In Conversation: William T. Williams, Melvin Edwards, Ashley James, and Guy Ciarcia
The publication Smokehouse Associates celebrates the public art collective of the same name. Between 1968 and 1970, Smokehouse Associates transformed Harlem with vibrant, community-oriented abstract murals and sculptures. Established by William T. Williams and including Melvin Edwards, Guy Ciarcia, and Billy Rose, Smokehouse grew to encompass a range of creative practitioners united around the revolutionary potential of public art. The book includes a conversation between the Smokehouse members and curator Ashley James. In the exclusive excerpt below, they speak about the collective's history, painted walls and fifty-foot ladders, and public art that engages communities.
William T. Williams, Melvin Edwards, and Guy Ciarcia Moderated by Ashley James, August 9, 2021:
Ashley James: My first question goes back to the beginning. Smokehouse is a significant name in that it relates to the overall goals of the group. Could you talk about how this name was chosen and the ideas behind it?
William T. Williams: The name was suggested by Walter Jones, the writer, playwright, and actor. The underpinning of the idea was the smokehouse as a repository for lean times through the winter. Smokehouses are common in the South and certainly common in this country. Thus, the name Smokehouse.
Melvin Edwards: The name came later, through Walter, after we formed the group. We all had similar backgrounds—we came from mostly working-class families and were the first generation to be educated. We had a lot of rural roots in common, even though we grew up in large cities. I grew up in Houston, William in New York.
Guy Ciarcia: And I grew up in Union City across the river. I was five minutes from New York. By the time I joined, I was living in rural Hopewell, New Jersey.
Williams: What was interesting was the different backgrounds of the four people involved and how we were coming to the idea of working in a public space through a collaborative process. Part of the magic of the group was the diversity of opinions, ideas about what a mural, fresco, or a work of art was, and what the involvement of an audience could be. I think that kind of interaction was very much a part of the process.
Edwards: It was realistic and intellectual and provocative in terms of what was going on in urban development, not just in the United States and in Harlem, but throughout the world. I was aware of Brasília—this idea of planning societies—and at the same time, I was aware of New York’s evolution from a farm in the Bronx and a port in Lower Manhattan. There was a time when east of what is now Macy’s was called Little Africa. Those things are lost, and yet they’re not lost, because they’re the underpinnings of how people inhabit those spaces today. For me, coming from Texas, Harlem was as emblematic a destination as one could have. I first went west in order to go north to leave the South, and then a little more than ten years later, I came to New York, where I encountered William. We had all been developing our own ideas about art in a multiplicity of ways, and that really informed what we were doing.
James: When you think about migration patterns, the name Smokehouse returns to a Southern origin, even if by that time you all had crisscrossed the nation. I’m curious about what those first discussions were like and what ideas were fermenting among you all?
Williams: That’s a difficult question. I think we were thinking about wanting an engagement with a place, with people, trying to think about what art’s function is—what is art, what’s art to an audience, as opposed to what’s art to the artist? Our studio concerns were clear. A lot of the conversations had to do with perceptions: how are people perceiving and experiencing something? We were more interested in the experience for the viewer, as opposed to a didactic idea about what we were making. I think the two things are drastically different.I remember having endless conversations about the physical environment we were working in, the implications of scale, and the proportions of buildings and how that impacted how one perceived a work of art within that space. At that particular time, Harlem was going through a blight. There were endless empty lots, endless abandoned buildings. I was concerned with what was going to happen to the Harlem I had known all my life and that I had ties to. But more, what was going to happen to the people living there? What were they experiencing, and how were they feeling about their homes? In some cases, it was the only home they had known, while other, younger people were moving in from across the country. So it was a changing place; it was dynamic and symbolic of what was happening in Detroit, Chicago, the Fifth Ward, all across the country. I think that type of engagement had to do with the humanity of Guy, Mel, and Billy Rose. They had no practical reasons, in terms of their careers, to be involved in Smokehouse other than a human concern—the idea that art has the possibility of changing people, places, and things.
Ciarcia: I came on board, I believe, in late July or early August of 1968. You guys had already painted several murals. Your experiences are a little different from mine. I remember the first piece I was involved with was in Sylvan Place. I had this hundred-foot-long wall and I was dealing mostly with formal problems—how to solve this, that, and the other thing. The sociological aspect was deeper for you than it was for me.
