Aawful Aaron Explores Mental Health

Portrait of Aawful Aaron Williams, by Roderick Jackson

Aawful Aaron Williams uses a variety of media to get inside your mind and get you to see the world through a different sense. Aawful’s works are included in the group show, The Nexus of Art and Health, curated by Sienna Brown and on view at the Ohio Arts Council’s Riffe Gallery in Columbus, October 29 through January 6. He’s got a plan that includes a clothing line and partnerships to expand his reach and find his tribe. We talk about his name, mental health, therapy, and why he doesn’t have an agent just now.

JIMI IZRAEL: Why Aawful?

AAWFUL AARON: My initials, they’re ADW, but me going off of the AA, with my name obviously being Aaron, I always liked, aesthetically, how AAW looked. It got to a point in time where I was like, “Okay, I’ve been going by AAW for a while but it’s not really…” I wanted to add more charisma to what that could be. I was starting to think of myself as the brand that I was starting to align myself to be. Throwing the F-U-L on there completed, to me, the phrase. It completed the alias that I wanted to step into because I knew that this art world wasn’t necessarily designed with me in mind, so it’s my Batman. It’s the same way that a rap artist, or a wrestler, or a superhero, steps into this larger-than-life persona. The way that Aawful Aaron sounded, to me, it had the mystery. It had the stickiness. It had all of those things that I wanted to step into this space with.    

Check!, alcohol marker and colored pencil on Bristol paper, 17 X 14 inches, 2021. Artwork by and courtesy of Aawful Aaron Williams.

JI: Talk about your exploration of mental health issues specifically among Black men.

AA: Yeah, so that was something that I often looked because I just always took it for granted. Yeah, I hear people talk about mental health and stuff like that, but I never really thought about it. I was somebody that always have dealt with this space of pain and dealt with—so, I think I had the similar experience. I feel like my experience is no different than any other Black male’s experience.

JI: Don’t gloss it over.

AA: Yeah, yeah. So my experience, at that time, I was… running from my past. I was recreating myself because I was running from my past trauma, which looked like issues with me and my father and the lack of the relationship I was there with that, just me and my mom circumstances, dealing with the death of my grandparents—I lost my grandfather first and then three years later, I lost my grandmother.

Aawful Aaron, Round I, Pick I, alcohol marker and colored pencil on Bristol paper, 17 X 14 inches, 2021.

JI: And they were the center of your life?

AA: My grandfather was the first person to actually be like, “Yeah, he’s going to be a artist.” I didn’t know that at the time. My grandma told me that before she passed away. She was like, “Yeah, your grandfather knew you would be an artist.” Or she didn’t say that she didn’t believe him, but she kind of just like, everybody, every grandparent wouldn’t be like, “Oh yeah, my little da, da, da, da.”

But I guess the first portrait that I gave him, he always kept it. He saw something in that. Actually, because of my vantage point, I drew better than my cousins, because I was younger and learning at their level. But all of the stuff that I was just finally willing to unpack for the first time.

JI: Did you explore counseling?

AA: I did, but it wasn’t really because I wanted to, it was more so because I had an opportunity because my girlfriend at the time’s friend studied and just got her master’s in psychology. So, she blessed me with a therapy session. And so, that was my first and really my last one that I had. And to be honest, that shit fucked me up.

JI: Really? The therapy fucked you up.

AA: Yeah.

JI: How?

Real Life Hit Stick, alcohol marker and colored pencil on Bristol paper 17 X 14 inches, 2021. Artwork by and courtesy of Aawful Aaron Williams.

AA: Because what happened was, I’m a hard-headed dude. Being serious is all held, sensitive is all held. And so, in a way, her validating how I felt about certain things was just like, “Oh, damn. I can’t run from that shit anymore.” So her suggestion was you should create work as therapy. Not that I wasn’t doing that already, but her point was, create a body of work that… She didn’t say create a body of work, but her suggestion was like, when you are making work to cope, when you’re making work to now deal with your anxieties… because I was telling her, “Yeah, I’m anxious as shit. This is just whooping my ass.” She’s like, “Make art to speak to that.”

JI: How does your experience of trauma come out in your work? Is it in the subject?

AA: I think it is not just in the subject but really in the energy that goes into the work. Down to the strokes, the lines. I really personify my struggle as much as possible into the work. I know that in order to really connect to people on that emotional level I have to translate that. I think through my style, subject matter, and choice of colors, and stuff like that I really try to recreate that experience for the viewer.

JI: Do view you your work as expressionist?

AA: I feel like my work is definitely more representational than expressionist. But I feel like it definitely is. I draw inspiration from that space, just from the energy of my stroke alone. I would say it would be more like a hybrid, but probably 60 / 40.

JI: 60 / 40, which?

