Imagine working at a restaurant with dreams of working in a creative field. Then, a fixture of the art world takes a seat in your section. What would you do?
Langston Hughes famously shared his poems with established poet Vachel Lindsay while working as a busboy at Wardman Park Hotel. Ashley Jaye Williams did the same with painter and entrepreneur Maggie O’Neill at a D.C. restaurant — with one caveat.
“I was waiting on Maggie and a friend of hers,” Williams recalls. “I actually didn’t know who Maggie was. I was trying to pitch myself more to her friend who worked in advertising because I was thinking of getting into advertising design. I was showing them my art portfolio on my phone. I did this for an hour. I didn’t have anything to lose.”
In her failed attempt to pitch to O’Neill’s friend, she landed her dream job instead.
“The other woman wasn’t interested. She politely declined. O’Neill asked though, ‘Why don’t you come to my studio down the street on Monday and we’ll talk?’”
The talk turned into an assistant position for Williams, who helped O’Neill complete painting projects and odd jobs around the studio for two years before venturing into solo work in 2017. Fast forward almost five years later and it’s hard not to stumble upon Williams’ art. Now as a freelance artist, her resume is as vast and diverse as the different mediums she uses, including a recent solo exhibit at Homme Gallery; a section at the widely popular Umbrella art festival last month; illustrating the cover for the iconic Ms. Magazine’s 50th Anniversary; performing an art piece with her husband at Maggie O’Neill’s Disco to the Go-Go exhibit; creating printmaking art on upcycled clothing; painting murals around the city; and working on multiple commissioned projects at once with companies like Google. Simply put, she is constantly reinventing her craft and looking for her next venture — while simultaneously working on three other projects.
When speaking with Williams, you can see the gears turning behind her eyes. She is both a cerebral thinker and a creative spirit, using her talents to make people question and push back on societal norms of sex taboos, race and gender. She also is a champion for local artists and is always ready to sneak in a fellow artist’s name to promote or praise them in conversation.
Growing up in a single-mother household, Williams moved to multiple states across the U.S. (Ohio, Georgia and “one of the Dakotas”) before making D.C. her home the past 15 years. She credits her formative years for fueling her passion for activism and catalyzing positive change through art. Whether vibrant art-deco meets psychedelic illustration designs, abstract paintings, or collaborating with husband and fellow artist Anthony Le, Williams’ art is always eye-catching and full of details that expose a deeper narrative. We sat down with Williams to learn more about her tireless work ethic, her artistic goals and the symbolism behind her brilliant green hair.
When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?
Always. I remember when I was a kid, I wanted to make cartoons. And then when I started reading and learned what illustrators were, I wanted to become one. As I grew up, each time I learned of an artistic job I would want to do it.
You have such hustle and dabble in so many types of art mediums (illustration, painting, sculptures and performance art to name a few). What compels you to create with multiple mediums?”
I think I would get bored if I didn’t. I see my work and everything I do creatively as part of a studio practice. So part of that [mindset] is to fail and learn and try new things and grow and challenge yourself. If something scares me, I do it. There [was a] time when I felt it was a bad quality to do so many things because I should be more focused. But now I see it as definitely a strength. It’s exciting to be scared of something then accomplish it and think, “Whoa, I truly didn’t think that I could do this and I proved to myself I could,” which leads me to wonder, “What else do I think I can’t do that I can do?”
Do you think Covid-19 impacted how you view your own art and creative process?
Definitely, because before Covid I was just in the hustle of it and my rates were lower. I was having to [do] double to triple [the work of] what I do now. Once I didn’t have any work, I was just freaking out and worried about money and everything. After a certain point I realized I can’t control anything and I could be stressing out all the time, or see it as having time to make my own work. I hadn’t had the luxury to focus on just my personal [non-comissioned] art in years. I was always thinking, “Oh God, what does the client want?” When I didn’t have to appease anybody, I just started doing my own thing and I got such a good response from it. It taught me that if you take six months to get new clients and do your research and pitch, you will get a return. If you don’t have money, it’s really scary. But it’s worth it. After Covid [lockdown] my rates increased and then I decided I only wanted to take projects I wanted. If you keep taking the low-paying projects, you don’t make any room for the bigger projects.
You are known for your signature green hair and your solo exhibit at Homme is fittingly called “Green Haired Woman.” Was that intentional or did you dye your hair and it became part of your identity by accident?