Edwards: No, you were very good at bringing up things that were pertinent and you humanized the technical challenges that were apparent, and that’s important.
Ciarcia: I don’t remember who decided to paint the background on that wall silver, but I do remember that a woman in the park came up to us after the wall was done, and she was just beside herself with joy. We changed the environment for her in a positive way. If I remember right, the drug addicts who had been there before left because they couldn’t take the light. That silver background reflected all kinds of light into that park. That was significant for me. I never forgot that.
Edwards: Several people said, “You gave us our park back.” In the city at that time, all of the wooden slats of the benches were gone. That was the city’s way of preventing people from hanging out. But it meant older people and families couldn’t sit in the park either. The city saw what was happening through our work, and they put the slats back on the seats, and families started to recongregate in the park. It became a positive part of the community’s life. The word “mural” was used, and I always said, “We’re not doing murals.” My own background and knowledge came from the Mexican muralists, who emphasized public art, mural scale, and social development, and really analyzed art’s purpose in the twentieth century. People know the names Gabriel Orozco, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and others. The principles in their work were moralistic, in that they intended the work itself to give messages, along with being spatially dynamic. Our work did not give messages. Our message, if you want to call it that, would have been that we changed the place, and because we changed the place, we were changing the situation. I think we were all in agreement with that idea. This was in contrast to some other public art projects. People talk about the Wall of Respect in Chicago, and of course that dealt with imagery and protests and things like that. We stepped beyond protest to construct something new. Our ideas also extended to evaluating what happened after we did our work. I think this group could have planned and developed cities. We already knew how, and we eventually worked with people who did that in various places throughout the world. Guy had been in the schools in New Jersey, William was teaching at Brooklyn College, and I taught at Rutgers University later on. We also went to other places in the world at various points and saw what people were doing. We weren’t limited, if you will, to the limitations of American art education in universities, where they’re still often asking the wrong questions.
Williams: One of the things that came from this was the idea of having people stop and experience something. Our politics or message, if you will, really had to do with those people and their experiences, as opposed to having a didactic political message.We made a practical decision about how high up we were going to paint on a building. This was paramount in terms of wanting people to have a relationship to the objects. It was also practical in the sense that none of us wanted to go up on scaffolding. They were old buildings, and there were all kinds of issues about insurance, safety, etc., that we would have had to confront. A more horizontal format also led to a longer-lasting experience for the viewer, and I think that participatory nature of their involvement was very important for what we were doing.
Edwards: There’s a picture of Bill up on a ladder. (Laughs)
Williams: Yes. A very small ladder.
Edwards: That was about as high as any of us got. (Laughs)
Ciarcia: You forget, we lashed two of those ladders together and yours truly got to go up! (Laughter)
James: Picking up on that thread about the participatory nature of the work, horizontality, and the proportions of space, Smokehouse was happening concurrently with certain ideas percolating in New York City during this time. I’m thinking particularly about the movement around Minimalism and performance art, which shares this language of an unfolding individual engagement with an artwork rather than the artwork as a concrete image. I’m curious if Minimalism and these parallel art historical discourses were something you were thinking about while making these participatory works? Or is it something you think about in hindsight?
Edwards: Minimalism was a label. At the time, there was already a good two thousand years of simple and complex compositions in human history—take the pyramids for example. We didn’t work off of the labels. I taught for forty years, and I saw the growth and classification of things become more real than the realities. All of those aspects were already there.
Ciarcia: Of course, Minimalism was in the air in 1968. Those artists were having shows and everything. I can’t say that for myself. I’m not surprised we were working like that.
Edwards: I hesitate with the label for us, that’s all. You’re quite right, the presence was there. My first painted sculpture with a geometric emphasis was earlier that year in the summer of 1968. I made a body of work while in residence at the Sabathani Community Center in Minneapolis. The Walker Art Center saw the work, and they staged the first exhibition of sculpture outdoors in collaboration with the City of Minneapolis. All I’m saying is that these ideas and this potential were already there within us. They made sense, without bringing in, shall we say, pertinent local art history at the time. We were just trying to do something.