AA: Sixty, being more representational, more realistic to 40 expression, abstract. I like to find that balance between the two. But obviously I think with relying on more of my technical skill I enjoy more so illustration and drawing in that sense. For someone to look at the work and to intimately be able to draw themselves into the story, I know that I have to be more leaning towards the representational stuff. I think it’s more interesting from a story point perspective as well. But I think in the future I’ll move more into a space where it’ll be less representational as I mature. As I find, especially scale and work, I’m probably a little less interested in making everything super representational. That’s to be determined.

Alcohol marker and colored pencil on Bristol paper 17 X 14 inches, 2021. Artwork by and courtesy of Aawful Aaron Williams.

JI: Talk about your solo show, it was curated by MOCHA at moCa.

AA: I was the first artist to set that series off. All that work I was talking about where I was talking about my anxiety and all, that was for that show. I mean that the response is what put me on the map.

JI: Your work at MOCHA included sports images, conflict and sports. Like football players lined up, chess game. When you think of conflict is this what you see?

AA: Yeah, leaning on sports as a metaphor and knowing that people are generally more passionate about sports than the arts. Depending on your background and stuff like that. I know, no pun intended, but in order to level that playing field I had to use language of what it means to be in a contact sport. The pressures of that. The conflict of going against an opponent to win. To take home the prize. Being under that pressure from the fans and having all eyes on you. It was a lot of beautiful metaphors sprinkled throughout the sports world. I knew that I could use that language and represent it in my style and that would essentially be the conversation right there. Just knocking down those barriers.

That was my main concern. Using basketball, football were the two no brainers, especially growing up in a Black household. That’s having family members watch basketball games and yell at the TV. That’s very nostalgic. Also I challenged myself to not just speak to the sports that I am more familiar with but even challenging myself. Learning more about chess as a sport, learning about fencing as a sport. I wanted to include those to show that no matter how you look at it or what sports you’re into, this is a kind of common thread throughout all of them. I could’ve included hockey, I could’ve included NASCAR, wrestling. In fact the original body of work was a lot more expansive than just the sports exploration. Logistically speaking we’ll just keep that in the tank.

Say all of that to say, the energy of sports and the energy in which I wanted to tell these stories aligned. I saw a very clear path in which I’m going to do it this way. And I have. Just knowing where my style was at the time, I was like, “Okay, let me go ahead and focus on this body of work and doing it in this more expressive, but very literal type of way with the illustrations and storytelling.”

JI: What’s your next solo show?

AA: My next solo show probably won’t be till next year.

JI: Talk about the show with the Riffe.

AA: The Riffe Gallery is in Columbus. I forgot how the curator was explaining it to me. I don’t want to say it’s connected to… I think it’s connected to one of their city buildings. So the gallery is, I guess, a big deal for them down there. But I’m just going to just be showing work that I showed for my first solo show because the curator specifically was looking for work where artists were dealing with their health, mental health and using their craft as that.

JI: Are you being represented by anybody?

AA: No.

JI: Why not?

AA: I feel I just know my value and so, with me understanding my value and understanding and bringing to the space and knowing that, just understanding my trajectory, I’m just trying. I’d rather represent myself for as long as it’s conducive.

JI: So what’s next for Aawful Aaron? For the person, for the artist, for the brand—what’s next?

AA: I want to take the energy on what I’ve been able to create so far, and I’m just going to get on my Andy Warhol shit. And what I mean by that is having my critique or having my work be the critique of American culture through Pop art, because I don’t know if I fit completely… I don’t know if they can put me completely in the fine art category or box. I think me just having my show at moCa kind of did that, and it just did that in its own. When it comes to commercial and that kind of space, I feel like my trajectory aligns more so with Virgil Abloh’s than it does Basquiat’s.

JI: You’re currently in Kalamazoo, working on a mural—

AA: This mural, Isaiah Williams, Starbeing, fellow artist in Cleveland. He’s been working really closely with Condados and leading their art department as far as the murals. They are very big on helping artists, working with artists, and paying artists to come in and do murals for their new store locations. The Kalamazoo area, I guess, they don’t have as large of a art community as Cleveland or some of the other areas where Condados are popped up. Isaiah reached out to me, he was like, “Yo, bro, got this opportunity looking. I need a sixth man.” I was like, “Yeah, man, you can get it. Getting me out of Cleveland. I’m down.” I was coming off of another mural too so, before I get into the other mural that I’m working on back home.

The other mural I was working on is on… it’s between 76th and St. Clair and East 55th. It’s the old funeral home that sits over there not too far from that Shell gas station right there on St. Clair that’s going to be turned into a dog training facility. The owner really loved my style and my work. I had a mutual friend, Chad, who runs the Cleveland Mural Company. He was already doing some painting for her. She mentioned that, “Oh, I’m looking, I want to work with this guy,” et cetera. However. And then she reached out to me. Chad acted as a liaison and connected us. I sat down with her, did the whole consultant thing. Got her some sketches, she liked the sketches. Got in and knocked it out. I’m probably at 95% with that. When I get back home I got to finish catching that up. So yeah, man, back to back murals. I’m probably be cool on murals for a next little while. Think I’ma take a break, man.

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