On the Cusp of Something Beautiful

By Brad McEwen

Although some would argue that what I do each week with Beyond the Bank fits the mold, I’ve never really considered myself to be very artistic.

While I can certainly put words together to form sentences and then string those together to make complete thoughts, I have to work pretty hard at it and I certainly don’t have the masterful control of language shared by the likes of Shakespeare, Joyce, Eliot, Vonnegut, Wolfe or Taibbi, to name a few.

And unless stick figures count as great works of art, or drumming my fingers on my steering wheel is considering making music, no one would accuse me of being an illustrator, painter or musician.

Despite my dearth of artistic talent, however, few things get my blood pumping like seeing a beautiful painting or photograph, reading an incredible novel or essay, watching a well-crafted film or listening to a great song.

In short, while I don’t consider myself much of an artist, I am very much a lover of the arts, which likely explains why I’ve always been drawn to creative types and other kindred souls who see the arts as one of the true wonders and pleasures of our world.

Such is definitely the case with area residents Nicole and Chazz Williams, a local couple who are very much involved in promoting area arts, that I’ve had the pleasure of spending some time with over the past few of years.

So I have to say, I was pretty pumped recently to have a chance to sit down with the husband and wife for a Beyond the Bank interview covering their connection to the arts, their feelings about the importance of promoting and nurturing artistic talent and their belief that a burgeoning Albany art scene and a revitalized and reinvigorated local community go hand in hand.

I first met Nicole a couple of years ago while working on a story for the Albany Herald. I can’t recall the exact circumstance of the particular interview, but I know I was talking to her in her capacity as the Director of the Albany Area Arts Council, a local non-profit that began life as a liaison between various organizations connected to the arts.

According to Nicole, who has been the director of the organization for the past four-plus years, the Arts Council currently partners with the Albany Museum of Art, Thronateeska Heritage Center, the Albany Civil Rights Institute, the Albany Chorale, Theater Albany, the Albany Symphony Orchestra and the Georgia Artists Guild of Albany share information and resources so that the different organizations can thrive.

“The idea, I think, was sort of like a United Way for the arts kind of thing,” Nicole told me about the history of the Arts Council’s mission. “The evolution of that situation was that there was a joint fundraising drive that was conceived for the arts groups to work together to do annual fundraising. The first few years it made a lot of money. It was a lot of work, but there was a lot of payoff.

“Over time that failed to work because the same organizations that were fundraising jointly, after the blackout was over, would be back individually asking for money from the same people and the same businesses. It eventually made the joint fundraising drive not work very well. Because the thing is, at the end of the day, if you are an entity in town and your president is a fan of the symphony, why would he give the Arts Council money to divvy up between the symphony and seven others when he could just give money directly to the symphony?”

Nicole said that issue led to a change where the Arts Council became more of its own entity, doing its own fundraising, while remaining committed to promoting the various arts organizations in the community.

“We try to keep the lines of communication open and when there are ways that we can collaborate and help one and other we do,” she said. “And when we can we avoid doing things that are detrimental to one another. It’s a nice way to share resources and information.

“At this point, as an individual organization—and we operate in that regard—we take care of the Carnegie Library for the city. Working with the city has become a big focus of what we do. And we use that space, the internal space in the Arts Council, as a gallery space for local artists, because we have the space to do that and the resources to manage that.

“So, over time our mission has evolved,” she continued. “Currently our mission is uniting our community through the arts and humanities. Essentially any time we can see a way that we can, without overstressing our resources, provide a service or encourage a service that allows some sort of unification either from different portions of the community or different organizations within the community, or any mixture thereof, we try to step into that role.”

While the main thrust of the Arts Council is one that appeals to me from a practical standpoint, I do think one of the chief reasons I have an affection for what the organization is and does—and the real reason I took the time every month to write an advance story in the Herald about the Arts Council’s monthly exhibits—is that I truly respect the passion Nicole has for what she does.

In all of my dealings with her I found her not only to be an engaging, positive and energetic person, but it was clear that she believes that growing the exposure of the arts, and of local artists, is crucial for enriching the community.

“I absolutely believe that any growth in artistic or cultural activities, or having a base for those activities within the community, makes the community a better place to live,” she said. “I have a personal affinity for the educational component of that too and this job gives me a chance to be part of encouraging those things.

“I also think I’m particularly good at seeing where there’s a need and knowing how that can be filled. And being in a role like this gives me a chance to know tons of different people and tons of different sources for activities and resources. So then it’s easy for me to see how if one of those things can be paired up with another one in a way that can be beneficial to the community, then I have a platform for making that happen.”

I think another reason I’ve always enjoyed working with Nicole is that, like me, she keeps her focus more on her love of the arts and the joy she gets from supporting and nurturing artists, rather than her own ability as an artist.

She’s always quick to downplay her own talents in regard to creating art, but in truth she doesn’t have much of an argument once her husband Chazz weighs in and points out that like all artists Nicole is adept at expressing herself in many ways, even if those ways aren’t the things traditionally thought of when considering art—things like culinary and interior design.