James: Perhaps it’s the art historian’s task to bring clarity to the historical categorizations of the moment.
Williams: Sometimes you refer to Minimalism as a style as opposed to a method of construction. What Mel is very much speaking to is that through our involvement and experiences of other cultures, you can see that tendency to simplify things. Certainly you can see that with any walk through the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The way of constructing something or thinking about things, as Mel said, precedes the idea of a style. Very often, we think of Minimalism as having started in the 1960s. I think that references a prevalent style occurring in that moment. It would do us a disservice to link us with Minimalism. My thoughts about the Minimalist movement is that it was art about art, and art about art historical ideas. I don’t think we were involved in making art about art as Smokehouse. We weren’t making art. There was no intent to make art. There was an intent to engage people in dialogue—dialogue not with words, but dialogue through an experience. And hopefully those people would then begin to forge other kinds of ideas and experiences. It’s about empowering them as a community to take charge of their lives. What Smokehouse did was call attention to a specific space, and that then called attention to how and where the community was living. But their aesthetic experience with the wall was personal. It had nothing to do with urban blight. It had to do with a moment of humanity, an experience they were having with a specific place.
Edwards: In that period there were block associations already formed with concerns about the community. I remember one in particular responded beautifully with a sense of participation. It wasn’t like we imposed something from our art world experience on the community. The things that happened in the years to come reflected that. There was a sculpture of mine, Double Circles, at the Bethune Towers at 143rd Street and Lenox Avenue. Within the year, it got graffitied up. I took photographs when it was fresh, and I took photographs of youngsters posing with the work with graffiti all over it. A part of what was going on in that period was the early aspects of what became known as graffiti in the art world. But people have been writing on and marking walls since the days of the pyramids. We were part of a very long history of public art, and we weren’t naive about that. I met the architect Demas Nwoko in Nigeria in 1970. He was challenging the European modernism that was being imposed at the end of colonialism. Nwoko said he could do something that was at once African, modern, functional, and original. Something that came from the cultures, plural, of Africa, and I think we’re an extension of that. Harlem is a point, but it references the worlds we all come from and are still participating in. Smokehouse hasn’t ended. If you go inside it, there are ideas that sustain. I’m happy this interview is happening because there’s more to it. We won’t have time to cover it all, but what can I say?
James: I want to ask about the way you all worked, an approach constructed with the intention of a viewer relationship, to change the environment, and to change an individual in a time-based negotiation. I’m curious how, in the making of these...
Edwards: You can say “painted walls.”
James: So, in these painted walls, how did you ensure it didn’t seep into mural making? How did you keep the design process open-ended and in circulation, rather than codified into a specific image?
Ciarcia: I remember the four of us sitting around on a curb looking at a configuration of buildings and walls around us and talking about a diagonal here or a line there. Putting it together in our heads and knocking it around among the three of us. When we finally made a decision, we started laying it out. Sometimes it took off. We extrapolated on that; we’d make changes as we went along. I remember spending more time talking about it than painting it. Maybe I’m exaggerating. But I remember spending a lot of time in Bill’s studio talking about the dynamics of the project. It seems like it almost took no time at all to paint the walls, especially when I introduced the rollers. We were doing it with brushes in the beginning, and that was taking forever. I’ll take credit for the rollers.
Edwards: Well, keep on rolling, because it worked well! I had been living in upstate New York because I was teaching in Middletown. Then I moved into William’s studio for a few months to get myself together. I saw the processes he used. Everybody we knew in that period was busy with their own experiments. It wasn’t like the labels came first and then we applied our ideas to the labels. The ideas were evolving out of us very directly, in terms of what we were learning from our own personal experiments. William’s exhibition at Reese Palley Gallery in 1971 was a dynamic wall-to-wall installation of paintings. It was a knockout in the New York art world. So the quality of the people involved—Guy, Billy Rose, myself—we all had something to contribute. It wasn’t argumentative. There might have been a variety of points of view. One discussion I remember was between William and me. We were sitting in a room at the original location of The Studio Museum in Harlem looking out on Fifth Avenue. We were commenting to each other on the different colors of clothes people were wearing. From our points of view, we could see dynamics that were absolutely applicable in art. Not about clothing, but about art, about moving pieces and aspects of color, both kinetic and static. And here our project had been with buildings that were static. But the world we were working in was absolutely in motion. That meant there was always a potential for something new. Our ideas all came from the worlds, plural, that we lived in and experienced. Harlem, in this case, was the center.
