Collin Williams is the new media professor at the University of Montevallo, where he's taught for 16 years. He is photographed in his garden with his wife, Sharon, and their animals.
On coming to Montevallo
"When you're in academia, you go where the jobs are. I think we’re pretty fortunate in Montevallo to have a network of faculty members that are actually friends. You’re certainly not guaranteed that. When I was working at the University of Houston, it’s ten times the size in terms of a school, and the politics were crazy. I really hated that, so I started looking for something else. When I was searching, obviously there are politics everywhere, but I was specifically looking for some place where they were in everyone’s best interest and supporting one another. Then there are politics where people are undermining one another and cutting each other’s throats. You spend more time at your job than you do at home, so I didn’t want a situation like that. It made me too anxious and made me feel horrible. I left [my interview], and I could tell at Montevallo that it wasn’t fake. People really did support one another. I had offers at school that were in some ways better schools- bigger facilities, better programs, better on paper, whatever- but with Montevallo, I wasn’t wrong. I read them really well, and happily so. I feel like we really are a family and I feel very fortunate in that regard."
Life in a small southern town
"People have very severe stereotypes about the South in general, and Alabama specifically. In all honesty, maybe I even had some of those stereotypes myself. I don’t know that I would have come here without the job opportunity, but if the stereotypes completely were borne out to be true, I wouldn’t have stayed. So, I think it’s a wonderful place, but it still has a lot of work to do in the broader sense. The beautiful thing about Montevallo is that it’s kind of an oasis in a very difficult state to live in if you’re progressive in any way. I could have used Montevallo as a stepping school, gone on to another university, done something else, but I really feel like being in Montevallo and being in Alabama means I can be a seed voice. I can be a voice of reason. If I were in California or even Houston still or New York or Baltimore or wherever, maybe that voice isn’t as important. There are already plenty of progressive voices in places like that. But in places like Alabama, I think it’s needed. About 2% of people generally identify as homosexual, but in Montevallo- I don’t know what the number is, but it’s much higher than that. So besides democrat vs republican, conservative vs progressive, I think Montevallo is a nurturing space for people that need a nurturing space in Alabama. That’s a wonderful thing."
The university and the town
"My point of view is that we should be as open minded and inclusive as possible. I think the university does a good job of that, and the town’s different to some degree. But I think it does a better job than a lot of places that are nearby or in the region. I think Hollie [the current mayor] and the people that’s she’s brought in around her have a vision to be inclusive and support the arts. Not just visual arts, but the arts in general. When I first came to Montevallo there was more of a divide between the town and the university. There are citizens in the town that don’t think the fact that now we have a much closer relationship as a good thing, but I think it really is. I just don’t see why you would want the university to be a community isolated within the town. There have been great strides- I can’t take any credit for it, but I support it. The last 4 years have been really good for making progress."
Collin: "We walk as much as we can walk- I think it’s stupid to avoid the gym and then avoid exercise the rest of the day. One day we didn’t check the weather, and we always go with our neighbors down the street on Thursdays to The Tavern."
Sharon: "We walked to The Tavern for dinner, we thought it was going to lightly sprinkle, so we had raincoats and rainjackets. We didn’t know that a severe thunderstorm was coming in and it was going to rain sideways and upside down."
Collin: "It starts coming down and we think, we have to walk back in this? But Deanna Smith and her husband were there and they happened to have two cars."
Sharon: "Her mom was there and her mom said, 'I’ll stay with the baby and you go take them home'. We said we’d walk, but she was insistent. It was really nice."
On being a professor at a liberal arts school
"As an educator and an artist, I think about those two roles a lot. The most interesting things happen, in art anyways, at boundaries. [Students are] young, so it’s natural for them to have really narrow ideas about what art can be. It’s really important to explode those kind of ideas. I feel really privileged that I get to work with people that are pursuing something that’s going to be their lifelong work at the beginning when they’re figuring out the nuts and bolts of it. That’s an amazing thing to do for a living. I say it all the time- I’d do it for free, just don’t tell anybody! People that are living an engaged life understand that you’re making yourself. You’re not discovering yourself, you’re making yourself. Lots of students believe that they’re going to discover somehow who they are as an artist or a person, and the reality is, when you think about “discovering”, you’re taking the responsibility off yourself. Really, you’re making that happen for yourself, and that’s where it is- if you’re not responsible for it, you’re not going to be an artist. It doesn’t matter if you have tons of talent. That’s the difference between people that make it and people that don’t make it. I always say gumption, because that’s my grandmother’s word… having the gumption to make it happen."
The students of Montevallo
"I think there’s two things that happen in college. The worst thing you can do is accept what you’ve learned from your family or hometown. It’s your responsibility when you’re 20 years old to challenge that in some way. Only 2 things can happen when you challenge that: you either understand that some of the assumptions you’ve been given are wrong and you change yourself, or you understand that you were right, and it reinforces your belief system. Either one of those things are good for us as individuals. More likely than not, though, all of us have learned things that aren’t correct. It’s our responsibility to work on that. Liberal arts education is the environment for that."
What Montevallo needs to work on
"We are in an incredibly blue spot in a very red tapestry, so I think a lot of times we’re at our worst in Montevallo the same ways that we’re at our worst as Americans- when we can’t see past our own tribalism and see the other person’s point of view. You don’t have to agree, but you do need to listen. Our political system is based on coming to compromise, but a greater and greater degree, a large portion of the players believe that compromise is a dirty word, and it stresses me. How do we get past that that? Montevallo is at its worst when we can’t agree."
Montevallo at its best
"There is a lot of cross pollination in Montevallo, and that’s happening to a greater degree. We’ve added a lot of sustainability issues, and the new degree where you can tailor make it to your interests. I love this idea of us eventually becoming the Sarah Lawrence of the South- having that kind of flexibility to work among one another as faculty members and departments and gear curriculum to the students. Even in the art department, I hate this concept of concentrations. I understand why we have to do it- logistically it helps manage curriculum- but I never think of us as making only printmakers or sculptors or whatever. I think of us as making artists. Sarah Lawrence even takes that broader. They don’t think of individual disciplines, they think of making citizens- people that are well informed and prepared for citizenry and life and participating. As citizens- this is a pet peeve of mine- well, what are we expected to do? We’re only expected to vote and do jury duty and pay taxes. That’s pretty ridiculous in terms of inclusiveness in a system. I think it could be incredibly inclusive if we had the political will to make it happen. I like to see little pockets of that happening, and Montevallo is a pocket."