Taking Flight: Zeke Williams and his feathered friends nest at Galveston Arts Center

Dallas-based artist Zeke Williams is addicted to making work. He began his career painting “serious” landscapes that were often inspired by trips to Yellowstone and the Great Smoky Mountains with his grandparents, who worked with the U.S. National Park Service. After their passing, he inherited their photo collection and felt the urge to capture all that natural beauty with a brush. But there was one eventual problem: “I am the ultimate ‘indoor kid,’” Williams says. “I do appreciate the outdoors and these places when I go there, but I’m not naturally drawn to them. It’s remarkable that I make a bunch of art about the natural world when I tend to gravitate toward the human-created one.”

Williams’ latest artistic evolution is the perfect blend of the organic and man-made, combining his admiration for the environment with a long-held fascination with technology. Using CNC (computer numerical control) routed plywood and oil paint, Williams incorporates mechanical markings and vivid hues into layered, large-scale wood reliefs of birds, all covered with prints that simultaneously camouflage and reveal their subjects.

His exhibition Bird Rights is on display April 27-July 7 at the Galveston Arts Center, coincidentally opening just after the conclusion of the 22nd  annual birding and photography celebration, FeatherFest. Galveston has been Bird City Texas-certified since 2021, providing a safe haven for more than 200 species of brightly colored birds during their yearly northern migration.

“I think the fascination with birds is pretty universal,” Williams says. “They’re these amazing, weird creatures that fly, that are so varied in their looks and plumage. And they’re the closest thing to dinosaurs! I get why Darwin was obsessed with them.”

Both Bird Rights and FeatherFest honor the birds of the Texas Gulf Coast, and Williams found no end of inspiration in the egrets, cormorants, ibis, and roseate spoonbills he observed at the Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary at High Island in the spring of 2023.

“I tend to make work about the place where the show is,” he says of his exploratory visit. “I really try and understand what it is I’m doing there.” Williams recalls the sanctuary as “this insane swamp area where they built a bunch of catwalks and there are a gazillion birds. It was so loud my smart watch questioned if I was in a stadium. Bucolic as hell, though.”

Prior to Galveston, Williams had been making freestanding birds that were shown in a Birds of the Big Bend exhibition at Eugene Binder’s Marfa gallery. “They were well-liked and interesting, silly in a fun way, and I really enjoyed making them,” he recalls. Those floating birds each soon gained their own vibrant habitat when Williams expanded them into the large-scale paintings he makes today.

Back in Dallas, Williams planned out the technical specs for the 11 pieces that now fill this exhibition. Each painting is around 49 inches tall, with some stretching as wide as six or seven feet. A printmaker at heart, Williams starts by creating entirely new tessellating patterns that are then downloaded into vector files for the robot that does the actual plywood carving.

“There’s a lot of planning for the robot, but there’s also a lot of chaos involved in getting one of these birds to the finish line,” Williams says. “Creative juice is found in the planning and painting, with the technical stuff in between. It’s good for me to have a beginning, middle, and end, though—otherwise I could just paint forever.”

Though Williams longs to own every step of his process, he has accepted that it’s more efficient to rent time with the CNC machine and its owner, leaving him to focus on the overall colorful result. “I have forced myself to become at least a competent woodworker,” he laughs, noting that sometimes his skills are needed to replace tiny parts of wood, and that he still makes his own frames.

In addition to Bird Rights, Williams is also on display at Erin Cluley Gallery in Dallas and in the collections of Toyota’s national headquarters, UT Southwestern Medical Center, and the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History.

“All my work is a little playful and colorful and not necessarily ‘fine art’ that’s going to make you have an epiphany,” says Williams. “I make beautiful things because I want to make people happy. They’re serious enough to be ‘serious’ but beautiful enough for anyone to appreciate.”