James: I’m curious if there was a kind of workshop aspect to things when somebody presented an idea? Was there a back-and-forth around specific compositions before they were painted on the walls? On a formal level, how was that negotiated among you all?
Ciarcia: We collaborated on just about every aspect of every piece. I remember talking about a diagonal and discussing how we could maximize the interaction of the passersby at this particular angle. Is it too much, is it too little? We really did work together in every sense.
Williams: The paint we were using was sign painters’ paint. There isn’t a lot of subtlety with that paint. You’re forced into the graphic right away. You’re also dealing with the tactile surface of the building. These aren’t perfect walls—bricks are protruding out, there’s mortar and everything. So you have all these other graphic and sculptural marks present within the wall. I can remember a number of times where something was painted over and the color was changed. It was on the fly constantly. The process, as I remember it, was that each time we received a new wall, or we found a new wall and got permission, or didn’t get permission...
Williams: ...each member of the group would initiate a design. From there, we would discuss what had been drawn up and talk about what we wanted to do. How do you fit this within a given space? That was the key to it. The site where we go through the alleyways, on 121st Street between Second and Third Avenues, is probably the summation of everything we wanted to do. We found a space that was not visible from the street but was visible from the overlooking apartments on both sides. It formed an enclosed environment, an ideal place for total immersion in a work of art. It’s the one place where you have four different perceptions, or four different projects, introduced by four different people. Yet, it works extremely well, primarily because of those endless conversations Guy spoke of—how we thought about the formal aspects of what we were doing. There were discussions about the human and political aspects of it as well, about the nature of what we were doing, and the nature of our engagement with the community. Mel mentioned the idea of not imposing ourselves on the community. If there was a block association, we’d go to that block association, find out their interests, how we could support them, and how they could be involved. Not once in all the times we worked in Harlem were we ever given a design of what they wanted us to paint, or asked, “Why didn’t you paint flowers?” or “Why didn’t you paint a figure?” That never occurred, I think, because we were focused on not imposing something. Public art can be an imposition on a community. What begins to happen is, years and years later, we’ll look up and think, “We’ve got to take that down.” The politics will have changed, or the building or the space will have changed. We were trying to think through all those kinds of things from the beginning. The one thing I had objections to was the idea of a monumental scale. There is an imposition that occurs when the viewer is required to look upward. I always found that objectionable in terms of my experience with a billboard and/or a work of art. And with geometry, an imposition doesn’t occur. Geometry, which to me is a neutral language that appears in all cultures, allowed us to talk about and do things other than imposing a message.
Ciarcia: We were storytelling without words. We weren’t political. We weren’t protesting. It was storytelling with abstract form: color, shape, line, etc. The work was moving, at least for me. I can still remember staring at some of the pieces and going, “Wow,” unable to put it in words. It was a visceral reaction.
Edwards: I remember after this project we did an event at Cooper Union under the name of Smokehouse. It involved William reading words with imagery. Walter Jones recited something, if I remember correctly. The poet Jayne Cortez read a poem. And I showed slides of our projects along with other things of interest. This was a collective event presented by members from our group and related people. It sort of expanded beyond the painting projects in Harlem eventually. We all went our independent ways, but at the same time we’re always calling or talking to each other and other people with similar sensibilities. We’ve been asked, “Oh, why did you keep so-and-so out?” Well, there was no in and out. This was not an organization or club where people did or didn’t belong because of a political or social reason. There wasn’t any exclusion—we were inclusive.
James: Was there ever a time when you nixed an idea because it was too much like a mural or the design wasn’t sufficiently centered in the viewer’s experience?
Edwards: No, we didn’t impose philosophical or aesthetic limitations on one another. We seemed to be of such similar minds that that just wasn’t an issue. We went over everything. There was nothing we wouldn’t discuss. Other groups and other activities may have had those considerations. We just went past them. That’s all I can say.
