An Instrument of Change

November 19, 2019
Tambourine Sculpture by Carol Rashawnna Williams '97

Tambourine Sculpture Preserves the Past for the Future

For artist Carol Rashawnna Williams ’97, the tambourine holds a special place in her heart.

In the Pentecostal church tradition in which she was raised, the tambourine has deep power and significance to women. Later in life, many pass their own tambourines on to their daughters. When Williams was given her mother’s tambourine in 2015, it inspired her to learn more about the history of the instrument.

A violin player, Williams assumed as a child that the tambourine was an equally respected instrument. As she grew older she began to notice that it was rarely taken seriously in formal settings, relegated instead to the role of “folk instrument.” She saw this a poignant metaphor, and set to work creating a piece around it: a large tambourine sculpture addressing black challenges, identity, and future vision.

When Williams arrived for Evergreen’s first-ever Juneteenth celebration in 2019, she brought the tambourine sculpture as a gift for the college. Since then, it has been on display in the College Activities Building.

Carol Williams

Williams hopes that future generations of Greeners will interact with her sculpture, be inspired by it, and perhaps wonder why the tambourine has largely been cast aside.

“I don’t want my history to be lost,” said Williams. “All I know is that this is a part of a specific type of history that nobody ever talks about, and passing that on is really important.”

Williams’ sculpture is an encapsulation of the past and a message of hope for the future. At a time when black churches are closing across the nation, the sculpture draws on the lasting power of ritual to connect future generations with ones that have come before.

“The things that last forever are music and sound and art and ritual,” said Williams. “Ritual lasts through time, if people still believe in it.”

Williams reached several personal mile- stones lately, including the presentation of her first solo show at Seattle University. Seeing the tambourine displayed at Evergreen was especially important to her.

“I almost started crying because I felt like, wow, there’s nowhere in my consciousness that I ever thought I’d be able to do something like this,” revealed Williams. “I never thought that I’d be able to create a public art piece, let alone have my favorite college acquire it, let alone have students that I know are in the same line of thinking and processes see it and get to see it every day.”

Though Williams always aspired to tackle important issues such as race and climate justice in her work, it took time for her to develop the confidence and personal experience to do so effectively.

Carol Williams setting up an art display

“I wanted to have a voice, and to be able to talk about the things that I talk about,” she remembered. Yet, at times she felt isolated, struggling to find examples of artists of color within mainstream culture. Discouraged but undeterred, she decided to enroll at Evergreen, setting out to pursue a passion for art that had been with her all her life.

When Williams arrived in 1995, she knew Evergreen well. Having taken classes there several years earlier and also a graduate of the Upward Bound program, she had already grown fond of the place. When she returned, she saw a growing effort to provide resources and support to students of color. This along with the help of a mentor at the college helped her learn and grow.

“I was able to have these really critical conversations that helped frame the way I think about my art and craft,” said Williams.

Williams took programs which would allow her to compile an impressive portfolio and provide practical skills she would need to one day operate her own studio.

“Because it was Evergreen, I could write my own curriculum and say this is what I want to explore, this is why, and this is how I’m going to go about doing it,” explained Williams. “There’s no other college in the world that’s going to let you do that, and that was huge for me.”

Carol Williams Art Display

After graduating, Williams worked as a graphic designer, developing a precise, detail-oriented style. Her work grew more abstract over time, and when she was introduced to monoprinting—a style of printing characterized by one-of-a-kind pieces that are never replicated—her art changed forever. Nearly a decade later, Williams now works primarily with largescale monoprints, combining abstract imagery with detailed, precise techniques.

A mentor once told Williams that most artists give up right before reaching the tipping point, quitting just before the moment they would have made it big. For Williams, though, art is about more than prestige.

“It’s about contributing to society and the common good,” said Williams.

After working for many years as an employment specialist, Williams has only recently dedicated herself to art on a full-time basis.

“I realized in hindsight that the system is set up in a certain way to make sure that certain people fall through the cracks,” said Williams. “I have first-hand experience. That’s how I’ve come to this. Now I can actually use my craft to shine a light on things that need to be looked at.”