Artist Noah Williams turns trash into something more


Noah Williams took objects that he found, including corks, bottle caps and nails, and turned them into a mask called “Bushman.” (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
May 17, 2013

Pickle jar tops, wine corks, soda cans, car parts, chicken bones, real hair, feathers, bottle caps and cut-up brown and yellow leather from an old purse.

That sounds like a lot of trash, right?

Not to Noah Williams.

“What [people] consider junk,” Williams said, “I consider treasure.”

Williams makes art out of trash.


Noah Williams, posing with his sculpture, “The Beast,” doodled as a kid and discovered that he had a passion for art. “Every time I do a new piece, I think, ‘Can I make it better than my last piece?’ ” (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

“This [kind of art] is what I’m close to right now,” Williams said a day before his first solo show opened at the Art League in Alexandria. (That means it’s the first time that he has a whole roomful of his art on display for people to look at and buy.) “I wanted to do something that would really separate me from everyone else. I feel like what I’m doing is unique and will stay in somebody’s head.”

Art as a kid

Growing up near Alexandria, Williams, 33, liked to doodle on the edges of his schoolwork. His teachers at Carl Sandburg Middle School didn’t like the little pictures next to his math problems and reading passages. But in those first little cartoons, Williams’s mom, who was an art teacher, saw a young artist.

“As a kid, [my mom] would make me draw. ‘You have a gift. Don’t let your gift go to waste,’ she’d say. As I matured and started having a passion for it, there was no stopping me.”

In high school at West Potomac, Williams became interested in an African American artist named Jean-Michel Basquiat. (Sounds like Jon Me-SHELL Bas-key-AHT.) Williams liked Basquiat’s work because it was bold and different. Basquiat started his career by painting on the outside of buildings and then became well respected in the art world.

“It’s a freedom of art,” Williams said. “It’s not contained in a box.”

Later, Williams started painting, and he fell in love with the work of a Mexican artist, Diego Rivera.

“I could just sit there and stare at his work for hours,” Williams said. “I was always seeing something new.”

Buying paint was expensive, so when Williams read a book about African cultures that make art out of trash, he was inspired to try it. “I stumbled onto it, and I developed it. It grew, and I fell in love with it.”

Plenty of material

Williams starts each of his sculptures by making a wire skeleton — it could be anything, maybe a lizard or a saxophone. Then, using more metal wire, he carefully sews the trash pieces onto the skeleton, devoting as many as 10 hours a day to his art after a full day of work.

“When I’m at work, I’m like a kid waiting for recess,” he said. “Once I get home, this is my passion. This is what I do.”

People donate materials to him, and Williams keeps it organized. He also finds a lot of his material through his job, which requires him to visit construction sites. (Williams always asks before he takes anything, even if he gets it from a dumpster.) One of his pieces, called “Elephant,” which took him about eight months to finish, required hundreds of Coca-Cola Zero cans.

Trash art as inspiration

Williams hopes that when people look at his art, they feel an energy from it and a “spiritual connection,” he said. A piece hanging in his show called “Spirit Chaser” is a big mask that features red beer-bottle caps for eyes and three horns on top of a full head of hair. “I wanted it to really glare,” Williams said. “Like it’s staring into your soul and . . . it’s hard for you to turn away.”

Williams has already sketched (or drawn) his next big piece. It will be a man sitting on a stool, playing the violin. Williams hopes to capture the musician’s face as he reacts to the music. “Every time I do a new piece, I think, ‘Can I make it better than my last piece? How unique can I make my art?’ ” he said.

Williams has this advice for young artists: “If this is your passion and your love . . . don’t let anyone tell you you’re wasting your time and you’re not going to make any money. . . . Whatever it is you do, put 100 percent of your energy into it, and have no doubts.”

WANT TO CHECK OUT THE COOL ART?

What: “One Man’s Trash” by Noah Williams

Where: At the Art League Gallery in the Torpedo Factory, 105 N. Union Street, Gallery 21, Alexandria.

When: Until June 3. Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday noon to 6 p.m.

How much? Free.

For more information: Call 703-683-1780 or visit www.theartleague.org. (Always ask a parent before going online.)

— Moira E. McLaughlin

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