James: My next question is about the specificity of Spanish Harlem. William, you spoke about the universal language of geometry and the aesthetics native to the area versus what you all accomplished there. I’m curious how you feel about your methods of painting walls vis-à-vis Harlem, and if it’s specific to Harlem? Is it something that could be reproducible in another Black urban context, or do you feel that the walls were tethered to the experience uptown? I’m curious about how much the location related to the philosophy, the aesthetics, and the process?
Williams: The pieces themselves are specific to 121st, 123rd, and so on. The concept is universal. We could have done it in Washington, DC, or Seattle, Washington. It’s just a question of the response to a specific space. I think the subtext of what you asked me is the cultural aspect of it. Certainly, the energy of the place was something we were involved in and thinking about and experiencing every day. When Mel speaks about the passing colors that people are wearing in the street, it’s an awareness of the specificity of that place. If we go to another town, you’ll have a different palette. But primarily, mobility of bodies and things moving past each other will be there. It’s the recognition of that transient notion of color as opposed to static color that I think Mel is referencing. Could what we did be done other places? Yes, it could be done, and it has been done. There are huge communities designed that way, housing painted that way; we were responding to a time, a place, a political context. All those things were in our minds. We went to Washington, DC, and had a meeting with Patricia Harris, who was Secretary of HUD (Housing and Urban Development), to present our ideas of how what we were doing could be used in relation to the development of housing and communities across the country. This was at the beginning of the one-percent earmark for art in federal buildings. We proposed that it should not only go into government buildings like courthouses, but also the public housing that was being developed. There is an aesthetic concern in a housing project as much as in a courthouse. It could be applied anywhere. What’s happened over a period of time is that more and more places are getting public art because of an aesthetic concern. It’s breaking down the idea that art is only suited for some special place in favor of the idea that there are other forms of art and other forms of engagement such as public parks. There are all kinds of things that could be happening. Every subway platform in New York now has some form of art engagement. Whether you like the particular thing that the artist is doing is almost irrelevant to the idea of taking art out of the museum, out of the gallery, and placing it in a public context. I think that’s the aftermath of Smokehouse. A lot of the things we talked about, a lot of the things we wanted to do, we began to see happening. We’re seeing a different idea of aesthetic engagement in society today.
Ciarcia: I did a mural project in Trenton, New Jersey, and there was a lot of resistance. I imagine this goes on in different places. In Harlem, we were lucky in that nobody was saying, “Can you paint a flower here?” or “Can you paint a picture of somebody there?” In Trenton there were a lot of questions about what I was doing or what I was painting. People wanted pictures they understood. I would imagine a lot of what goes up in public spaces depends on who’s living there.
Williams: And who’s controlling the money. I think as a collaboration Smokehouse was successful in that four human beings were able to have thoughts and communicate with each other about where we were as artists and why we were making art. All of the works we did are gone. I think that’s good as well. The impermanent nature of what we did is important to the idea that art is always evolving, it’s changing. We’re getting past the notion of monuments. I think we were successful as a group because we weren’t thinking about art, or we had no pretext that we were making art. That allowed it to grow in an organic way. It organically stopped as well, because in every case we saw other things that were possible. There was Mel’s engagement with public art and his travels that brought him in dialogue with architects around the world. Guy’s extension into New Jersey, when he started painting murals. The idea began to expand and expand and expand. Now, you can probably go into any city across the country and you’re going to see painted walls. This is 1968 when we started this—there was much less of that then. I think the important aspect of this, if it’s to be memorialized in a book, is that we’re pinpointing four of us who were involved, but there were many people behind the scenes helping as well. People who were helping us get materials, fundraising, all of those necessary aspects of a project. Photographers, poets, musicians, were all involved. We were talking with a lot of people during that time and I think there was something in the air about what art engagement could be, and in that sense, it was extraordinarily successful. The cross-section of people, of artists, was pretty extraordinary.
James: I want to tease out the one-to-one engagement that happens between a painted wall and a Harlem resident. What does that look like? William, you described this as something that you can’t really know. But on a speculative level, what is the hope? Is it about changing an environment and bringing a new awareness to it, as you’ve said? Is it about lifting someone’s mood? Or shifting someone’s relationship to the street? I’m interested in exploring the different ways you saw the painted wall as serving as a conduit for the individual experience.
