Ty Williams is a mixed-media artist, a surfer, a traveler, and a former resident of the Virgin Islands, Maine, and Florida. I met him about ten years ago, in Williamsburg, as he was about to do a long stint in Japan. His open spirit and big curiosity reminded me of that great Jack Kerouac line: “Ready to introduce new worlds with a shrug.” About a year later I ran into him at Malibu and he raved about Japan, and about the many countries he’d visited since. He was on the road in a magnificent way. When we caught up over FaceTime to do this piece, he was in Byron Bay, by way of New Zealand. His ‘just got back from somewhere’ stoke was palpable. Here’s our conversation, only slightly edited.
What are you doing in Australia?
There’s a little gallery in Mullumbimby — I’m doing a show and event party there on Friday. But really it’s a stopover coming from New Zealand. I had a show at the LEstrange Gallery there. And we’re all familiar with what went down in Christchurch a few weeks ago, so I had no idea how it was going to go. But the response was overwhelmingly good. And the trip kind of took on an entirely different form while I was there. I ended up doing a mural in Sumner, in Christchurch. And I ended up going to one of the memorials for one of the mosques. And I ended up deciding to donate a good portion of the money to the Victim Support fund. It was a trip that started for one reason — surfing and art — but then it became a much deeper thing. It was really inspiring to be in a place that really embraces their indigenous culture. It really recharged my batteries towards humans.
You’ve always traveled, right?
Yeah. My mom thinks it’s some form of escapism. But for me, being on the move is comforting. But it’s kind of a double-edged sword, ‘cause I come back and I’m sort of the forever uncle to so many kids, and I’m the perma-guest. But it’s still ongoing, and it’s picking up speed in terms of work because I’m doing it seriously now.
But as far as making art — being peripatetic, and allowing experiences in, and letting them inform your work — that’s a wonderful thing, right? I mean, to me, that’s way more interesting than plopping yourself in, say, Brooklyn.
That’s it. That’s entirely it. When I was in Brooklyn years ago I was surrounded by people doing creative things, and for me that can be stifling. I’d feel that I was comparing myself to other people, or that I was such a derivative of that scene. But through travel it’s constantly a new audience, and one that you get to interact with, and it’s fresh. It’s inspiring to go and stay with people and meet people in new cultures and different places. We’re sponges, and you can’t help but get some of that on you. You develop and expand by being on the move. If I were to stay in one spot I’d feel like it’s more of the one-trick-pony syndrome.
What are you working on? What’s inspiring you?
Since this last trip, I’ve been really wanting to push more towards the public art spectrum of it. I love doing stuff outside, and doing things on buildings. I really enjoy the scale of it. And I really enjoy having people involved with it. For me, I have a million little pans on the stove. I have a children’s book that I’ve been putting off for years that’s finally going to its first round of print. Clothing design, that’s a constant. At the end of the day I am surfer, and surfing is the thing that I can credit as to why I get to do the creative stuff and these trips.
Tell me about the work you did with Outerknown.
I’ve been doing a lot of these Matisse-y, whimsically-esque, kind of sea shape-y patternist things, and Mike (Gomez – Outerknown’s trunks designer at the time) saw one of those and said, “Hey, would you ever consider doing a yardage out of that?” And it all happened really smoothly. I had it photographed and sent to them, and we had a little back-and-forth on it. I spent part of my life in Florida, and I actually own a house in St. Augustine, so I have a deep infatuation with Kelly. He’s the hero. I don’t think that will every change. So I was like, “I will do this! I will do this pro-bono! Anything!” To do this for someone that I’ve been inspired by for how they live their life and their message — that was really big for me. I was honored. There’s so much stuff that’s being made that’s out there in the world, and it’s absolutely crucial to pay attention to where we’re getting things from, and how we hold on to them, and how they last, and if they’re lasting, and why we have them. As a person that travels, I’m living out of a bag. And the things that are in there — I need them to hold up.
You seem to have hit a very nice groove in your life.
I just feel really fortunate to get to work with people who are genuinely friends. I’m old enough to realize that if you just keep your head down and work, things just sort of happen organically.
Photo credit: Nick LaVecchia