Standing on top of a full-size cargo van, artist Ty Williams wobbles as his father passes him an unwieldy metal ladder from the second story porch of Williams' tall and narrow St. Augustine, FL home.
After I call out, "How's it going?" William's 80-year old father, who has climbed the porch's railing with the alacrity of someone a quarter his age, cracks, "Any day above ground is a good day."
Williams jumps down from the van and is immediately talking a mile a minute, casually cracking jokes with an ease similar to what his father displayed just minutes before. He's self-assured and articulate, yet self-aware enough to call out – in his words – his own misguided overconfidence. "I've been told that I retain it even when I've been facedown in the mud," he laughs.
Williams, who first came to St. Augustine for college, has been slowly constructing his dream home among the shotgun shacks and Spanish moss-laden oak trees in the historic neighborhood of Lincolnville. Step inside the home, and the interior is an eclectic mix of bucolic and minimalist design elements inspired by extended stays in places like Japan, Los Angeles, New England and the Caribbean. Though Williams' is still refining the décor, a few pieces of his own art adorn the home's white walls.
It's certainly true that Williams' whimsical illustrations and quirky mixed media pieces provide a window into the young artist's idiosyncratic character. Over the last decade, the 32-year old Williams collaborated on a laundry list of surf-y projects, providing illustrations and design work for brands like Insight and Patagonia, working with surfer-cinematographer Mikey DeTemple on the delightfully off-beat film Picaresque, and even displaying his artwork alongside renowned artists like Geoff McFetridge and Shepard Fairey. Williams' illustrations – which utilize humor and soft mark-making techniques reminiscent of the folk art works of Margaret Kilgallen, or the irreverent creations of Thomas Campbell – make use of a bright, tropical-inspired palette reminiscent of the vibrancy of Caribbean, where he lived until his late pre-teen years. "I'm always going to be the guy who goes for palm trees," Williams says with a laugh.
Attracted to the water at an early age, Williams spent his island days snorkeling, reading about Jacques Cousteau, and drawing pictures of sharks, puffer fish, and other wildlife he'd encounter in books or in the water.
Williams didn't actually start surfing until he moved from the Virgin Islands to the relatively frigid coast of Maine. But Surfing – both the culture and the actual act –still found a prevalent role as muse in Williams' artwork. Much of Williams' collage and assemblage-esque creations – while still incorporating some bright colors – often employ a broad grayscale and/or dreary imagery, bringing to mind harsh New England winters. Like everything else about Williams, his take on surfing was born of a unique association to the activity.
"Surfing made me an even more bizarre, displaced kid," he says. "There was one other surfer at my high school. So here I am, this kid from the Virgin Islands, who surfs and does art."
Williams chose not to pursue an arts degree while attending Flagler College. He was, however, working on his craft.
"At the time, all I wanted to do was design a shirt for Volcom or Hurley, or something," he says. "I was just drawing constantly. I wasn't really sure if what I was doing had any resonance or redeeming qualities."
When it was released in 2004, the artsy, log-centric film Sprout introduced Williams to the work of Thomas Campbell – who, along with diverse group of collaborators, had made a career of creating all manner of quirky, surf-inspired art.
"Up until I saw Sprout, the stuff that I thought I was drawn to was much more approachable – stuff by [Romanian cartoonist] Saul Steinberg or [New york graffiti artist] Keith Harring," he says. "But the stuff that Thomas was doing felt validating to me. All of the sudden, I saw all these artists not doing things the way they might teach you in a representational art class. I thought, 'I want to be in that world, somehow.'"
Over the last decade Williams has completed installations and gallery shows from Tokyo's Slope Gallery to Miami's Art Basel, while continuing to provide design work for a laundry list of surf and skate brands. Today, after stints in New York City and Los Angeles – with a steady stream of commission work, as well as freelance gigs for companies like Google – Williams calls the "Nation's Oldest City" home for the majority of the year.
And though he's expanded his CV beyond the world of surf-brands and surf-adjacent projects, Williams continues to look to the ocean for creative stimulation.
"I think it'd be impossible to detach myself completely from surfing," he says. "Anybody who surfs knows how inspiring the water is – creativity-wise, mental health-wise. It's just a huge part of who I am."