There’s something bubbling in Atlanta. The music scene is on fire, it seems like more films are being made there than in Hollywood, and there’s a burgeoning arts scene tied into everything. The reason behind that, says artist Fabian Williams, is that Atlanta’s artist community is supportive and open. “Artists definitely cross-pollinate,” says Williams on a phone call from the studio in the basement of his home. “The graffiti muralists mess with the tattoo artists; the tattoo artists mess with the fine artists; the fine artists mess with the muralists; the photographers get down with everybody. There’re really no restrictions. I think that’s what you need for a healthy, robust art community.
Williams has seen the city grow up since he moved back from a brief period in Los Angeles, where he honed many of the skills he employs today as an artist. “I went out to Los Angeles because I got hired to be an illustrator, and then I just got lonely and came back to Atlanta,” he says with a laugh. “I live in Decatur. It’s a ‘gray neighborhood,’ which means it’s black and white. It’s convenient, because I’m 20 minutes from anywhere.”
Though Williams’ newer work is based in realism—he describes his upcoming exhibition at the Rialto, Rockingwell, as a “remix of Norman Rockwell”—his billboard for the GOOD Cities Project harkens back to a series he developed called “Contraptions.” The works in the series, of which there are dozens, play out like a narrative comic strip in the style of artist Rube Goldberg’s warped machine illustrations—but with Williams’ own political twists. “The ‘Contraptions’ are a combination of several different things: Rube Goldberg cartoons mixed in with a little bit of Norman Rockwell and Looney Tunes,” Williams explains. “At the same time, I’m dealing with some serious subject matter, because that’s just who I am. I’m big on issues of race, because my friends are black, so we talk. The things I tend to question are social engineering. Rube Goldberg machines are perfect schematics for that type of thing: the rolling pin rolls down the ramp of poverty and hits the boot of oppression and it kicks the father out of the home. It became a perfect way to illustrate social schemes.”
For the GOOD Cities Project billboard, Williams has created an evolutionary view of what it means to become a celebrity in Atlanta. At the crux of it all, says Williams, is good old-fashioned elbow grease. In Atlanta, he sees this every day. “Basically, the concept of the billboard shows how hard work pays off,” Williams says. “I had friends, when I first got to Atlanta, doing local music or artwork, and then they just transitioned into superstardom. DJ Drama: I used to do mixtape cover artwork for him, and I’ve seen him go from mixtapes to touring around the world with T.I., Young Jeezy, and Lil Wayne. I’ve seen hard work pay off. If you stay on it, it’ll happen for you. The billboard is a testament to puttin’ in work.”
Williams himself sometimes goes by the pseudonym “Occasional Superstar.” It started as a joke he put on a business card, but people started to ask about it, and the moniker stuck. “Everybody stumbles upon their moment and they do that shit perfect,” says Williams. “That’s what an ‘occasional superstar’ is: some days you wake up a Superman; most other days Clark Kent.”
Lately Williams has been feeling more Superman than Clark Kent—but he still needs to remain industrious to make it. “I’m trained as an illustrator, so a lot of my style comes from trying to pay the bills,” he says. “If I want to get hired doing graphic work, then I have to learn how to use Adobe Illustrator. If I want to do more illustrative work for editorial, I have to learn how to use oils and acrylics and airbrush. Trying to survive, you pick up skills to be available for those jobs.”
But what inspires him most is getting out into the streets of ATL, seeing the various styles of creativity, and watching as those around him work their tails off to achieve their dreams. “Atlanta has soul,” he says. “These communities are rubbing against each other and the friction is creating energy. I feel like that’s why a lot of artists are here. It’s really turning up right now. And the capital of hip-hop right now is the South. I’m sorry, New York, but it is.”
The GOOD Cities Project is a five-month collaboration with Ford, exploring how we make our cities and how our cities make us. As part of the project, GOOD and Ford have commissioned cultural creatives across the country to help illuminate and celebrate the rich and vastly diverse points of view that make up each city's individual character. Each week, we will be exploring attributes that we believe are fundamental to living meaningful urban lives.