Williams: In any engagement with the arts there’s a transformation that occurs, and that transformation is for the better. With any kind of self-reflection in relation to an experience, the person grows, be it negative or positive. They’re making decisions, aesthetic, personal, political. As such, I think, conduit is a very good word. I think that’s what Smokehouse was, a conduit to do something. We believed things could be better, and to achieve that the first step is awareness, followed by personal responsibility, and that leads to public pressure and government responsibility. All of these things are interrelated. It became apparent to me, once we left Washington after speaking with Patricia Harris, that what we were conceiving of was very, very complex. We were doing it on a small scale, almost like a little incubator in Harlem. But our thoughts were much more national, global. That required going back to the drawing board and thinking about other ways of reaching those goals. You have the Studio Museum starting at the same time we’re painting these walls. So there’s this desire to build institutions and a realization of the importance of the institution. It gives you an anchor in a community, and once you have that anchor, people are less likely to give up territory. Harlem won’t disappear. The cultural things we know of and have invested in, the historical importance we apply to Harlem, are not going to disappear when you have those institutions. As a teenager, I used to go to dances in the basement of St. James Presbyterian Church, which started the Harlem School of the Arts. Dorothy Maynor was the person who ran it. And here, fifty years later, there’s this magnificent building that’s embracing the idea of all the human potential in Harlem. All these kids who have extraordinary possibilities—you just have to place the facility there. Create the opportunity there. You see all of these things coming together in this moment. You have the Dance Theatre of Harlem. The years I spent in the Schomburg library as a kid. All of that’s still alive and more important now than ever. Smokehouse was a little grain in all of that. Many people had the same kind of dream. The dream comes first, and then the reality of that dream comes with hard work.
Edwards: Right on the money, William. Right on the money.
Williams: There’s a Smokehouse in every community in this country. There’s a kid who’s drawing on the floor with crayons, or jumping off the bed dancing, with enormous potential, and it’s up to us to provide the facilities and the mechanisms where they can realize those dreams.
James: Can I ask about color in the chromatic sense? I’m curious about the overall palette. You have said it’s in part a response to the colors reflected in Harlem itself. There’s the perspectival, geometric formal language, and then there’s the color. I’m wondering what the concepts behind those color choices were for you all?
Edwards: I think that complicates something really simple. We were all young adult artists in the 1960s who had studied the science of color in school, so we already had that knowledge and we understood our profession. Red, yellow, and blue, black, and white. Any other color you name is some mixture of those. As far as us trying to make some limited significance of some particular ideas of color, you’re going up an unnecessary route. The basics contain all the dynamics and potential.
Ciarcia: I think the colors we chose were about pushing the space in the walls, pushing the space around. When we used silver a couple of times, or at least the two times that I can remember, it was wonderful. It made the wall disappear. It pushed the color forward. It was a successful application.
James: As you noted earlier, this question of monumentality is quite topical right now. As monuments are toppled, there is public money going into building new ones. I wanted to go back to how you all were thinking about scale. You mentioned it was about maintaining this human relationship, but I am interested in how that shifted as you moved into conceiving of larger-scale painted walls and projects?
Williams: I think some of it has to do with how wide the streets are, because you only have so much room to back up to see something. If you scale the thing up eight stories high by twenty stories wide, you won’t be able to see it. There are these practical things to take into consideration when you work in a New York City grid. If the work is to be visible and holistic, meaning you can experience the whole thing, there are limits to the height and width. I think we were fairly successful in most of those engagements. Sometimes having something long and low at the beginning of the block, and continuing that same linearity farther down the block, maintained a connection. We thought about all of those connections in relation to constructing the pieces. The paint we were using had limitations. It muddied very quickly when you mixed it. So, the clarity came along with the simplicity of the iconography. The clarity of color worked in relationship to that.
Ciarcia: We weren’t looking at the walls as pictures with edges. There was an element of participation—you were experiencing the painting rather than looking at it.
Williams: I think that’s really essential to what we were doing.
Edwards: It was environmental at human scale.
