Gradwatch 2021: Hunk Williams, Cardiff Faculty of Artwork & Design

Pop culture and queer identity are the threads that tie Hunk Williams’ fascinating array of work together. The illustration graduate draws inspiration from folk artists and country musicians such as Johnny Cash, along with filmmaker John Waters and his obsession with deviance, in order to create his aesthetically striking, multidisciplinary artworks.

These artworks take the form of traditional mediums such as tapestries and rugs, alongside more conventional illustration pieces, and are drawn together by Williams’ fascination with the absurd. “As a queer and disabled person, the world has often been a perplexing place to exist in. As such, my absurdist philosophy has helped to develop a method of working that invites the observer to consider ‘But, why?’,” he tells CR.

Reginald Arthur, aka Hunk Williams

“Owing to this also, my work is inherently anti-assimilation and anti-modern, preferring to reimagine existing concepts and aesthetics in a way that makes sense to other queer people, and serves as a reminder to not take anything too seriously.”

The artist, whose real name is Reginald Arthur (Hunk Williams is a play on the late country singer Hank Williams), hasn’t had the easiest time since joining the illustration course at Cardiff School of Art & Design.

“During my first year at university, my long-term partner and carer became sick and passed away. As a queer person, I heavily rely on my loved ones, so when he passed away it rattled me to my core,” he says.

“When I returned to uni the following September, I was lucky enough to meet a gaggle of queers who were starting on illustration that year. They helped me to rebuild my life, and I am eternally grateful to know them.” The group of friends have since moved in together and formed S.P.A.F. Collective, where together they make ‘artisanal DIY queer art media’.

Undertaking his final year amid the pandemic has also been a big challenge for Williams, who spent much of his time locked away with his housemates. “Aside from the way the pandemic compounded preexisting issues I struggled with, like grief, it deeply impacted my relationship with my work,” he explains.

“I had more time to spend researching things that enthralled and intrigued me – my friends and I spent each day in our living room casually researching as deeply into obscure pop culture as we could. It gave us a universal stimulus that we could all respond to individually, and then when our works were viewed together, they were incredibly cohesive.”

Lockdown also meant that Williams didn’t have access to facilities such as a ceramics studio or digital stitch machine, testing the boundaries of his multidisciplinary practice to the max.

“Eventually, it pushed me to experiment with different types of materials and test the limits of their application – how big I could make things, how intricate I could cut shapes. I’d never worked with felt or appliqué before; I just identified it as something that would provide the flat colours and tactile quality I like, and fancied the challenge,” he says.

Aside from being a rich source of inspiration for personal projects such as his Beatles punch rug (“I believe the Beatles to be morally reprehensible”), the pandemic has also led to real-world commissions for Williams, including being selected for Creative Cardiff and Arts Council of Wales’ Our Creative Place project. The commission saw him create three protest-inspired felt banners, along with a three-minute film and zine to go with them.

As to what lies ahead for Williams? “Only the eternal challenge of balancing ones’ necessary labour in order to live with my irrepressible need to keep making art,” he says.

“The future of the arts in Britain also seems bleak, but I am confident that through solidarity it will be possible for us to stand firm. [I want to] shake it up, keep on truckin’, and continue working with S.P.A.F. Collective to produce the finest quality queer content.”