In a silent gallery of the “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980” exhibit at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) on Oct. 1, students and professors alike looked on intently as one man wrapped in nylon stockings and paper bags moved slowly and deliberately among them. He would offer pieces of his costume that trailed off his body to members of the audience, with a polite gesture – “Will you be my guest?” They were taken with reactions ranging from excitement to amusement to apprehension, and sometimes he was denied. Those who accepted were then pulled around the gallery space, being forced to step over and around the work of artists like David Hammons and Maren Hassinger.
Will Rawls ’00 executed this enigmatic performance piece “Decline With Regrets: A Revival” in response to the works of the exhibit, which were assemblages depicting the challenges faced by the creators of a new African-American art scene in Los Angeles. Rawls’ intent was to encourage audience members of varying generations to interact with works of art whose then-relevant political and social implications are out of context in the present day. “Some might say that our current political climate is much different from that of 1960s Los Angeles, so by inviting visitors to hold parts of the costume … it was a way of including their bodies in this history,” Rawls said. The materials of his costume purposely echoed those in the exhibit so as to forge connections between “different layers of history existing in the same place at the same time.”
During his three-week residency at the College, Rawls used “Decline With Regrets” as well as several other performances and guest lectures given throughout the art department in an attempt “to expand the scope of dance into wider academic discourse.” Student artists in Professor of Art Michael Glier’s “Abstraction” class were able to paint his movement as he danced, exploring the connections between movement and art. “The painter’s movements are a physical act that produces a specific kind of mark on the canvas [like a dance],” Rawls said. He visited an art history tutorial, “Writing on Bodies,” as well as Visiting Lecturer in Dance Hana van der Kolk’s “Experimental Choreography” class for the academic component of his visit. “Decline With Regrets” was especially meaningful to Rawls, as attendance was a required component for all “Aspects of Western Art” students. “I think it is really cool that art history 101 is putting a new emphasis on performance now – and also an emphasis on writing about art from one’s own embodied and physical experience of looking at art,” he said.
Besides teaching others directly, Rawls has been developing his own work at the MainStage in the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance. Titled “The Planet-Eaters,” this work-in-progress involves his immersion in the traditions of Balkan folk dance. “It brings forth valuable considerations of the political relationship between a region like the ex-Yugoslavia and the U.S.,” he said. In a manner similar to “Decline With Regrets,” “The Planet-Eaters” “[tries] to deal with historical materials (Civil Rights and folk dance) and … bring them back into dialogue with the current moment, which is struggling so hard to understand what it means to be contemporary,” he said. Rawls commented on his freedom to use the College’s dance resources as “a really generous gift of creative time and space to test out new ideas, polish old ones and work within the realistic conditions of a theater.” His final draft of “The Planet-Eaters” will premier this November in New York City.
Rawls’ liberal arts education as an undergraduate had a huge influence on his unique approach as a creator. His time at the College came with the classic ups and downs that we all know and love. “Periods of joy, periods of extreme doubt and stress,” he described when asked of his time at the College. Beyond the trials of the typical Williams experience, “being a queer student of color and an artist and a dancer also required a certain daily negotiation of who I was and wanted to be and how my experience at Williams might propel me forward in the most effective ways,” he said. Instead of letting these challenges limit him, he used them to propel him toward success. “The fact that I had to work hard to make sense of my time at Williams, rather than live it as an unquestioned privilege … really set me up to value my decisions and be on my own side when I moved on,” Rawls said.
The absence of resources like the ’62 Center channeled Rawls down the path of a major in art history, along with his first love of dance. “[Director and Senior Lecturer in Dance] Sandra Burton was a big mentor while here,” he said. “She understood all of my dance babbling … and gave me tough love and affection,” he said.
Through the encouragement of professors such as Professors of Art Elizabeth McGowan and Carol Ockman and Glier, he was able to explore the relationship between history, art and dance alike. “This question has carried forth into my career as I go back-and-forth between presenting my work in theaters and in visual arts contexts,” he said. For Rawls, finding the balance between academic language and the artist’s voice has been critical in the development of his artistic work. “There is nothing worse than a dance that should have been an essay,” he elaborated.
Through his own journey, Rawls has found harmony between dance and visual art and has brought it to the College in a way that has never been done before, becoming a part of history himself. Besides his premier of “The Planet-Eaters,” next year Rawls will be touring in France, exploring graduate school opportunities in Los Angeles and maybe even taking “The Planet-Eaters” to Serbia.