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Let Go of the Wheel 

Photographs by William S. Pierson

One thing you can count on when you talk with an artist; you're going to be speaking with an individual who enjoys exploring the connections between who they are and what they do. My recent conversation with veteran photographer, William S. Pierson (Bill), was no exception. Pierson has been seriously pursuing photography as a fine art for the past 39 of his 60 years.

"I've always had a keen interest in how things around me looked and the underlying aesthetics of why they were pleasing," he began, "and that translated, early in my life, into an appreciation of art."

Bill attended College of the Redwoods and attempted to study for a number of different fields including law.

"I would read the same page of a textbook over and over, and each time remember one more sentence. When I took my first photography course, I remembered every word the first time! It was like magic from the very beginning," he recounted. "At this moment, recalling that first photograph I made gives me chills. I remember everything about it. Those initial experiences have left me with a lasting conviction that photography grabbed me more than  I grabbed it."

Pierson soon realized, like all aspiring art makers, that there are books about the craft of one's chosen medium, but there are no books and little help on how to be an artist. "Usually, starting out, you pattern yourself after people you admire and formulate rules and concepts about how to achieve greater self-expression," Bill explained. "A few years ago, I took a portfolio of my work to a man who is an international curator. He saw the different influences in my work. By the end of the interview he offered to be a mentor; to take my work to the next level, so to speak. But really what he did was challenge me to find out who I am as an artist and what is my personal vision."

Bill realized he had a lot of internal rules about how to conduct himself that may have served him five or twenty years ago but "There truly are no rules in art!" he exclaimed. "Ultimately it's  about a mark on paper. You will be judged by that mark on the paper. And nothing that comes up to the moment that you make that mark does anyone care about. It's the mark (on paper, clay, film, metal) that someone cares about.  It's a little scary, but it's liberating. The analogy I came up with is: Take off the seat belt - let go of the wheel." Bill's easy laugh filled the room.

Pierson has made peace with the abrupt transition to digital photography, the tsunami that has changed forever the way photographs are made. "I left film kicking and screaming," he declared. "But the timing was perfect. I was beginning to feel totally restricted by the materials and the process of film. The turning point for me was the introduction of Epson printers which could finally print what the digital camera and computer generated."  Much of Pierson's work appears monochromatic but is produced from full spectrum (color) shots. This allows him remarkable control of gray tones as well as color and saturation. "For me, subject matter is secondary. It's all about the light," he said.

Many people in Humboldt County and beyond know William Pierson as a successful businessman and a munificent  benefactor. I asked him how being an artist fits with the other prominent aspects of his life.

"Creating art ends up being a parable for life. All the things that are important in making art, such as seeing clearly or getting out of the way to allow the universe to manifest as new experiences, are all the things that help you live a successful life.  There will always be times when one feels lost in some way or another, or you lose your direction a bit. But for me art making and appreciating has always been an ideal arena for self-renewal, the touchstone that brings me back. Art and life are mutually complimentary. I can't imagine my life without it. I'm just trying to be free."

Bill truly appreciates what I like to call "the moment that will never be quite the same again," a cloud, a wind eddy on water, the light falling on anything that for an instant compels us to look. By capturing these moments, Bill entices viewers  to pay attention to the fleeting, intangible beauty of light. The reward: more light.

William S. Pierson will fill the Piante Gallery (620 Second Street) with photographic manifestations of his latest insights from May 7 (Arts Alive!) to May 28, 2011.

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R.W. Evans

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