I met the artist and my first mentor Christopher Williams in his class at The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. I had been in the photography department for one year and decided what I needed were critiques in the fine art department questioning why I was taking these photographs, not how I took them. Technically, I knew enough. Conceptually, I needed guidance as I decided to move away from commercial photography. I walked into Williams’ class with photographs from a recent series on exploring the memories of growing up as an only child for twelve years. The other students in the class hated my work but I tried not to care. What mattered was that my teacher was interested and wanted to fully engage in discussing my work. My process opened immediately because of this very rare connection with a teacher and artist.
A key moment in finding a mentor was when Williams asked if anyone would be willing to drive him home to West LA after class each week. He did not drive. No one raised their hand except me. I lived down the road from school but those two hours each week enlightened my entire notion of being an artist. I had the rarest of opportunities by just sitting in a little LA traffic.
The second key moment was when I went to Margo Levin Gallery a couple of weeks later and happened upon an 11 x 14 inch photograph. It struck me so hard that I felt sadness, awe and reverie all at once. It was such a strikingly gorgeous photo but like nothing I had ever been attracted to before. I asked the man at the front of the gallery who this piece was by and he said, Christopher Williams. Like a little kid I blurted out proudly that he was my teacher! God forbid I actually fully researched the work of my teacher before I take his class. Ya i know I should not be admitting this. The following week on our drive, I told Williams about discovering his piece and how strange and new it felt to be so overwhelmed by his photograph. Later Christopher told me the story behind this piece which was deeply personal and in fact quite haunting. The fact that this photograph could take me back to the place and experience he shared with me was genius. Unlike the re-constructed narrative work I had been ogling, Williams was the real deal and I was hooked on learning as much as I could from this exceptional artist.
I worked for Williams as his studio assistant while I applied, interviewed and eventually decided to attend graduate school. Before I went to my interview at Yale, Williams urged me to interview them! You are the one paying them he reminded me. Of course I took his advice and was laughed at. That interview was by far one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life.
Williams’ influence was geared toward trusting my instincts and believing in my process, however long it seems to be taking. Having a person I respected deeply believe in my work still enforces my vision. I still hear his advice about getting past the masks I put up in my work. I hear his very subtle suggestions and questions about voyeurism and why it is I am taking a photograph of myself as someone else and not just myself. I think he wanted me to take the mask off entirely which is what I am now naturally unfolding into.
Two years after I completed my MFA in London, I drove down to LA from San Francisco to take Williams to lunch. Williams was about to move for the first time in his entire life to Germany. He had recently been appointed the head of photography at Düsseldorf Academy. One of the biggest complements I have ever received was him telling me I was his chutzpah. Leaving LA was a big deal but if I could just pack my bags and move to England, he knew he could too.
I am thinking about all of this because I just read that a show of his new work is opening in London at David Zwirner. Until I find another mentor, I may have to fly to Germany to take Professor Williams to lunch.