Visual art and jazz have a rich history. Abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky, pop art forebear Stuart Davis, and famed collagist Romare Bearden all were inspired by jazz during their careers. And then there are the photographers like Herman Leonard, Francis Wolff, and Carl Van Vechten whose muses sometimes too came from the world of jazz. Well, another artist bringing her own unique take to manifesting jazz in two dimensions is Robin D Williams, an accomplished artist who is having a joint exhibition of her blind contour drawings at the William Ris Gallery this summer. The exhibit, entitled Syncopation, will also feature paintings by Michael Ingui, and runs from Aug. 18 to Sep. 9. You’ll find more details on Williams’ creative process in the interview below.
Q: You’ve been known to draw in real-time at concerts and jazz clubs — drawing the musicians as they perform. When did you start doing this? Any unusual reactions along the way?
A: I was invited by the wife of a trumpet player to come and draw her husband and his trio. (I do not remember their names.) This was in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2006. There was no reaction from patrons attending as they did not realize I was drawing. However, in 2007 I was drawing my friend while we were having coffee in Manhattan and one guy at the next table noticed and said to his buddy: “Look! She’s drawing and she isn’t even looking down at the paper! Wow!” Then they hovered as I finished.
Q: You’ve been based in West Palm Beach for some time. Where do you go to do this particular artwork?
A: I have been in West Palm Beach for two years. I went to a professionals’ jazz jam when I first arrived in Florida in order to meet new people, artists, musicians. We meet once a month in the artsy town of Lake Worth. This is the only venue I have explored. I like the people who like jazz. We used to meet in the rear of an art gallery. The new meeting place is a local, eclectic bookstore. More space, better acoustics.
Q: When you create artwork in your studio, do you also listen to jazz? What’s currently on your “shuffle” so to speak?
A: I rarely listen to music when I draw. Silence and ambient sounds are my preference.
When I do my oil or ink paintings I might play some tunes. Lately on that shuffle are John Martyn, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, Rihanna, Mickey Guyton… and sometimes Nina [Simone]. Instrumentals include suites for solo cello by Bach, jazz trumpeters Brian Lynch or Lee Morgan or Sweet Clifford Brown. Oh, and my favorite, favorite of all time… Patti Smith.
Related: “Your Summer Music Reading List”
Q: If you could devote a series of blind contours to a single jazz artist or album, which one might that be and why?
A: I devoted a series to Brian Lynch’s Tribute to the Trumpet Masters a few years ago. That was fun. I chose this because Brian gave me that CD. It is because of him that I started drawing and learning about jazz musicians. He is the husband — Grammy award-winning — of a dear friend. I have [also] done an entire series of abstract paintings based on The Lion and the Cobra by Sinead O’Connor. And a series based on Radio Ethiopia [by Patti Smith]… Truly, jazz is not “my” music. If I listen to music at all it would be rock, folk, R&B, country, or classical!
Q: Your works in this series are all blind contours — drawings done without looking at the page. Do you ever “fix” the drawing after you’re done? Can you explain why you’re drawn to this particular practice?
A: I never fix these drawings. They need no fixing. They are perfectly imperfect. Like you, like me, like life. I do occasionally go back in…while looking…and add color or deepen an area with more black India ink… I love this form of drawing because it is by far the most alive. The lines dance, leap, twirl, sing.
Q: Have you done blind contours of any famous jazz artists? Which ones? How did these particular drawings come about?
A: The famous ones I’ve drawn are Nina Simone, Lee Morgan, Brian Lynch, Kenny Dorham, Art Blakey, Clifford Brown, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Roy Haynes, Thelonius Monk… The list goes on. I drew using images from the book of Blue Note jazz portraits by Francis Wolff [The Blue Note Years]. I also made a few by freeze-framing…[from] the series Jazz by Ken Burns. Or from photos on CD covers. I did an entire series of drawings of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross from photos on their CD. I love their vocals. Their phrasing is exquisite. These drawings are evocative, inviting. They speak.
Related: “Falling Under Nina Simone’s Spell”
Note: Grammy Award winner Gil Goldstein will be performing with Williams herself will be blind contour drawing him at the opening at William Ris Gallery on Aug. 18. Click here for more details on Syncopation and the featured artists.
Photo Credits: Detail of “Piano Hands”; “On Flugel Horn, Dmitri Matheny” and “Archie Shepp, Blasé” by Robin D Williams courtesy of the artist.