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Robin F. Williams is Finding Ghosts, Shadows, and Frankenstein Upstate

Robin F. Williams has been living a communal life the past couple months in upstate New York. Typically based in Brooklyn, NY, she recently described her current situation as being helpful in keeping loneliness at bay. It’s also been fruitful for exploring the current role of the domestic space in her work.

The figurative painter is known for her powerful portrayal of women, rendered in oil, airbrush, and stained raw canvas. Recently, ghosts and shadows have started to appear in her work, perhaps inspired by a recent read of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Williams shared with Whitewall more about what she’s been reading, cooking (spoiler alert: sourdough like the rest of us), and her hopes for what comes next.

WHITEWALL: How are you doing?

ROBIN F. WILLIAMS: Some days I am heartbroken. Some days I feel very grateful and incredibly privileged. I’m also hopeful for the positive changes this crisis will bring. It’s been a very emotional couple of months, and I’ve had different feelings every day.

WW: What are you listening to, reading, watching?

RFW: I’ve been listening to a few books while I work. Know My Name by Chanel Miller, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (for my book club which also doubles as a women’s crit group), and I just finished Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein, which I consider research for my next body of work.

I’ve been listening to Fiona Apple‘s new album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, over and over again. I also consider this research. When I need music, though, I mostly listen to ambient meditation sounds just to keep things soothing. I’m watching anything that is a relaxing escape. I’m loving My Brilliant Friend on HBO.

WW: What are you cooking?

RFW: I’m living with a group of nine people, including two toddlers, in upstate New York. Dinners are big events. We all take turns cooking, and there are a lot of dietary restrictions, so I’ve been making a lot of vegetarian, gluten-free, and dairy-free meals. I’ve also made a few sourdough loaves.

I think a lot of people are baking in order to stave off existential angst during the pandemic. Panic baking, I call it. In my experience, it definitely helps. I’ve also been reaching for a lot of junk food—Cheez-Its, Oreos and Pop-Tarts being the major players.

WW: How are you staying connected? 

RFW: I’m texting with friends and also using Zoom or FaceTime. The crit group/book club that I mentioned earlier has already had a few meetings over Zoom. That group has been so important to me over the years and it’s very grounding to stay in touch. Living in this type of commune setting means I’m never lonely. In fact, there probably isn’t quite enough privacy. But I’m very lucky not to feel isolated. I am, however, incredibly homesick and devastated for what this will do to the city. I’m grieving already for how much everything will change.

WW: Are you able to find time to create?

RFW: I am incredibly lucky to have a space to work while I’m up here. My partner and I are the only artists in the group, but we have a temporary studio set up where I can make pastel studies that later become paintings. I would be losing my mind if I couldn’t make work right now.

That being said, my process has been considerably slower, and I haven’t been able to work every day. I’ve accepted that this is an unprecedented time and being productive isn’t the highest priority.

WW: How are you staying hopeful?

RFW: In general, I try to be present for the ideas when they come which means creating space and time for myself to think and work. Living in this commune and processing how central the domestic sphere has suddenly become in a global sense, has inspired lots of ideas. I’m drawing children and families for the first time in a very long time. I’m also picturing lots of figures who are ghosts, shadows or projections. Our avatars or images are the only part of ourselves we can send into the world right now. I’m looking for more ways that my larger interests and inquires intersect with this moment. Thankfully I’ve had a lot of ideas, and I feel very grateful for my practice.

Staying hopeful is a challenge, but making the work really helps. It’s also been useful to imagine positive outcomes born out of this crisis. I hope this pandemic refocuses our efforts to address climate change, which if left unchecked will create many more pandemics in the future. I hope the realization that most business can be conducted remotely will have a positive effect on work/life balance and the disproportionate burden of domestic work and childcare on women. I hope this country chooses different leadership in November. I hope art fairs become less wasteful, less decadent, and more sustainable for the environment. I hope the world is remade for the better.






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