And I would argue he knows what he’s talking about and has the credentials to back up his position.

Like all good husbands, Chazz is keenly aware of his wife’s talents, but it’s not just the bonds of marriage that inform his opinion.

Not only is he an artist in his own right, Chazz is also an art professor at Albany State University, where he has been a member of the faculty since 2004.

Having not previously had the chance to chat with him about how he came to be teaching at Albany State—which I subsequently found out followed stints with Tallahassee Community College and Florida State University—I took the opportunity and was really intrigued to learn a little bit about his history and the route that led him down that path.

“That’s a pretty complicated question,” Chazz began when I asked what led him to become an art professor. “Actually I quit my job when I was 34 and went to art school. I was working at a health maintenance organization as a credentialing coordinator. Not using the side of the brain I’m more proficient working from.

“It was just something I always wanted to do. I was basically, over years and years, at different points in time, teaching myself how to make art—trying to teach myself how to draw and paint and make sculptures and doing all kinds of things.

“That’s what I did when I came home from work and I just got to a point where I just felt, ‘I really need to learn and if I’m going to go further with this, I’m going to have to get some training; I’m going to have to work with some people.’”

Of course studying art and indulging his creativity is one thing, but becoming an art teacher is an entirely different thing altogether. While Chazz admits his initial motivation for studying art was to hone his own artistic skills, he said he always wanted to work with and inspire others.

“When I was younger there was a time I wanted to teach school,” he said. “Let’s see, I started out in pre-pharmacy and ended up getting a degree in creative writing. I also wanted to be an English teacher. I had great teachers in school that really affected my life and I wanted to be just like that.

“That idea of being a teacher was always in the back of my mind too. I think it was just the perfect storm of tendencies.

“But I think there is a lot to what Nicole was saying about cooking and maybe decorating. It’s a lot about this esoteric appreciation for things, and wanting to organize things and arrange things in such a way that they have an effect on another person. That’s what the best part of making art is. That’s me exploring the world and enjoying it with somebody and hoping that it has some kind of an effect. So actually making art is not different than what you do in the classroom.”

Much like the feeling one would get finishing a creation and sharing it with the world, it was clear that Chazz derives a lot of pleasure out of seeing the growth of his students and seeing the impact they are having on the world around them.

“I think I’m proof of my theory that there are people that just think differently and explore the world differently,” Chazz explained. “Science is a way to explore the world. Art is a way to explore the world in that there’s a demand for it, because we’re filling classrooms with people.

“And a lot of these kids from Albany and from Ocilla, and these little towns, are now art teachers and they’ve gone to grad school and they’re coming back. And it’s always fun when I see the elementary school art shows and one of my students has taught that class and they’re doing an exercise that I taught them. Now these elementary school students are gonna come to me and they’re already gonna know everything I teach.”

Although he gets a personal satisfaction from knowing he’s able to help his students find success with their art education, Chazz, like his wife, also sees the bigger picture, where nurturing arts has a significant impact on society as a whole.

“Arts in general, I think, contribute in a very special way to the community, even if it’s not on the level of Atlanta, or a big city that might have an art district or art galleries, although I think that’s coming and starting to happen here,” he explained. “The arts are the look and the sound of the city. They’re there and your city has a look and a sound, whether you like it or not.

“And as you get people who congeal and appreciate things and want things to look nice and sound nice it has an impact. And I think contributing to the arts also makes it a more desirable place to live.

While there is an intangible value in having a thriving art scene in a community, Chazz asserts there is also direct benefit from an economic standpoint as well.

“I mean there are really specific studies that suggest every dollar spent on the arts gets as much as a $15 return back into the economy,” he said. “I’ve read studies like that, but just historically, going to back to the Renaissance, you look at the development in cities and towns, and the places that were prosperous, a big part of that was patronizing the arts.

“And then there’s the whole natural migration thing that happens even in big cities where there’s growth in impoverished areas of town because artists can afford to live there. And they’re hanging out and their friends are coming and it becomes a cool place to be.”

In fact, both Chazz and Nicole feel as though that’s happening in Albany, thanks to the resources that are already in place and have growing appeal.

“I’m really excited about all the organizations in town, the way they contribute to the community, because, when you talk about a company deciding if they wanna move here, it matters that you have an Arts Council; it matters that you have an art museum, or a RiverQuarium, a natural history museum or a civil rights institute. Those things give back to a community in a way that you can’t necessarily quantify.”

In addition to the resources that showcase arts and culture, the pair is also excited about the demographic change happening in the downtown area, where most of those types of resources are located.

Citing the influx of younger residents drawn by the success of certain downtown development projects, the couple said they are encouraged about the future of the community and they that they think the arts will only help that situation to thrive.

“I think some serious credit has to be given to our downtown managers for bringing in some of these big projects, these keystone type projects,” said Nicole. “The Flats (at 249) and the (Pretoria Fields) Brewery, those things are huge in terms of getting people down here and getting them comfortable with being downtown.”