Williams: There are some beautiful photographs taken with kids playing on Mel’s sculpture during the time we were constructing this. We have ideas about the beauty and the form of the objects we make. Yet, these kids’ engagement was totally different. They were experiencing the sculptures physically. They had the sense of freedom to do that. There’s another photograph where the kids are posing in front of a wall. Again, they are participating. I think that’s when we knew we were successful, when people would come over to where we were painting and stand and watch us. That was remarkable because it suggested hope. All those things made me want to come back the next day and work. Not to mention the engagement with the other three artists. The most difficult part in all of this, I think, is that when you finish one project, you want to go on to another one. You want to find an environment that offers different engagement problems. Most of the walls we chose were difficult. What I mean by difficult is that you couldn’t back up a hundred feet to do it. There were lots of walls on schools where you had a big playground, and you could back up and see the thing at a distance; we never did one of those. They were always almost semi-intimate spaces we chose and worked on, except for the firehouse on 126th Street. When we did that, the firemen thought we were city painters. They were concerned they would not get the other improvements they needed because we had painted it. Their other concerns were what kind of paint were we using, that we weren’t putting a flammable material on the side of the building.
Ciarcia: They didn’t want anybody to touch that building.
Williams: Right. The other difficult part was making decisions whether to seek permission to paint the buildings or to just go in and paint them. When we did things with the City, we always went through the process of trying to get permission. But it became impossible after a while. It came to a point sometimes where we decided, “Gee, we really like that wall. Let’s do it.” In most cases, when the landlord or owner found out, they were thrilled we were doing it.
Edwards: Free paint job.
Williams: We used to leave our materials in buildings close to the sites. Once, we left our paints at a storefront library that a local block association had started. When we came back the next day, a lot of the paint was gone. We rejoiced in this, the idea that someone had taken the paint because they were going to improve their own lives. They were going to change their environment. So again, it was a success. It’s like stealing a book from a library. The librarian’s happy you stole it. I mean, they’re not happy, but they know you’re engaged in the process of reading. You’re engaged in the process of what they’re trying to do, which is present ideas.
James: Hearing you all talk about the negotiations between government entities and community members, I’m wondering what the takeaways were for each of you as artists, but also as people working on a project that required you to be collaborative and scrappy in various ways?
Williams: I normally don’t do public things. Primarily because of time constraints and because when I’m doing my own work, it takes me a long time, involving lots of changes. The public discourse requires a direct engagement and execution. You don’t have time to go back and change things. You got to have the skills to engage community first and foremost, and bring them on board with your concept. You have to negotiate the contracts and all of that stuff. I don’t have that much time left in my life. I like going to the studio and doing whatever it is I want to do. That’s what I’ve done for the last fifty years. There are no compromises. I learned an awful lot working with three other artists. I learned a lot from the community in Harlem. But I really like going to my studio and working.
Ciarcia: It has been a lasting experience for me. I never wanted to see it to end. I was making my own models that proposed building onto the walls or taking it onto the sidewalks. Looking back fifty years, the influences are still with me. Fifty years later, I decided to glue all my stuff together in assemblages. It’s just like all of that rubble on the ground in Harlem in those days. What do you do with junk? You repurpose it.
Edwards: I am a bit involved in public sculpture enterprises. You spend a lot of time going through interactions and helping people understand how things need to be done. Those years in Harlem, we worked these things out among ourselves. I would still love to do our projects, but I would want carte blanche. Give us all the money, the rights to all the space, and don’t bother us until it’s finished. Because, the truth is, in these kinds of situations, the artist is the expert, both as participant, as viewer, and of course, as conceiver. It’s our baby, but it’s for our family, our communities, and our world. It’s our small contribution to the ideas that will hopefully move the world forward a bit. We got it pretty right with the work, but we couldn’t ensure that everyone had a good living space, that everybody was employed, that everyone’s children could go to high school and attend college for free. A college education should not cost anything, because it’s a contribution to our society. Our aesthetics are not limited to red, yellow, blue, black, and white and city walls. It’s much more significant than that. It’s not limited to whether or not somebody knocks down a statue that existed for whatever reasons. It has more to do with what are we constructing that is significant for now and for the future. In other words, we’re creating artists. We fostered creativity.
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