Hometown Hawkeye: David Williamson
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Hometown Hawkeye At-A-Glance
Name: David Williamson
Degree: B.F.A. ‘71 and MA ’72 (both in Art)
Residence: Ogden, Iowa
Ogden is in Boone County, which includes:
300 UI alumni
35 UI-educated teachers and administrations
10 UI-educated physicians
7 UI-educated pharmacists
5 UI-educated dentists
Discover how the UI impacts the lives ofIowansborder to border, river to river, at outreach.uiowa.edu.
If you had one thousand pounds of river trash, what would you build?
To anyone but David Williamson, the question posed by an Iowa Department of Natural Resources employee might have sounded absurd. But for the sculptor and recycling enthusiast, it sounded like a promising opportunity.
The UI arts graduate had been incorporating recycled materials into his work since the early 1970s, and jumped at the chance to partner with the DNR on its latest initiative: A Watershed Awareness River Expedition (Project AWARE).
Founded in 2003, Project AWARE invites volunteers from across the state to canoe 100 miles of Iowa rivers and collect discarded materials from bicycles to barrels. But when the river cleanup expedition first began, organizers were faced with a large problem. No one knew what the volunteers had accomplished.
Making meaningful metalwork
That’s where Williamson came in. For the past decade, Williamson has been telling the story of Project AWARE and honoring its participants through interactive metal working at the Iowa State Fair. Fairgoers of all ages, as well as those who took part in the river cleanup, partnered with Williamson to create castings, smelt recycled metal and hammer together sculptures that represent the spirit of Iowa and its waterways.
That first year, Williamson and his approximately 450 collaborators produced a 12-foot tall, half-ton sculpture resembling a canoe paddle. Since then, he and enthusiastic volunteers have created several more metal works and 5 sets of decorative security gates that adorn the west side of the Iowa State Fair DNR building.
Although Williamson won’t be back at the fair this year, having satisfied his joint goal with the DNR in creating a visible name for Project AWARE, his work continues to engage citizens.
“People are drawn to his art,” says Project AWARE director Lynette Seigley. “They’re amazed at how trash has been transformed into these beautiful sculptures.”
From dentistry to artistry
Williamson credits much of his creativity and artistic inclination to his time at the University of Iowa School of Art and Art History. As a young undergraduate in the mid 1960s he had plans to become a dentist. But that all changed after a fateful phone call his sophomore year.
His band had just completed a set at the Mill when his mother phoned with bad news. His father had suffered a heart attack. Two days later, he passed away, and Williamson was left adrift.
Returning to his studies, he found that while he still loved science courses, they weren’t able to provide the sense of healing he desired. “That’s when I thought, ‘I’ll take an art class,’” he says.
Williamson never looked back. “Something was awakened in me. Instead of expecting me to answer questions, my professors were mentoring me on how to ask important questions. That opened a whole new world for me,” he explains.
At home with recycling
Following graduation with his Masters in Art in 1972, Williamson realized the potential that existed in working with recycled materials. The number of abandoned farm homes had increased, and urban development meant the bulldozing of retired schools and churches.
Rather than observe the changes in landscape, Williamson became an active participant, salvaging the remnants of buildings and other former town fixtures to create his home and studio in Boone County. His kitchen floor was once a basketball court, his spiral staircase a set of steel planter wheels, his firewood rack a swing set, and his dining booth a bed.
“Trash is America’s only growing natural resource,” he says. “It’s the only thing left to hunt and gather.”
That may well be, but 40 years ago, Williamson and his recycling practices made him an outsider among his artistic contemporaries and nearby neighbors. “At that time, recycling was an oddity. It wasn’t until the 90’s that it became hip,” he says.
Continuing to ask questions
Nevertheless, the sculptor continued in his work with recyclables, and eventually began to nurture the link between creativity and entrepreneurship. As a leadership trainer, Williamson challenges everyone from doctors and nurses to bankers and developers to discover creative and cogent solutions to service.
“I simply ask them the questions they’re forgetting to ask themselves,” he explains.
In a way, it’s a collaborative process, and not altogether different from the work Williamson has engaged in with Project AWARE. As the sculptor notes, he has simply facilitated the creation of meaningful and memorable content by paying close attention to the community and the American heartland in which it was created.
“It’s not artwork that wants to be somewhere else. It belongs here in Iowa,” he says.
Art across Iowa
A native Iowan himself, Williamson was born along the Mississippi River in Keokuk, and as a child he became captivated by the state’s waterways. “Rivers are historically creative and fertile lenses,” he says.
And so with the rivers “working their magic” on Williamson, he began to regard art as a way to expand conversations about the environment and those who inhabited it. His sculptures, which have traveled to various venues across Iowa, became to him a kind of portable expression, the means by which communities could communicate and connect with one another.
To UI Arts Share Director Leslie Finer, such an outlook is in direct harmony with her program’s mission to link faculty and students with Iowa populations that might otherwise lack enriching arts experiences.
“It’s a great way to cultivate an audience and create collaborations between communities and artists,” Finer says of the program that brings workshops, performances and readings to underserved regions.
Currently, Arts Share members are creating a mural on the back of a Washington library whose alleyway serves as the town’s recycling center. Williamson would likely be proud. “You’ve gone from a careless act to profound act of caring,” he says of the link involving art, recycling, and litter.
An echo from the past
Such a connection came full circle in Williamson’s final year with Project AWARE, when he was confronted with a pile of sidewall tires--the last to have been dredged from Iowa rivers. Imprinted on the side was Seiberling, a distinctive echo back to Williamson’s time at the UI and his tutelage by Frank Seiberling, former director of the School of Art and Art History.
It was Seiberling who had encouraged Williamson to pursue art, and his influence that had a lasting impression upon the Project AWARE sculptor. “Without the University of Iowa, I never would have become the artist I am today. The UI continues to be a place that knows how to ask questions, and for that I am grateful,” says Williamson.
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