“A quiet child. Reserved. He didn’t talk to anybody, just sat there and did his own thing,” said Marshall Christie, the director of metal arts at Sloss Furnaces, of his first encounter with up-and-coming sculptor Ajene Williams in the summer of 2011.
“But he ended up winning the student show at the end of the summer youth program,” Christie continued. It was the first time that Williams had tried sculpting, and his talent was immediately recognized.
Nearly five years have passed, and Williams is no longer a student at Woodlawn High School, but two things have not changed. The 22-year-old is still quiet and reserved, and his work continues to speak for itself. After participating in the summer program, Williams joined the team at Sloss Furnaces as a paid intern and has since been promoted to his current title of artist-in-residence.
Last month, Magic City Art Connection named him this year’s “Emerging Artist,” and his sculptures will be on display at the 33rd annual contemporary art festival this weekend (April 22-24) at Linn Park.
Founded in 1984, the festival has grown from showcasing the work of 75 artists to 215 artists, featuring every medium, style, and price point. “They come from all over the country, from California to New York, from Florida up to Chicago,” said Eileen Kunzman, festival director. “I would say 30 percent local, 70 percent spread out.”
Although the primary focus of the festival is contemporary art, it provides an all-encompassing experience with music, dance, food, special tastings and interactive workshops for children.
Having previously worked as an elementary school art teacher, Kunzman said that offering art for children was a priority when she decided to start the festival. For this reason, one of Linn Park’s four quadrants is designated as the Imagination Festival, where children can participate in a variety of art projects, such as making puppets, painting and creating wax paper stained glass windows.
“The children were always a component,” Kunzman said, as were young artists. The Emerging Artist Award was established in 1994 and is awarded annually to a promising Birmingham nominee. In addition to being featured at the festival, the recipient is given a cash prize and is recognized at Magic City Art Connection’s Friday Night Applause, a private awards dinner.
Meeting new people and getting feedback on his work is what Williams said he is most looking forward to. “If they want something,” he said, “it makes me feel that much better because [my art] relates to them.”
The majority of his sculptures portray animal life with meticulous detail. His inspiration stems from his workplace at Sloss Furnaces, an open space that is often busy with wildlife. “We are out here in the shed, in this beautiful space, and we are working down in the dirt, but continually, there’s all kinds of nature interacting with us,” Christie said.
At the festival, Williams is planning to have about 60 smaller works, 25 medium-size pieces, and five to 10 larger pieces available for purchase, but he has not had much time to prepare. “He’s been going nonstop,” Christie said. “Wednesday, we cast 18 pieces of sculpture.”
Christie said he hopes the festival will be a valuable networking opportunity for Williams that will result in commissions for larger work. “Because of the cost involved, we tend to keep him at a smaller scale,” he said. “Since he’s been here just a short period of time, he’s developed a great deal and is ready to make that leap into large scale.”
One doesn’t have to look beyond the festival’s name to understand that connecting artists with each other and the public is a large aspect of Kunzman’s vision. “Festivals have a very long history,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for people to get together. Frankly, I think this day in age, those opportunities seem to be fewer.” She believes that Magic City Art Connection is one step toward rejuvenating the spirit of fellowship and collaboration around culture.
Art is never stagnant, Kunzman explained. It adds character to a city, and it generates enthusiasm in a community. “The desire to create is a never-ending cycle,” she said. “It just goes on and on and on, and new people get bitten, and new things are presented, and life is good because of it.”
For more information about Williams and the festival, visit magiccityart.com.