“I think I’m a pretty optimistic person but I was a little apprehensive about Albany’s downtown at first,” added Chazz. “But I think it’s a great barometer. I wouldn’t say I doubted the success of it, but I am amazed at how quickly it’s filled up.”

“What’s happening here, particularly downtown, is of big interest because of where we are,” Nicole continued. “What I have seen grow and develop the last four years has been major in terms of businesses. And people are now living down here and it looks different than it did four years ago.

“I don’t know that what we do has changed that much, but I think we definitely have a larger audience than we did when I first got here. I think that’s because there’s more people here, more action. And I love that we get to be a part of this growth. I don’t know that we’ve found exactly how it’s going to look, or what our part is going to be, but I think there’s a part for the Arts Council to play in that.”

Whatever the exact role the Arts Council will have in the future of downtown, Nicole said she is certain that the organization will continue its mission of providing access to the arts to a segment of the population that might not otherwise be exposed.

“It’s really important to us that our programs are free or low cost,” she said. “We have a very large portion of the population in Albany that lives below the poverty level and they don’t necessarily have access to the amenities that you do in a larger city all the time. But we also have patrons that come from much more privileged backgrounds.

“And the beauty of any art—and it’s why I think they’re so important—whether it’s visual arts or music, or plays or whatever it is, it’s that in the moment that you’re experiencing that thing as the consumer, then who you are falls away and it’s not about those barriers. They should be able to penetrate different communities because it’s not about the person coming to the art piece; it’s about the experience they get once they’re there. So like I said, it’s important to us to try and make things as accessible as possible.

“We don’t ever want anybody excluded from that experience.”

And one group that’s definitely been able to take advantage of the community’s affordable access to the arts is students. In fact, Chazz and Nicole believe students play an important role, both as consumers of art and as creators.

“We’ve been successful in that we’ve been able to, for the most part, provide almost every program that we offer free of charge,” Nicole added. “That means that we have lots of students who come and lots of people who come that might not be able to pay a cover fee to get into an event.

“And we annually host, and this was Chazz’s deal actually that they did before I got here, a college art competition. And because of that we’ve really gotten the benefit of those younger art student kids involved. And it’s nice to see them get out and be a part of that scene if you will.”

While the accessibility of Arts Council exhibits, as well as those hosted by other venues, has had a lot to do with increased activity from younger patrons, the local art scene has also benefitted from the renewed focus on art education at Albany State, following construction of the school’s new fine arts building and the recent merger of ASU and Darton college, both of which had small, but strong art programs.

“I think we’re actually on an upswing,” Chazz said. “The art departments at ASU and Darton had collaborated for years prior to the consolidation, so we were on pretty good footing coming in. And the new building allows us to recruit. I mean it was hard to recruit students to a building that was technically condemned and with three small, converted classrooms.”

“The facilities were not competitive,” interjected Nicole.

“And I think the body of the work, and the size of the work, has been heightened by the fact that they’re working in actual rooms that are designed for that purpose,” Chazz continued. “I think people live up to their environment. And just like I was saying about the community, I think more than any other department we really make that university feel like a university. You’ve gotta have the arts in a university. Otherwise it just feels like a school.”

It was clear listening to Chazz and Nicole talk about what’s happening at both Albany State and in Albany as a whole, that they are excited about the future and are thrilled that they’re both able—through education, promotion and partnerships—to contribute to an increased focus on arts and culture in the community.

“I think we’re on the cusp of some really cool things in Albany,” Chazz said. “I look forward to having an arts district, and having a first Friday where people come to the arts district and they go from gallery to gallery. And we have a brewery down here and nice music venues and a university right across the street. It’s very cool what’s happening here.”

“I really think that Albany is on the verge of, I don’t want to say becoming a cool town, because that’s not exactly what I mean, but it’s definitely on the verge of having a lot more to offer the people who live here,” added Nicole. “And that’s exciting.

“Chazz and I both, through our jobs, have been a part of preparing the community and the people who live here for that situation, and to contribute to that growth.

“I honestly believe that all things are what they are for some purpose, whether we see that all the time or not. I think that there’s a purpose for me being here. And that seems to be what it is.”

Of course the couple also believes that they share that purpose with others in the community and they are quick to point out that what is happening in Albany is a direct result of like-minded people working together.

“You have some very caring and diligent people who are working really hard, some like yourself, younger people who want to live in a cool town,” Chazz said. “They want to live in a nice place.

“But really there are a lot of people, I don’t even know how to go about mentioning them all, who really care and work very hard to make these things happen.

“We’re all in this together, working on this cultural, historical front, and like Nicole said, it’s exciting to be a part of that. It’s an honor to be a part of that.”

I agree with Chazz that whatever is happening in Albany is the result of the hard work of countless individuals, but there’s also no denying that the contributions of Chazz and Nicole Williams play a large part.

I believe that Albany truly is on the cusp of something special and I believe wholeheartedly that this community is blessed to count Nicole and Chazz among its numbers.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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