• Zachary Petit

Hadiya Williams’ World of Expressive Ceramics and Deft Design

Hadiya Williams was already a skilled graphic designer—but when she stepped away from her computer to take a two-hour clay workshop with a friend, something entirely new clicked.

“It was a revelation,” she says. “I took to it so effortlessly and somewhat aggressively—similar to how I fell into graphic design 20+ years ago.”

After initially launching an Etsy store to feature her products, today Williams presides over Black Pepper Paperie Co., where she sells her one-of-a-kind handmade ceramics from the nation’s capital.

PRINT caught up with her to learn more about her creative journey, her philosophies, and creating on-screen and off.

You’re from Washington, DC. What are some of your earliest creative memories, and how did your creativity manifest at a young age?

Chocolate City was so special to me growing up. It was so rich and layered. I can appreciate it more now that I’m older and experiencing a heavily gentrified DC. I realize how much that foundation, of what I sometimes call a Black utopia, has shaped me and my creativity.

I loved to color as a child. I am a child of the ’80s, so coloring books were big. It was one of my favorite pastimes. I also remember this body-type book that my mother used to have. It had all of these body types, eyes, noses, clothing, etc., and I would create these drawings (traced) of women and dress them in the different outfits, put the different pieces together and create this whole collection of women in outfits. That memory just came to me. I would love to find that book.

You earned a BS in Computer Science from Bowie State University. Leading up to school and as you graduated, what were you envisioning for your future?

I honestly had no clue. I entered Bowie State in 1996, so computers were hot, and I live in DC, so the opportunities for work in that field were plentiful. My mother thought majoring in Comp Sci was better than no major, so that’s what I did. It was tough. I am good at problem-solving and deductive reasoning but I still found programming and high-level math to be a challenge. I did manage to maintain a GPA that would allow me to hold onto my scholarship but I was never excited about programming.

An assortment of Williams' ceramics

You discovered design while at Bowie. How—and did you have any awareness of it before that course?

Not in a direct sense. I can look back now after over 15 years in the field and see the connections. I took art class in high school and did really well. I even had my work stolen out of the display case in the hallway. I consider that a plus. I ended up being the TA in my senior year. I did the same in college. After taking the “computer graphics” elective course, I became a TA the next semester. I was hooked on it.

After being snowed in during a winter break, I just taught myself more and more about the Adobe software. I knew I’d found something with those classes even though they were more technical than theoretical or design-based. Back in 1998–2000, Bowie had a Fine Art department that provided computer graphics classes as more of an accompaniment to the fine art. I am so grateful for that experience and the introduction to what would be my true calling. Bowie has a really wonderful design program now; some of my good friends and colleagues are professors there and the work that the students are producing makes me proud.

I also met American painter and educator Lois Mailou Jones not long before she passed in 1998. She was in her 90s and she was so sharp. My grandmother died in her early 70s. She seemed much older than her 73 years. I think Ms. Jones gave me a little more insight into the possibilities for Black women as professionals outside of what I’d typically known. My mother was a social worker, my family worked for government agencies, office jobs, etc.

To this day, I don’t remember why I was there. I stayed after and spoke with her briefly, purchased a book and got it signed. That moment had a huge influence on me.

What prompted you to go to Columbia College Chicago and earn your BFA in graphic design?

When I graduated from Bowie, I worked as a software engineer at Verizon for less than two years. It was sort of at the height of the dotcom era. In 2002 the company cut 10,000 employees nationwide and I was included in the layoffs. It was a really tough period but also a turning point. After being out of work for a few months, I started looking at schools for design. At that point I knew that I wanted to work in graphic design and I’d kept up with it in different ways. The gag was that I had no formal education in art or design. All I had were these drawings from a drawing 101 book, the work I created for friends, and my mock CD cover designs. This is the work that I took all the way to Chicago to show for my application. It was not great or professional at all. The beautiful thing about Columbia College Chicago is that it is a Liberal Arts school and they had an open admissions policy and a second bachelor’s program. It was meant for someone just like me.

What did those in your life think about your decision? Were they supportive?

Everyone was pretty supportive. I’d ended up moving back home after the layoff, so I think my mother was happy that I’d found something that I could focus on and that seemed more suited for me. Plus I could move out of her house.

Work for Art on the Vine 2018

After Columbia College, you worked as a designer at Discovery before joining Social & Scientific Systems Inc as a designer, where you stayed for seven years, working on clients like the Office of AIDS research and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. What were some of the biggest things you took away from those experiences?

Discovery was short but it was exciting to be working on some cool stuff. I did learn that I was not interested in advertising and that environment is important. I was one of two Black people in my department, the only designer. Much like design school, there was a sense of isolation that I would feel at times. This is why I sought out a Black design community outside of work. I was a member of the Organization of Black Designers (OBD) while in Chicago, so when I moved back to DC I joined the local chapter. It was a saving grace. I am still good friends with many of the people I met in the former organization, 15 years ago.

