Up in Arms: A Conversation with Herb Williams

Published September 8th 2023
By Jamie Creel

Herb Williams, Hands Up (2015)

Take a moment to pause.


E X H A L E.

That is what you had to do to get through the Up in Arms exhibition at the historic Merritt Mansion that took place in early August of 2023. Every piece of artwork, every story shared, every conversation started was important, powerful, and a tiny step towards healing.

When the Museum of Contemporary Art Nashville (MOCAN) set out to create this exhibition in partnership with cëcret by cë gallery, a Nashville-based speakeasy gallery, we wanted to create a safe space for our community to come together, connect, and express themselves through art.

Here is an excerpt from the show’s curatorial statement from co-curators Evan Brown and Clarence Edward:

In the vibrant city of Nashville, amidst the unfolding stories and challenges that shape our communities, we invite you to embark on a thought-provoking exploration: "Up in Arms." This evocative exhibition delves into the layered significance of being 'up in arms,' capturing the intense emotional response to disheartening realities that weigh on our minds.

“Up in Arms” examines the very weapons that dismantle the fabric of families and communities in Nashville and beyond. It shines a spotlight on the arms that should offer support but instead inflict harm. It questions the arms entrusted with protection, yet cause immeasurable damage. It challenges the arms that seek to restrict and deny basic rights. It challenges the arms that legislate love and suppress self-expression. We strive to shift from being ‘up in arms’ to being embraced within the loving arms of our family, friends, and community.

Featured local and national artists included Alex Lockwood, Andrés Bustamante, Andrew Morrison, Bill Nickels, Chrimmons, Donald Lipski, Edie Ottestad, Elise Drake & Thew Jones, Herb Williams, John Paul Kesling, K. Baergen, Lance Scruggs, Lanie Gannon, LeXander Bryant, Rima Day, Sarah Sudhoff, Sharon J. Harms, and Trixie Pitts.

To gain a deeper understanding from an exhibiting artist's perspective, we're talking to Herb Williams. Herb is a Nashville-based artist who believes crayons are a gateway drug. His work has a playful and nostalgic touch with bright colors and utilizes objects such as crayons to address issues dealing with more adult matters – in this case – gun violence.

Herb Williams in front of his creation, 'Synesthesia Camo Pattern,' designed by Herb Williams and fabricated by Walls Need Love.

Jami Creel:

Let’s jump in! What does the exhibition's title "Up in Arms" mean to you?

Herb Williams:

This issue is very personal to me, as gun violence took the mother of my children away five years ago. It has left my family broken and forever created activists out of us, pushing for common sense gun reform, as the shooter purchased the gun legally and used it the same day, where any number of simple regulations could have prevented it, like a red flag law or a background check that followed the buyer across state lines. It is infuriating, and I feel as though this issue is an emergency and of the utmost importance to address, but politicians seem to be blind to it. The issue is hiding in plain sight, as though it were invisible to lawmakers. In Tennessee, gun violence is the leading cause of death in our children. There have been over 30K children lost to gun violence in America since Sandy Hook. I would love to not belong to this club of victims, but it is becoming all too common.


It’s heartbreaking. One of my biggest takeaways from the show was just how unfathomably common gun violence is and how longlasting of an issue it has been. I heard so many stories of how people’s lives have been impacted over the years. We know that art can’t change the past, but why do you think art is important? How has it played a significant role for you?


Art is my refuge. I see it when I close my eyes, and I think of it while I’m supposed to be doing anything else. It is the one thing I cannot not do. I love the concepts and ideas that art can open us to experiencing. I hope that it will continue to keep my mind young when I am so old that my legs don’t work, and they have to tape sticks to my arms so I can continue to make marks and seek out a new paradigm shift.


Is there a particular part of the show that stands out to you or is particularly memorable?


There have been so many moments that this exhibit has created that I have been lucky enough to observe. Members of the Tennessee Three came and honored one of the victims from the Waffle House shooting, and I was there to witness how incredibly powerful and impactful the process of that act of remembrance was.


From your perspective, what impact do you think this exhibition has brought about?


It is continuing in a new form! I volunteered to help move or dispose of some of the tables and chairs that were part of the staging from the outdoor activation called NashvillePromise powered by Arts4Impact. A good friend of mine, Margo Cloniker, suggested that we take the chairs to a space and stage an “Invitation to a Conversation.” So my son and I loaded as many orange chairs and tables as we could onto our flatbed trailer and took them to the open lot next to Bongo Java East owned by Bob Bernstein. Volunteers came by and painted picnic tables orange. We staged several spaces where viewers can come and engage in conversation in a calming atmosphere and hopefully less confrontational than most online chats go about the topic of gun reform. I have started a mural on the wall that has “enough” on it and will add the holographic synesthesia orange camo pattern in the afternoons when it doesn’t feel like 112 degrees outside. I set up an Instagram page, and Margo has loaded dozens of photos of local families painting their chair and putting it on their porch to show their support. Please join the movement by painting your chair orange and tagging it @invitationtoaconversation. I hope this can become a much larger conversation.


Wow! That’s such a thoughtful and powerful way to create change – and it shows the role art can play in these important conversations. As Nashville continues to grow and evolve, what are your aspirations and outlook for the city's future?


I hope that Nashville will eventually establish a permanent collecting art museum, as well as an award and exhibition prize program, like what many other major cities have done to celebrate the visual arts. Nashville is one of the friendliest places I've ever lived, but it has been challenging to connect and engage the public in gathering around and enjoying the local talent.


That’s exactly what MOCAN is trying to do. Programming goes beyond the exhibition. It’s about the resources and opportunities we can create and provide for our artists. Looking towards the future, what are you excited about?


I’m looking forward to the first effort of our own contemporary art fair at the end of September. Samantha Saturn is putting together Artville in the WeHo neighborhood and is expecting a turnout of 75K folks for the weekend of September 29. I’m creating an installation of a room based on shades of a single color with hundreds of thousands of blue crayons in various shades of blue. My hope is to create a dozen different rooms, each based on a different color, that viewers can enter and experience how memory and perception change depending upon perceptions of different colors in complete saturation.

It's clear that the Up in Arms exhibition goes beyond being a mere showcase of art; it was a space that facilitated discussions, emotions, and connections. Through the deeply personal experiences of artists like Herb, the exhibition was a platform for confronting urgent societal issues, particularly the impact of gun violence. Williams' words resonate as a call to action, urging us to address the pressing matter of gun reform and to engage in conversations that bridge divides and bring about positive change.

As Nashville's artistic landscape continues to evolve, the powerful impact of exhibitions like Up in Arms serves as a reminder that art can be a catalyst for transformation, healing, and unity. Our local community, artists, and partners are carving a path towards a more inclusive and safer future. With initiatives such as Artville on the horizon, Nashville's creative potential appears boundless.

Herb Williams can be found @herbwilliamsart

Museum of Contemporary Art Nashville brings people together to ignite imaginations and spark meaningful conversation. By bringing different points of view to the table to be acknowledged, discussed, and understood through thought-provoking art, MOCAN fosters creativity that cultivates a deeper understanding of ourselves and of each other.Learn more: mocanashville.org | IG @mocanashville