I don’t know why I decided to dye my hair green — I just wanted to. Then I made a deal with someone who had a hair salon to trade a hair appointment for a mural, and I was empowered by it. I had an eating disorder for over a decade. I used to drink water and then weigh myself. I’ve always had bad body dysmorphia; I don’t know if it’ll ever go away and it freaks me out because I’m so visually dependent. When I looked in the mirror before [dying my hair], I had so many ideas about what I should look like that were attached to brown-haired Ashley. I knew what brown-haired Ashley should weigh and what her measurements should be. I have all these standards and all this bullshit for her. But I don’t have the [same standards with] green hair. It’s kind of a wildcard. I haven’t spent my lifetime thinking about what green-haired Ashley should do. It kind of gives me this freedom: It lets people know that I’m weird. It’s a nice disclaimer so if somebody is really uptight, I don’t have to deal with it. It does some natural selection for me.
How do you want audiences to view your art?
There are all these images of women in art history sitting and looking pretty and docile. And then there are images of women looking lusty — anything that is different [from the male gaze norm] stands out incredibly. There should be more of these types of images. My goal with my subjects is to highlight their strangeness in a way 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: People aren’t like that. I want people to embrace their own strangeness from seeing my work.
Your artist statement reads, “Typically my work deals with themes of rebellion through otherness, and aims to explore the discord of modern life and technology within the hellish landscape of the systematically racist patriarchy that is America (specifically, from my point of view of as a woman living in the nation’s capital).” Can you provide an example of one of your artworks that embodies this sentiment?
I have this one piece that everyone seems to respond to called “Dick Vampire.” The reference image is from a porn still. It’s a woman near a man’s dick. She has vampire teeth and he has teeth marks and his dick is bleeding. There’s blood on her too. I originally thought, “Oh, no one’s going to like this because it’s crass,” but the painting is for every time a guy pushed my head down or tried to pressure me into some shit — I could have just bitten their dick off. Women are powerful and just because someone finds us visually pleasing doesn’t mean that we can’t hurt you. I just wanted that to be a reminder that you should always respect women.
How would you characterize D.C.’s arts community?
I think it’s definitely a vibrant arts community. Specific wards get funding for the arts and the people highlighted are those from more privileged areas in D.C. I would love if the D.C. art scene kept growing and new voices were highlighted. I love finding artists and working with people who maybe don’t have as much experience as I do, and then helping them figure out stuff I had to learn the hard way. I do wish the D.C. arts scene was a little more aggressive. For instance, [I love the political street artist Absurdly Well’s aesthetic]. I love how his message hits people and how he makes an impact. I would like to see more work of that nature in D.C. and I would also like to see more performance art.
Artist(s) you are influenced by?
A retrospective of Huang Yong Ping’s work in Beijing was the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed. Aubrey Beardsley has great lines. I also like Monty Montgomery, Juzo Itami, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Harmony Korine, Studio Ghibli, etc.
Why has Dolly Parton been a recent muse?
A client is a big fan of Dolly Parton and so I was playing around with some images of her, but I am also a big Dolly fan myself.
Favorite winter/holiday activity in D.C.?
I always love going to Chinatown Express and getting a big bowl of seafood noodle soup when it gets cold out.
What’s your go-to art gallery or museum?
Homme Gallery and everything Amir Browder does with D.C. and the arts is amazing. I think Culture House and Mehari Sequar Gallery always have great shows too. The Arena Social Club space by Ian Callender opened with a strong show by Lex Marie so I am excited to see what they do next. Literally ANYTHING No Kings Collective puts on is going to be great too. Also Joseph Orzal is opening up an art space in Baltimore and I am excited to see anything he wants to curate and/or create.
Night owl or early bird?
I like to work late but I don’t like to stay out late to socialize. I wake up around 6 a.m. out of habit/anxiety most days so if I can go to bed at nine or 10 p.m. I am incredibly thrilled.
Coffee or tea?
I am ashamed to say ice-less cold brew year-round.
Who would you like to collaborate with that you have not?
Chris Pyrate does so many things at once so seamlessly. Yuen Hoang is an amazing painter who I would love to paint a mural with. Nia Keturah Calhoun is also a total visionary. Studio Sonic is one of the most innovative groups in the city, so I am looking for any reason to collaborate with them. Also Tribute and the women behind it; what they do as far as bridging art and fashion is unlike anything else in D.C. Luckily I also have a forever-collaborator in the form of my husband and fellow painter Anthony Le (we share a home studio).
I love the movie “Fantastic Planet,” and the soundtrack is superb. Growing up I identified as a Nickelodeon Kid (versus Disney Kids, who sucked), so I was totally in awe of “Rocko’s Modern Life,” “Doug,” Ren & Stimpy,” and “Daria.” I also like anything stop-motion.
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