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A Creative Family’s Creative Life: an Interview with Ken Williams

PULP: You know the drill: Where are you from and how did you end up in Pueblo?
Ken Williams: I’m from Duquesne, Pennsylvania, in the Monongahela valley, which is like Pueblo in that it is a steel town with lots of ethnic diversity. I’ve always been comfortable here. I came here to go to college – in high school, I spent summers on a farm south of Limon, and I fell in love with the west. I met my wife, Judith, on the first day of school.

After I finished my degree in fine arts, with an emphasis in sculpture, I started my first studio, west of City Park, on Thatcher. Shortly after that, the Arts Center opened and I worked there for nine years as the first artist-in-residence. During that time, I had established my studio at this location, 13th and Erie [at Summit Brick]. I built my kiln here in 1978.

I’m the face on this business, but it’s really my wife, Judith, and our children and me.

PULP: Tell me about the fountain in the Sister City Plaza.

K.W.: That was the very first brick sculpture that I was involved with. I was involved with another artist named Jim Callahan. He and I were both working at the library, back in 1970. He had already worked with a local architect and he talked to me about doing something in clay. We made a carving and we showed it to one of the architects on the project and he said, “That looks good, that’s what we want.” So that was really the first introduction, which made me get into this. People have been making brick sculpture since 700 BC; it’s a very old technique.

PULP: …and the sound barrier wall, near the University?

K.W.: The sound barrier wall was really Judith’s concept. She came up with the original idea, how it should look and how we could do it. It’s the biggest thing we’ve done in the terms of scale. It’s over a mile long. We built [the forms] out of plywood, pine, styrofoam and stucco, like making a stage set. Those were then sent to a company in California, which made fiberglass molds. The contractor used those molds to build the sound barrier wall out of poured concrete.

PULP: What inspires your designs?

K.W.: A lot of this work, because it’s related to construction, has to be designed so that it is constructible, on budget, economical, and you can actually make it happen. The design comes from experience, primarily. I’m very much dependent on my wife, Judith, who has the final say – she has an innate sense of design. I started out studying to be a geologist. Meeting her and being influenced by her and being encouraged by her – I ended up here.

PULP: Do you prefer large works or smaller?

K.W.: I don’t have a preference; I work on coffee mugs, which are small, and I enjoy that. I like bigger things. They all involve personal expression. The challenge of the big projects – they are much more stressful. There’s usually a deadline, and the bigger the project the more things can go wrong – a budget, if I have to have subcontractors – all that adds to something much more complicated than throwing a pot. So it’s a different kind of challenge in that respect.

PULP: Is there any one of your works that you consider your best?

K.W.: I did a project at Texas Tech University in Amarillo. It was completed in January of 2010, and it’s a big project, which is exciting. It was something that Judith and I had been playing around with for a long time. A lot of our brick sculptures are part of buildings, but this is a free-standing piece. We thought it would be a good idea for involving the students with the campus, they can be a part of it, they can sit on it, they can walk through it. Frankly, I was a little bit frightened. My daughter, Brooke, encouraged me. We were one of three finalists, and we went down there to present the idea and lo and behold we got the job!

It was great because I was able to employ other artists, and my whole family was working on it. We used a mason from Pueblo who went down there and installed parts of it. When I was finished and it was all landscaped, I loved it.

It represents the hoodoos, geological formations in the Palo Duro canyon. These are differential erosion features, columns of layered clays providing colors. They call them the hoodoos. It provided the inspiration for this piece. It’s columnar, but it also suggests something almost classical – columns – like at the courthouse. So, it has that relationship to the area. Then we brought in other imagery that’s in the pavement, showing the Charles Goodnight brand on some cattle running along. We have windmills; we have DNA strands – it’s a medical school – so we have other imagery, but it’s mainly these vertical elements.

By Rosemary Thomas

PULP: How long have you been working with clay?

K.W.: Over 40 years. I started in college. I went to meet my wife for lunch, and she was in the pottery studio, and a guy was in there throwing a pot. I said to Judith, “That looks like fun. I’d like to try it.” I was so into it, I was actually breaking into the pottery studio at night so that I could make pots! I had to make a decision: Am I going to be a geologist, or am I going to make pots for the rest of my life? I decided to make pots. I had to get a degree in the fine arts, so it was more than just pottery. You have to do painting, drawing, printmaking. I liked all of those things.

PULP: All of this clay is mined here?

K.W.: Yes. The clay pit is on Hudson [at Summit Brick].

PULP: (Brooke was making sconces during our visit.)

K.W.: Brooke and I are sidekicks; we work side by side all the time. When she was little, Brooke sat in the car and read; she thought it was too dirty in the studio. [Laughs] She’s my computer connection. She searches for and applies for big projects. Brooke adds, “I didn’t like it when I was little. And I was NOT going to be a part of it. Then one day, I came back.”

PULP: What is your most distant project?

K.W.: Puebla Mexico. It was a gift from our city to theirs, related to the sister city sculpture. We’ve constructed projects in Connecticut and New York and other far-away states. The way we do it is we stack the unfired bricks, which are made by Summit Brick, we carve it, we disassemble it, and number all of the bricks. Next, we fire it. We reassemble and glaze and fire again, and then ship. I install, or I hire a mason to do the installation. So, that’s how we proceed.

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