Michael Aaron Williams is a street/fine artist from the States. He’s traveled to over 13 countries with his artwork depicting real people, many of whom are street sleepers, in order to open up meaningful conversation between himself, the country’s people, and ultimately the homeless children who Williams earnestly portrays with his vulnerable cardboard cutout fixtures.
Name Michael Aaron Wlliams
Location Knoxville, TN
1. Could you tell us a bit about yourself? And your international art making experience?
Well, I am from Knoxville, TN, USA and I am married to the love of my
life. I grew up being outdoors basically all the time and love working
with my hands and building things from an early age. My family lives
on a farm so growing up I herded goats and learned how to hunt and
fish and all that so I have an immense respect for nature. Anyways, I
began making Art in later in high school and just kept working at it
and it has just morphed into what it is now. In college I just made Art by finding the cheapest thing I could paint on (which was cardboard) and just paint and paint and paint. I would sometimes
finish as many as 10 to 15 pieces in a single day, just playing around.
Then one day I realized that I had an huge pile of artwork just piled
up and so I went out onto the streets of Birmingham, Alabama and began putting my art up around town.
My street art has come a long long way since I first started. It has
taken me to 13 different countries and all over the United States. The style of my street art has also changed a lot since those first pieces. I now mainly focus on the human
figure and actually cut the pieces out so that it looks more like a
person standing their on the street. So much tweaking and many changes over the years and I continue to love the way in which people can interact with the Art on the street rather than just seeing my artwork in a gallery. I think it makes that moment a little more special, you know when you least expect it.
2. What influenced you to make site specific Street Art?
With my Art my main focus is to relate to the person who sees the
artwork. Their is no better way to do this than to put up a piece on
the street in their city where they can just stumble upon it. I think
that it really can influence and move someone in a way that you just
can’t do in a gallery setting. I love going to different countries and
as I put up artwork I get to know people as they ask what I am doing
or as they observe the artwork. I love interacting with different
cultures and learning from them but I think that it’s a truly magical
experience to go to a new place and to feel like you are not just an
observer of the culture but you’re contributing to that culture in
some way. I feel like I am able to do something like this even if it
is on a very small scale, but even though Street Art may seem very
insignificant to some it can completely move others. Some to
tears and some to action or realization.
3. What are the main elements you consider when choosing a specific site to display your work?
I have been asked this a lot. My wife asks me this every time we go out and look for a place to install it. For the most part I think that I just have to kind of feel it out and I know when I see it. However, in most of my artwork I am looking for specific things. 1. The human element. I want to interact with people so I want it to be in a location to where someone can see it even if it is only one or two people. 2.I t needs to work well with the piece that I made so it has to work well compositionally. And 3. If I am in another country or an interesting location I really want it to reflect the culture or country that I am in. To celebrate the beauty of that culture and because it just makes for a more interesting piece of artwork.
4. We can see the characters are mainly homeless children in your
street art? Is there special story behind it?
Yes, yes there’s a story behind it. I feel very strongly that we need
to help orphans and street children by keeping them safe and off the
streets because on the streets their innocence as children is
vulnerable. When I paint a picture of a street child and attach it to
the wall it becomes vulnerable. Any moment a person could come and
tear it down or a storm could come and destroy it. After all it’s
just paint or ink on cardboard. The artwork is attached to
the wall or ground using only heavy duty mounting tape. So this makes it vulnerable, but it also gives it hope. If someone really likes the artwork then they can take it off the wall
and into their home. Thus these pieces have hope just like the actual
street children that they represent. If nothing is done then the
homeless children will be destroyed by the harsh environment on the
streets but there is hope and these children can be helped and taken
in and loved.
5. “It is an art project for the public funded by the public.” You do fundraising for your art projects – has it always been a part of your concept? How has the response been?
The response has been great. The first trip that was funded by the public was the trip to Asia and it went very well! Everyone came together and supported it and it was amazing. We are working on a few more trips for 2013 and may actually be going to London, England for a few weeks and São Paulo, Brazil for a month or so for an artist in residence opportunity. So doors just keep opening up!
6. Your choice of materials remind of hand-made paper dolls from our childhood. Why do you use cardboard and tape? Has anyone ever tried to take it home?
Well, I never played with paper dolls very much I was more of a Lego kid. But yes many people have taken the pieces home. Actually one time I traveled to Brooklyn, New York and put up Art there. Then
apparently two women took the piece off the wall and took it home with them to their country which was London, England. They framed the piece and put it up in their home. When I came to England they found out about it and invited me and my wife over for dinner and we got to meet them and hang out for a while so it was really awesome and special. They are many stories like this where I meet people that I never would of met if it weren’t for the Street Art.
7. How do people respond to your work, specifically in Asia?
It depends on the person of course. Some people are really interested and will ask questions or give me a thumbs up or some people will just ignore it. It’s really fun to see people do a double take and get really confused because they thought it was a person there. Here is a good example of how people react to it:
My wife actually speaks fluent Thai so we were able to speak Thai to people in Thailand and talk to them and in China I had a cousin living their and he spoke Mandarin so we were able to communicate in these countries so that made it fun. Everyone was very nice in Asia as we put these up and I want to go back and do some more stuff over there when I can.
8. What’s the message behind the Asia series?
There are many different messages that can be found in the different pieces I did in Asia. A lot of the pieces talk about how children find the beauty in life and reveal it to the rest of us. The one with the arrows depicts a boy (his name is Chai) who we met at the orphanage. Before Chai came to the orphanage he and his brother, Lee, were very malnourished and had swollen stomachs from not getting enough nutrition. He had to steal money from the offerings to Buddha in order to buy food. He had a very difficult first 5 years of life and was sick most of the time, however, he did not focus on his difficult circumstances. He focused on life and the beauty in life and that taught me a lot so I wanted to visualize that through the arrows and him focusing on the flowers. All of the pieces in the Asia represent actual orphans from Thailand where me and my wife stayed and worked so we got to really get to know the kids and that put a lot more meaning into the pieces for me.
9. Did you discover anything interesting when traveling and working in Asia that you would like to share with us?
FOOD!!!! I love Asian food especially the food we had in Thailand. It was amazing. I also just loved the Asian people. Always friendly.
10. Where is your next destination? Will you come back to Asia?
My next destination is probably going to either be Europe again or Brazil and right now it looks like we will be going to both of those places in 2013. We will definitely be back to Asia there are so many different places that I would love to go and if any one who reads this wants me to come real bad just give me a plane ticket and a bed to sleep in and I will be there!