Rachel Marie-Crane Williams, College of Education
For Rachel Marie-Crane Williams, art isn’t something only to be admired in museums or analyzed from a distance. Williams, associate professor of art education in the College of Education with a joint appointment in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, thinks art can blend with activism to make a difference in the world. Her artistic vision takes her into prisons and juvenile homes, where she hopes art will touch lives and act as a catalyst for social change and a catharsis for those who need healing or inspiration.
Williams is one of few professors nationwide pursuing research on art education for juvenile offenders. A recent two-year, $63,324 grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust of Muscatine, Iowa, will allow her to explore creating sustainable art programs in state-operated juvenile detention facilities.
Williams talks with fyi about her work as well as how she juggles her various lives as an academic, an artist, a community volunteer, a mother, and a wife.
What inspired you to bring your expertise and energy to the University?
What attracted me to The University of Iowa is my colleague, Steve McGuire [professor of art education in the College of Education]. He is the reason I am here because I admire his research and what he does. He’s been an incredible mentor. He’s interested in community settings, which are my interest as well. It was exciting to find someone here in my field who is a practicing artist. I knew about his work with special needs students and disabilities, and I had no experience in that, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to learn from someone who knows a lot. I also like my colleagues in education and art.
In addition to being a faculty member of the University, you are also an artist. What kind of art do you make, and what are you working on right now?
I paint. I’ve got all kinds of images. I am working on a series right now about birds of prey.
All my paintings right now are basically about war. They’re watercolors. They’re not hard to look at because I put in gold foil—very pretty things, but the subject matter, of course, is not pretty.
What I want people to think about when they look at my war paintings is that right now we’re at war but we’re not living as if we’re at war. There’s this question: “What is peace, and what is security, and can we have both of those things simultaneously?”
How did you get interested in bringing art programs to juvenile facilities?
As a graduate student, I volunteered to teach an art class in a women’s prison. I loved it. I ended up teaching there for three years, and was completely transformed by the experience.
When I came to Iowa, I volunteered in the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, and worked there for seven years on and off. I got interested in working in the Iowa Juvenile Home, which was a natural outgrowth.
For most people who end up having problems in the justice system, all this starts when they’re 10 or 12 years old, and I thought, if I can make a connection with girls in the juvenile home, maybe I can help them not end up in prison. That’s an idealistic way to think about things, but it can happen.
What is most rewarding about the work you do?
The most exciting thing is to see somebody learn something and then make it their own and take it beyond the walls of our classroom and incorporate it into their lives. I can count on two hands the success stories of women I’ve worked with, and I’ve been working with people in prison for 12 or 13 years. I see women who leave these facilities and go on to blossom, and it’s nice to think I have had a small hand in that.
What might your colleagues be surprised to learn about you?
I’ve been taking violin lessons. And I’m terrible. My teacher is Christina Mixemong, a [UI graduate student and] viola player in the UI School of Music, and she’s wonderful. She’s very patient. I don’t want to die without learning how to play at least one musical instrument. It’s been a humbling experience that has helped me think about my teaching, because I’m reminded how [it feels to be a novice and not know what you’re doing].
What artists have most influenced the work you do, or who are your favorite artists?
My favorite artists include Leonard Baskin, Rico Lebrun, Sam Francis, Tony Oursler, and Suzanne Lacey.
I’m interested in questions such as, “What is an artist? What social responsibility do we bear as artists? How can we actually make the world a better place through art so that art is not a commodity or something that can be co-opted by consumerism?”
I’m also interested in graphic novels. They’re a wonderful and interesting opportunity for artists to put some ideas out there that can be motivated by peace and knowledge. My favorite graphic novelist is Joe Sacco.
What are a few of your other favorite things?
Weekday lunch spot: One Twenty Six [restaurant in downtown Iowa City]
Book: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Musician: Doc Watson
Movie: The Piano
Web site: I love to shop on eBay. I love second-hand stores, and I love to thrift shop, and eBay is like a thrift shop dream—whatever you desire, it’s there. My husband’s never bought me any jewelry. He’s bought me the tools to make jewelry. My mother-in-law bought my wedding ring and I bought my engagement ring on eBay.
Hobbies: I make glass beads. My husband bought me this beautiful setup with torches and glass rods and goggles.
Do you want to tell us about your family? I understand you have an interesting house.
Yes. We live in a barn—my husband, Sean Kelley, who works in the UI College of Dentistry; our two children; and our two dogs. The place was a livestock barn built in 1900 by Czechoslovakian farmers. Then Ulfert Wilke—[founding director of] the UI Museum of Art [and a famous painter]—turned it into his summer studio.
by Lois J. Gray