• Image about herb-williams-marilyn-monroe-the-san-francisco-museum-of-modern-art-steel-americanway

Sculptor Herb Williams takes art to a colorful new level with crayons (yes, crayons).


The iguanas showed him the way.

After creating “a lot of bad art,” sculptor Herb Williams was worried. “I wasn’t making anything worthwhile,” he says. Then, one night in 2001, the Nashville-based artist had a dream. “The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art contacted me and said, ‘We’d love to give you a retrospective show.’ I said, ‘Great, what is it that I do?’ [The dream] kind of fast-forwarded to me going to my own show, and there were thousands, if not millions, of iguanas, all about the same scale, making their way around the museum. Each one was made out of a different material. Stone. Steel. Bronze. Then it started getting a little obscure. Cigarette butts and matchsticks and paper clips … and finally crayons.” At that point, says Williams, “I woke right up.”

He grabbed his always-at-his-bedside sketchbook and wrote down his vision for the crayons. “It was cutting them down and using them as the form, with the ends pointed out. It was almost abstract … but so rich you almost wanted to take a bite out of them,” he says.

Williams, 34, had already worked with stone, steel, and even bronze. But he hadn’t found his medium muse: “I was having a lot of fun, but I feel the best ideas out there are fairly original, that are that artist’s unique vision. I really enjoy unusual materials, especially when their use makes perfect sense as a result,” he says.

Thus, the crayons.

“The thing I love about the crayons is that the object determines the end result, the shape. It changes it,” he says. “It’s never quite what I set out to do.”

And what he’s done so far is create giant three-dimensional wall paintings of Marilyn Monroe; life-size statues of iconic figures such as Johnny Cash; a nine-foot-tall cactus; small sculptures of pears, buckets, and wine bottles; and, inspired by Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, his latest series, Wallflowers. All with crayons.

Says Williams: “I’m fascinated with how many phenomenal artists -- traditional to contemporary -- have done flowers. Done with crayons, [flowers] have a great sculptural feel and take on a life of their own.”

BEFORE WILLIAMS could turn the inspiration from his iguana dream into actual artwork, he had to solve one rather crucial problem: how to attach the crayons to whatever base he was working on, from a fiberglass-coated foam-and-wood board for his crayon paintings to a fiberglass form for his sculptures.

“I tried basically every kind of adhesion, including melting the crayons, spraying them, and clear-coating them. Even wiring them. And finally I realized that it wasn’t the wax that I needed to bond, it was the paper [wrappers],” he says. The solution was to anchor the end of each crayon in a drop of epoxy.

Within six months, Williams had ordered several hundred thousand crayons from Crayola -- the only brand he uses -- and had qualified as a wholesaler. These days, he orders single-color cases of 3,000 crayons at a time. He uses about 150,000 crayons to create each of his life-size figures, and they sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Smaller pieces cost around $1,000, while medium ones range from about $12,000 to $18,000. One of his favorite pieces, a three-dimensional painting of Playboy’s famous photo of a nude Marilyn Monroe, required 250,000 crayons. Williams used Apricot, Bittersweet, and Peach crayons to approximate Monroe’s skin tone. “There was a lot of going back and forth, of being very close-up to it and then standing back 20 to 30 feet,” he says.

Once Williams has an idea in mind and the cases of crayons to back it up, it’s cutting time. He or the friends and family members who often volunteer to help out (including his wife and their four-year-old son) snip each crayon to whatever length the work calls for. Early on, the process was tedious and incredibly time-consuming. Williams scored and cut each individual crayon with a craft knife. He noticed that more people volunteered to help once he replaced the craft knives with the faster chop of oversize toenail clippers and double-guillotine cigar cutters. But the artist’s innovation continues: He’s currently working with a structural engineer who took a shine to his work to build a better crayon-cutting tool, one that will cut several dozen at a time. “It will change my world,” says Williams. “You have no idea.”

The finished pieces are as much an olfactory treat as a visual one. While Williams puts some pieces under Plexiglas to protect them, most of the clients who commission works prefer them en plein air (or, actually, en plein room). “They usually want to smell them and touch them. There is something really engaging about it,” he says. And, though the pieces are made of wax, they’re stable at temperatures of up to 120 degrees. Adds the artist: “I tell people that if my sculpture is in your house and it’s melted, you’ve got a much bigger problem on your hands than my sculpture.”

Feeling far from boxed in by his medium of choice, Williams doesn’t see any limits on the pieces he can create with crayons. Though he still experiments with other materials -- including, recently, LED lights -- he says crayons are the first material that hasn’t made him feel constrained. “There are so many possibilities still. I’m going to start doing explosions coming out of the wall, like a big Lichtenstein, a pop explosion, using several different colors at once, coming down from the ceiling like a chandelier,” he says. “Mixing very adult themes with children’s objects. It’s got a very nice complexity there.”

And he’s still having fun with all those colors. Clearly tickled by one of his new favorites, he says: “I’m working with silver crayons now, and they are wonderful.”



Herb Williams’s art can be seen at the rymer gallery in Nashville and at www.herbwilliamsart.com.