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Visiting art professor at UC Berkeley creates works in response to state energy crisis
16 March 2001

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Berkeley - Like many Californians affected by the energy crisis, Tree Williams, a visiting professor of art practice at the University of California, Berkeley, is no stranger to rolling blackouts and climbing electricity bills.

But her reaction to the situation was unique.

Using mostly recycled materials such as Plexiglass, feathers and fabric, the Oakland artist created seven small, mixed media pieces entitled "Energy Crisis." They recently were displayed at UC Berkeley's Worth Ryder Gallery.

"It is truly an energy crisis for me in a couple of ways - financially and spiritually," Williams said. "It's about money. It's about survival."

Williams, a self-described nature lover who renamed herself "Tree" in 1990, scaled back her normally large paintings for this project.

Each of the seven 10-by-10-inch squares is designed so that pulling a string attached to a battery-powered light can illuminate it.

Materials used in one piece include twigs painted white at their bases and secured with copper wire. Called "Focus," it reminds Williams of country roads in her native Virginia, her grandmother in a rocking chair, and the warmth and light of family. One square, "Sacrifice," is covered in red paint with ambiguous shapes. Another, "Symbolism," features light filtering through plastic bubble wrap and shining behind an African symbol that to Williams means love. In another piece, layers of gauze wrap over splashes of color in a piece labeled "Healing."

After a month hanging on the wall at the Worth Ryder Gallery and being subjected to viewers' experimental yanks, two of the pieces had their own energy shortage - they were left in the dark after running out of juice.

The state's energy crisis exacerbated and coincided with trials of Williams' own.

After earning a master's degree in fine arts at UC Berkeley in 1991, she returned to the East Coast for several years. In 1996, she left Washington, D.C., for the Bay Area. Williams held a series of high-paying corporate jobs with low satisfaction until she was asked to teach painting and figure drawing classes at UC Berkeley almost two years ago.

The stress of doing both art and boring office work became too great, and Williams decided to stick with the latter. The decision had its tradeoffs, however, as she looked forward to greater emotional satisfaction but a smaller paycheck, right in the middle of a booming economy with high rents and gasoline prices, skyrocketing utility bills and natural gas charges that can swallow a family's grocery bill.

Williams lives in a one-room apartment in Oakland that has been subjected off and on since last summer to power failures and rolling blackouts, she said, despite the fact that her home is adjacent to a fire station.

Williams said California's energy crisis isn't a simple problem independent of other challenges people face daily in our complex society.

"We're losing our energy, we're losing our focus," she said

For Williams, "it's about having a job and having benefits, or doing a piece (of art), and will it sell? In the whole stream of things, I had to stop and say, 'What is reality for me?'"

Creating art, she said, helps her maintain her own energy and focus and nurtures her inner spirit.

Currently, Williams is looking for a new home for her power-ful work.