Madison's Kent Williams spent two decades as a quilter, but he's also a talented printmaker, as his mind-bending new work at the Central Library shows (through Dec. 24 at the third-floor Ballweg Gallery).
Many elements of quilting -- symmetry, shape making, composition strategies -- can be found in his new two-dimensional prints. They are colorful and geometric, with lines that weave in and out of each other like interlacing threads.
Prior to making art, Williams spent a little time in law school, about three weeks. He was drifting around after college, looking for his next step, when he took the LSAT and got, as he says, "way too high a score." He ended up at the University of Michigan but knew right away it wasn't for him.
On the train back home, Williams asked himself what he truly liked to do. He arrived at an unlikely answer: write term papers. He enjoyed organizing ideas, and he loved art, so he parlayed the two into a career as an arts writer and critic. After moving to Madison in 1989, he worked at Isthmus for 20 years, reviewing films and much more. Later he took a job editing computer books. He learned about programs like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, both of which are instrumental in creating his art.
Quilting came about as a sort of hobby. He asked a friend and textiles professor about a quilt she owned. She offered to teach him about it. From then on, Williams set out to create a new quilt nearly every month. Many of these were exhibited, sold and even commissioned.
"Quilting was my first experience ever making something with my hands. I didn't grow up doing that," Williams says. "It was really pleasurable."
Williams loves the tactile nature of quilting, but he is just as drawn to printmaking because it's not so tactile. Williams never touches his print work until the very last stage, when local fine arts printer Picture Salon steps in. Williams likens the experience to standing around with an old-school Polaroid, watching the image emerge.
Quilting also helped Williams develop an eye for shapes, symmetry and asymmetry.
"Even before quilting, as a kid, I would put dominoes into patterns. Simple patterns, because there's not much you can do with dominoes," Williams says with a laugh.
The library show features an assortment of Williams' colorful, sometimes dizzying prints, a variety of which were created in Photoshop with high-resolution photos he's snapped. Others are vector based, made from scratch on Illustrator. Both programs have what Williams refers to as "infinite capabilities," but he creates artificial limits for himself, liking shrinking the color palette he gets to use. One vertical print, Bathed in Light, began as a photograph of Williams' glass-block bathroom window. He used techniques such as mirroring to create an ornate, decorative design. The color looks like bursts of gold on tin.
"It's the color of my neighbor's house on the other side of the window," he says.
Williams finds inspiration in Jasper Johns' directive about making art: "Do something, do something to that, and then do something to that." He says his own process is similar, pursuing "an idea to an end and seeing what I have."
"If I got one idea for a quilt, that would be it for the month. The limitation wore on me," he explains.
Williams says we're at a unique moment of transition between the analog mediums of the past, like painting, and the digital mediums of today and tomorrow. He's interested in this "weird valley," and work that examines that transition. One piece he made for the library show, a vector-based work called Sine of the Times, has the flow of a traditional painting. But its unwavering, relentlessly even lines could only have been created with a computer's help.
Williams doesn't seem to mind that at all.
"I believe painting is going to be a rarified art form in 50 to 100 years. These new [digital] tools are the tools of our time," Williams says. "I'm asking myself, 'What are we supposed to do with them? What is art supposed to do now?'"