At SSS, I really learned how to work with clients and on a small team. I worked in-house but we did a lot of work with NIH and the centers there. I got accustomed to the ins and outs of working on events and big conferences; pretty much the foundation of my skills was developed there. I also learned that it’s not good to get too comfortable in a job. I should have moved on a few years before I left. I could see my work getting a little stale and I got a little burned out.

After, you worked as an art director and designer at the Edgewood/Brookland Family Support Collaborative. How did that experience impact you?

I had been freelancing with the organization since college, doing their brochures and their annual reports. That was the “fun” work for me while at my corporate gig. I decided to leave my job at a financial association after the Freddie Gray murder in Baltimore in 2015. I remember sitting at my desk crying; mostly everyone in the office seemed unaware or unaffected by the current climate. That moment gave me some clarity. The normal grin-and-bear-it as a Black woman was no longer sustainable. The office politics and subtle racism started to become glaring and I knew I could no longer stay.

I considered the possibility of coming on as the designer at E/BFSC while discussing the work that they were proposing for the year ahead. It was a great deal of design work, and it made sense to bring me on as a staff member instead of trying to find another full-time gig while I burn myself out doing all of the freelance work on the side. Like many nonprofit organizations, they hadn’t considered having anyone on staff but I knew the org so well by that point and I knew I could bring some life to the marketing side of the company. I only worked there for about a year and a half, but it was definitely my favorite place to work. In that time, I worked on their 20th-anniversary report, the video, the celebration, a huge photo project for the families in a couple of the DC homeless shelters, the new office space design along with the everyday design tasks. I was able to hire some interns to help but it was a lot to manage for someone who is not Type A. But it was worth every minute. I really got an up-close view of the org and the people in the communities that they served. I still smile when I come across photos or a piece of collateral. I watched the 20th-anniversary video recently and I cried. The work I did there felt like it was for something much bigger.

I realized then that I only wanted to do work that was transformative for others. I began to care less about the technical and more about the energy that came from the work and the lives affected by it.

Tell us how a particularly amazing wedding invitation design led to Black Pepper Paperie. Late 2016/2017 sounds like a pretty amazing and revolutionary time in your life.

While I was working at E/BFSC I was also working on the wedding materials for TheBlackestWeddingEver, for my friends Shantrelle P. Lewis and Tony Lawson. They are the founders of Shoppe Black.

The bride, Shantrelle P. Lewis, was a curator and researcher who travels internationally researching Diasporic aesthetics, spirituality and the survival and nuances of Transnational African Diasporan communities. She is/was a curator by trade. She knew she wanted me to design her wedding invitations from the moment she started choosing vendors. Being a cultural curator of “Blackness,” Shantrelle knew all of the pieces that she needed to make her wedding into a work of art. Part of this was being able to hire Black vendors for all aspects of this affair. They were able to get up to about 85% Black businesses. Having a Black designer for her wedding invitations was essential. The reason it was essential is because they used a theme embedded in our culture, and they didn’t want to have to explain the concept. It had to be organic.

Shantrelle spoke of herself and her world in reference to this fictional country of Zamunda, from the film Coming to America, which is assumed to be located on the continent of Africa. Before she met her husband, Tony, she was in search of her “King of Zamunda.” If you know her, you know this pretty well. Being a curator of culture across the diaspora, with friends around the world (Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, the Netherlands, London, France, etc.), the film Coming to America provided a nice universal reference for those intersecting worlds. Another major factor is that Shantrelle is also a native of New Orleans, LA. It pours out of her whenever she speaks. She hasn’t lived in New Orleans in over 20 years but her soul is still there and she makes it clear. Tony, the groom, a first-generation Nigerian, definitely wanted to infuse his culture into the affair as well. The magical, spiritual and most African city of New Orleans had to be the backdrop for this wedding. That was important. New Orleans is a living, breathing testament to the African Diaspora.

All of that is what set the tone for the Blackest Wedding Ever. Culture that defied Western tradition was central to this wedding. The approach was very insular as well as expansive. “Black opulence” was a term used a few times in our conversations. “Royalty,” “Gatsby,” “Art Deco” were all terms that we discussed. Almost just like that. It was very organic in that way. I knew exactly what she meant when she mentioned those terms together.

I knew that my job as the designer was to somehow combine opulence with Blackness, while still making it clear that every invitee was going to be attending the Royal Wedding of Zamunda in a literal sense, not kitsch.

Editor’s Note: Williams’ invitations are now featured in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture holdings. Read more about the wedding here, and see video here and here.

Was it daunting to take the leap to forging your own business? Or was it more organic?

So organic. Though, I did take a few online business and personal branding workshops. The thing that really tipped the scale for me was The 100 Day Project started 2015 by Elle Luna. It was that creative workshop that I needed to help me take my creativity and my business to the next level. Free and open to the public. I guess it all adds up.

