The Model Mutiny co-founder opens up about building community, upcoming projects and celebrating Pride.
Walking Union Market District, artist Ashley Jaye Williams is bound to run into a familiar face.
At La Cosecha, Williams greets me ahead of the interview, then promptly makes her way to Grand Cata Latin American Wine Bar & Market to catch up with owner, co-founder and CEO Pedro Rodríguez about mutual friends and upcoming projects. Before departing, Rodríguez insists she take some marinated hibiscus. As we make our way outdoors to a shaded spot — taking advantage of the fleeting, non-humid warm days of D.C. spring — Williams spots installation artist and Pop Up Bae Creative Director Adriana Salame Aspiazu.
In both encounters, minutes apart, Williams is quick to introduce and try to engage me in the conversation, which is indicative of her start in the industry. When working as a busser at the Wardman Park Hotel, Williams cold-pitched artist and entrepreneur Maggie O’Neill, who offered her an assistant position at her studio.
Fast-forward eight years later, Williams is established in the local art scene as a freelancer with a diverse portfolio of multimedia work, including countless murals around the city, paintings, illustrations (like the cover of Ms. Magazine’s 50th anniversary edition), sculptures, installation art and printmaking for clothing line Model Mutiny with partner and fellow artist Anthony Le. She has shown at HOMME Gallery, Legacy Gallery and Umbrella art market, and recently started a joint art blog and newsletter Aqua Plums with Le.
Based on her beginnings, Williams now makes it a point to create bridges for people, not only fostering connections within the community but also offering advice to those seeking to one day join.
“I love when people ask me for advice,” Williams says. “I have some artists and pals that are younger who saw my Ms. Magazine cover and reached out. We’ve maintained correspondence [since 2021]. One just graduated and is looking at art schools. I told them to not spend all their money [for the prestige of a school] and to make connections while there.”
When not looking outward, Williams’ art focuses on questioning social norms not working for or not representative of most people. Her upcoming permanent mural at Selina Hotel allows Williams to lean fully into her art ethos.
“I’m really excited to work with Selina,” Williams says. “It’s such a great crew of women, which is cool because I can paint what I want. I don’t have to paint flowers or idealize cliches of women’s bodies and promote impossible beauty standards.”
Williams points out standard mural themes portray women and femme people as the same visually pleasing stereotype. Once noted, it’s hard to unsee how frequently painted modelesque women are draped on walls throughout the District.
“The male gaze is the status quo. I don’t think all women are just one archetype. The subjects on the Selina mural don’t exist to serve the viewer.”
Instead, the mural features two vignettes, including an anthropomorphic dragon fruit staring into a teeth-adorned mirror, hiding a chunk of missing fruit on its back. There is also a self-portrait of Williams with her head covered by a lampshade — a nod to women being represented as objects in murals. Each piece is different, but they both represent a larger theme of queer identity expression and Williams’ personal self-reflection.
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In our first interview together in 2021, Williams noted she wanted her art to highlight people’s strangeness “that isn’t necessarily polarizing, [but rather] subtle. [I want people to] accept the strangeness that’s part of them. I’m trying to get away from binary ideas that paint absolutes.”
Now, Williams notes the descriptor was a placeholder.
“I’ve used the word ‘strangeness’ a lot as an attempt to get my work to have a universal appeal,” Williams says. “But I think a lot of what I’m relating to as strangeness is actually queerness.”
Not one to use labels and an admittedly private person, Williams held back from publicly identifying as part of the LGBTQIA+ community.
“I think I’ve always known I was queer,” Williams says. “And I’ve definitely always been attracted to and dated whoever regardless of gender and presented myself however I wanted to present myself.”
While Williams acknowledges that she identifies closest to pansexual — although she jokingly laments the term reminds her of “pots and pans” — she did not feel like her experience was valid enough to become public, especially since her marriage is a hetero-passing relationship.
“If you care about a community and you care about the part of your identity that is tied with the community, you want to do good and do right by them.”
However, with current political pushback and legislation striking down recent progress for LGBTQIA+ rights, Williams felt compelled to speak more publicly about her identity, regardless of her apprehension.
“Now more than ever, it’s important for everyone to rally and show ourselves and remind each other we, identifying and allies, are the majority,” Williams says. “With everything that’s going on, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless because evil is prevailing, but there are more of us.”
Completing the mural and co-curating an official Capital Pride art party with District Fray is William’s inaugural public step into the LGBTQIA+ community.
“I’m excited to have a big, fun art event and to create safe space for different viewpoints,” Williams shares about the June 3 party featuring 30+ queer artists and allies.
On the drive home from the interview, I stop at a red light in Columbia Heights. To my left, a mural depicts a conventionally attractive woman watering flowers. While pleasant, the depth is missing. I am reminded of Williams’ question when we talked about redundant mural patterns: “What are we really communicating?”
With Williams and the community she is helping build, we can look forward to local public art that eradicates the status quo, makes you think and embraces the many dimensions of life — the imperfect, the strange, the beautifully queer.
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