Fabian Williams channels "The Gossips"

Artist's latest work is a push to connect ATL's bubbling arts communities

Fabian Williams doesn't remember the first time he was introduced to Norman Rockwell — it was either in elementary or middle school — but he does remember the immediate impact. It was profound. And it's stuck with Williams throughout his career.

"[[[Rockwell's] way of capturing caricatures to tell the story of American culture has always been an influence on my work," Williams says.

So it's fitting that the Atlanta-based artist's latest show, Rockingwell, is a tribute of sorts to the art icon's popular painting "The Gossips," which has long been one of Williams' favorite pieces. Williams, however, has an interesting take on the painting — he'll be focusing on Atlanta-based artists and using portraits of them for his show at the Rialto Center for the Arts.

His reasoning is simple: He wants to create a new level of interaction and understanding among the various art cliques that are in the city. As Williams has observed, Atlanta is on the cusp of becoming recognized nationally as a legitimate arts hub, and with that in mind it's become even more important for the various arts communities to start to intersect in a more meaningful way.

"I've noticed in Atlanta over the years, different groups circulate in a specific community," Williams observes, comparing the art circles to real life demographic splits in American communities. "You have artists that come for a particular background — urban art is over here on this side, then you have the academic art side, and the hobbyists are over here and they sort of touch each other, but not really. I have my foot in some of those different groups, and I'm going to be documenting how things circulate between them using 'The Gossips' model."

Williams says he was able to interact with artists from the various arts scenes while he curated the World Wide Arts Federation Art Battles (which he eventually plans to bring back in a slightly different format) and has observed that the most successful way artists began to garner a following is simply through word of mouth, which he plans to illustrate, literally, through his new series.

"When Norman Rockwell approached it in "The Gossips" it was a small town depiction, but I involved social media and smart phones and technology because it's a big part of American society and the art community," Williams explains. "I'm exploring the way an artist rises in the art scene and how technology plays a role in that. Someone needed to capture the people involved in Atlanta's visual arts movement and put it into contact as it emerges."

As he spouts off the names of artists whom he deems on the cusp of becoming national heavyweights in the visual arts world — including Fahamu Pecou (whose work is being exhibited in the Imagining New Worlds series at the High Museum), PaperFrank, Michael Rooks, Miya Bailey, and others — it's hard not to be swept up in his enthusiasm. After all, this is a guy who has not just established himself as an ambassador for getting Atlanta's arts scene recognized but also has long proven his own artistic talent runs deep.

After graduating with a B.F.A. in Illustration from Eastern Carolina University, Williams moved from his hometown of Fayetteville, N.C., to Atlanta in search of a job. He eventually ended up working for an L.A.-based company where he did web design and found success as a commercial illustrator for several HBO shows.

"The design money was great, but there was something internally that I wanted to express," he remembers. "I started to have a philosophical disagreement with advertisement in general. I started to delve into the fine arts to give my soul a break. That's how I ended up where I am now — 80 percent fine art and 20 percent advertising."

With the World Wide Arts Federation competitions which featured "battles" between contemporary visual artists of William's choosing, styled after a wrestling match with elements of a hip-hop rap battle, Williams declared his eye for recognizing talent and his flair for the dramatic, as he would always don a cape and completely cover his face with mask for each event. But it's Williams' Race Card series, which features prominent players in American politics such as Bill O'Reilly and Al Sharpton, that clarified his ability to merge strong sociopolitical sentiments with humor.

"Humor is a way to deal with difficult situations without crying," he says. "I use humor as a way to disarm the seriousness of the issue, so my work is just a reflection of my mentality. I'm kind of a smart-ass so that translates."

Currently, Williams' Dungeon Family Pyramid is on display in Piedmont Park, a piece that he says was inspired by the Sistine Chapel stylings because he's a huge fan of the Renaissance period. And next up, he plans to unveil a new series of works called Contraption, using the Rube Goldberg machine ideology to take a deeper look at conspiracy theories using various mediums including sculpture, paint and video.

And as with all of Williams' work, the plan is to take you beyond observation and give you an experience. Doesn't get much cooler than that.

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