and my other brother’s an automotive technician. I have two older brothers. And so neither of them are artists in the traditional sense.
So the life of an artist, I think just needed to be explained to them a lot in the beginning. Then I was always working and that, you know, I’m never really off and that, uh, I had to explain what the studio is.
I think for many people who aren’t familiar with artists or don’t work with artists the studio can seem like a mythological place where mysterious things happen and they don’t quite know, and they don’t know what you’re doing for hours on end and they expect this kind of transaction where like, if you’re in the studio for 10 hours then they want to see 10 hours worth of work and that’s not necessarily true.
And I did find myself having to explain all of that in the beginning. But I think now I’ve been doing this for long enough that they kind of get it and they kind of know what it entails and the labor that it entails, um, which I also think I’ve been really good about.
Labor is not a sexy thing to talk about in the art world. We we’d rather talk about genius and talent and skill, but it’s labor.
It’s, it’s, it’s exerting the body into physical energy to produce something, to, to manufacture an output. And I think particularly when we’re in conversation with non-artists, it’s helpful to sort of consider it in those terms so that they kind of know what we’re doing.
Otherwise it becomes, in my opinion, a little bit too easy to reduce what we’re doing into some kind of fantastical exercise when, you know, it’s, it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of practice and a lot of organizing and a lot of energy that has to be expelled to arrive at this kind of singular moment that we fetishize so deeply.
So I think now they kind of get it, but in the beginning it required me being super patient and just kind of explaining things over and over again.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, it must’ve helped that they were positive. Like they were supportive if baffled, perhaps, a little bit.
Didier William: Yeah, yeah, yeah. They were baffled and just kind of like, okay, whatever. I was always the weird so- I’m the youngest. So I think they expected me to be, they expected me to go wayward a little bit, so, um, they were baffled, but they weren’t worried.
Jessica Abel: Well, and they two others to kind of take care of the normal stuff.
Didier William: yeah, exactly,
Jessica Abel: Understandable career paths.
Didier William: Exactly.
Jessica Abel: Well, I know we’ve got to wrap up on time, I wanted to say, thank you so much for hanging out with me today. It’s just been really fun and great to catch up with you and hear all these things from you and learn more about you.
Didier William: Jessica, thank you so much for inviting me. I have loved it. This was, this is awesome. Loved your questions.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. Thank you. Um, where can people find you if they want to find out more? Where should they go?
Didier William: Uh, on Instagram, I’m at Duey art. So @ D U E Y A R T. You’ll see a lot of artwork, but you’ll also see a lot of baby pictures.
Jessica Abel: God. I’m so not about babies on Instagram, but you are the exception. She’s the exception. I swear, like she, I, all the babies I’m just like, oh, whatever, but
Didier William: I swore I would never post. And then once she was born, I became a little obsessive. I became that guy. I became that guy. So on Instagram @dueyart and then my website is didierwilliam.com.
Jessica Abel: Thank you, Didier.
Didier William: Thank you, Jessica, thanks everybody.
thank you so much for joining us today for the Autonomous Creative.
Our show is produced by Matt Madden, our production coordinator is Lousine Boyakhandjyan, and our production assistant is Rhiannon Sunday. Music is by Matt Madden, and I’m your host, Jessica Abel.
You can find all our takeaways as well as any links and extras we mentioned today plus transcripts, in the show notes. Find everything you need at acpod.show.
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