Nov 14

A Conversation with Artist Ali Williams

"We are the past, the present, and the future. All at Once." 

Ali Williams is a Philadelphia-based artist and public muralist. She is interested in how visually altering a space with public art affects the surrounding environment. Williams led workshops with residents of Morris Home to shape her mural design. Williams’ mural, entitled All at Once, is a memorial and life celebration of trans Philadelphians and was installed at Philly Aids Thrift, 710 S. 5th Street in Queen Village on June 21, 2022.

What follows is a conversation with artist Ali Williams about the design and creation of All at Once:

How did this project begin? 

This mural is a culmination of a two-year partnership with Porch Light and West Philadelphia’s Morris Home, the only recovery program in the U.S. for trans and gender non-conforming individuals. I was hired through Porch Light to facilitate workshops in art-making and discussion for Morris Home residents. At the time, Wit Lopez was the visiting artist working with Morris Home on a weekly basis. Wit was kind enough to allow me to sit in on a few of their workshops. Each week was so inspiring. Wit would invite local Philly creatives to join and share their craft at the workshops. I remember one week we listened to music and then wrote haikus based on the musical theme. Another week we watched an artist’s painting unfold in front of us while we chatted about their process and how to make art and creativity accessible to everyone.

Art is a great outlet for healing and self-expression. I think anyone, especially people dealing with addiction or working through trauma can benefit from doing something creative. For me personally, I’ve found it’s a way to come back to myself and be present wherever I am. There are so many studies that show how art is self-soothing and can aid in healthy self-reflection. It’s another form of communication. We can’t always express ourselves through words, so art is a great tool for that.

Can you tell us about the design, location, and installation process? 

I came up with the design concept through workshops and discussions I had with residents from Morris Home, and from a lot of research. One of the things that were made clear was that we needed this to be really joyful and inspiring. So, there are a lot of bright colors and expressive fluid movement with the design. The idea of paying tribute to the past, acknowledging the present, and looking to the future was important to people. I took some ideas and imagery that residents came up with in collage workshops and translated them literally and symbolically. It was a big learning experience for me as an artist and community advocate, and I wanted Morris Home’s voice to shine and be celebrated. 

As far as the individuals that were chosen to be featured, the mural design shifted a little bit. This was a mural full of heavy emotions … We lost Rem’mei Fells at the start of this mural when we were still in the design stage, and I think that’s when the mural started to take shape into the voice it now has. I initially had local, living trans and gender non-conforming icons and activists, as well as people we have lost. Through more discussion with Morris Home, we decided to make some adjustments and only depict loved ones we’ve lost. Morris Home provided a list of names alongside the list of names I came up with. There are many people we weren’t able to include, but I hope the work still serves to honor and memorialize not only the women that are pictured, but everyone in the trans and gender non-conforming community that are no longer with us … and everyone in that community that is currently here. My hope is that, while this is a memorial, it also speaks to love, joy, pride, the present moment, and the future and feels celebratory – all at once.

Something that was said with such passion during one of the workshops that stuck with me was, “We’re still here!” There’s a lack of representation and equity for the LGBTQIA community as a whole, and that’s especially true for trans and non-binary individuals. Not only is it important to showcase and center voices of the now, but so much of the past has been seemingly erased. In 2020 alone, when this project started, there was a significant surge in violent hate crimes against trans people. There’s huge discrimination in employment, housing, public spaces, and health care for trans folks. I know through speaking with family members of one individual featured in the mural, they felt like the justice system gave up.

Their loved one’s death is still a cold case. Having that person’s face lovingly painted on that wall is a reminder that we still care, we still love, that person matters, and it may also bring some awareness or something to light.

- Ali Williams

What does the mural represent? 

All at Once honors the lives of trans Philadelphians and incorporates a portrait of Nizah Morris — from whom Morris Home got its name — who died under mysterious circumstances in 2002 and whose case has never been solved. Everyone pictured is someone in the trans community that we’ve lost. Pictured left to right, we have Kyra Cordova, Charlene Arcila, Nizah Morris, Michelle Tamika Washington, Shantee Tucker, London Kiki Chanel, and Dominique Rem’mei Fells. 

There were a lot of amazing artists that were behind this mural, and I’m so glad they were a part of this project. Assistant artists: Julie Laquer, Jaq Masters, Kat Black, Emily White. Install team: De’von Downes, Marian Bailey & Sammy Kovnat.

See more of Ali Williams’ work here. Ali can be reached at ali.m.williams@gmail.com.

 

  • All at Once dedication, June 21, 2022. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Ali Williams' All at Once Install. June 2021.

  • All at Once dedication, June 21, 2022. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Amara Eke and Julie Laquer, All at Once in-progress.

  • All at Once by Ali Williams. Completed 2021.

Last updated: Nov 10, 2022

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