You began on Etsy. Tell us how things have grown and evolved since then.

I was an early adopter of Etsy. Even attended a weekend craft workshop that they held in DC back in 2008. I was a believer. I saw that space really grow so it was a natural first step for me. I ended up moving my shop away from Etsy because it was simpler for me. It was a data entry issue, to be honest. With all of my pieces being one-of-a-kind, it was cumbersome for me to enter in content for each item. Plus I had more control over the platform on my own site. I still love Etsy and I use it all the time.

What has surprised you most over the years?

My fears, and realizing how I allow them to hold me back. When I finally push through a task or a phase, I look back in amazement at how much I let fear stall me.

You’ve said that your work evokes emotion and is very rooted in spirituality. Tell us more.

I appreciate graphic design for its structure and foundation. I can do the work I do now with ease because of that foundation. I do bring something with me that deviates from the grid. I sometimes call myself an intuitive designer for lack of a technical explanation. It’s important for me to incorporate who I am, as a person of African descent, into what I create and how I approach my work. For me that means releasing some of the Eurocentric standards of design that I was taught. I rarely use a grid; most of my design work feels like a puzzle. I am looking at the space and connecting the pieces, the colors, letterforms, the images. It feels very spiritual at times. I know that that energy is received by people who encounter my work. I have seen it. Tears, joy, inspiration, transformation have all come through work that I’ve created. That part is where the [work] veer[s] off the path. I am OK with calling it spiritual now, because I know that I am incorporating my African-American/African cultural experience and memory into what I do. It is more important for my work to touch someone’s soul than for me to be concerned with a few picas.

I think this is why I’ve moved into creating more with my hands and creating art rather than designing communications materials. I realized that I designed more like I was creating a work of art than a piece of collateral.

Shantrelle’s wedding is a great example. She went from feeling drained and unenthused about her wedding planning to putting on the massive wedding extravaganza. When she talks about her wedding she says that the light bulb went off after she saw my designs. I was on the phone with her when it happened. She was like, “I think I’m going to do a small backyard wedding. I am so tired; this planning is a lot on top of everything else.” Then she saw the design and was screaming on the phone, and her dress went from cream color to gold sequin. The ideas instantly started flowing.

This happened recently on a Zoom meeting where I was discussing my proposal with some potential clients for a large city development project. After looking at my design work more intimately and seeing my craft work as well, they went from wanting just a logo for the project to thinking of a whole system of design possibilities to carry across the entire project. The CMO was so inspired in that moment. I saw the light in her eyes. Now, if they don’t go with me, I may or may not feel some kind of way, but that’s what I love about creating. It’s spiritual on multiple levels.

You find inspiration in fellow Black women. Who, in particular, really inspires you?

Esther Mahlangu, Andrea Pippins, Gail Anderson, Jen Hewett, Jennifer White-Johnson, Malene Barnett, Torkwase Dyson, Faith Ringgold. Ancestors: Alma Thomas, Lois Mailou Jones, Toni Morrison.

How do you find balance between all of your pursuits, Hadiya?

Cry breaks.

How do you practice self-care?

These days it’s walking. A nice show binge if there is time. The breaks are essential. I miss seeing art in person. Looking forward to that.

What are you working on next, design-wise?

I have an event that I was designing for, the Black Love Experience. It was supposed to take place in late March so it was postponed to September. I hope we will be able to finish that. Maybe that large development project will happen. I would love a nice interesting project that will be impactful.

What are you working on next, art-wise?

I am continuing to grow my business selling one-of-a-kind handmade pieces. Before the quarantine, I was consigning and wholesaling my wearable art to a few stores and museum shops around the country. Since the quarantine I decided that I should move my work to my online shop just to get some things out of my inventory. Not knowing what was ahead, I’d started uploading my pieces on May 31/June 1, and then was going to work on my organic marketing. When the June 2 “Blackout” hit, I kept selling out of stuff! It made me realize I can sell my work online, myself, and grow my business at my pace. So once I catch up with these orders, I will plan a little better. It’s fully occupying my time at the moment but I’m excited about the possibilities.

I am also in talks with a wallpaper company regarding a collaboration.

Getting my MFA is a goal.

Which side of yourself is dominant—the artist or the designer? Or are they one in the same?

Hmmm … I work with simple lines and shapes in my artwork and a lot of it involves the layout of these elements to create a pattern of some sort. I know the definition of design is evolving in some ways, so it also depends on who you ask. I experiment a lot. As a creator, I think it’s good to make the distinction for yourself. It helps direct your thinking about what and why you are creating your work. Because this still feels new and it was organic, some days I call myself a designer and sometimes an artist/maker. In the professional world, they all mean different things, so I look forward to the moment that I have full clarity.