Trenise ‘Tree’ Williams (she/her) was born in Memphis, Tennessee. In 2016 she migrated to the art-rich city of Seattle, Washington. As an amateur artist and graphic design student, she’d explore public art by volunteering as an art docent at nearby elementary schools. She’d eventually find herself on the edge of art and activism during the uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement by creating artwork, apparel, and murals to reflect the state of the nation. Trenise enjoys using charcoal, acrylic paint, pastels, and digital media paired with collaging and photorealism. Look out for themes regarding Black culture, economics, nature, sports, and justice when experiencing Trees’ work.
Tree stands in front of a mural she created in Renton, with the message ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Tree is wearing a lavender sweatshirt and sweatpants.
Can you share with us how you became a Teaching Artist at Urban ArtWorks, and what inspired you?
I am certain that word of mouth is how I came into contact with Urban Artworks. Between vending at the Black Love Market in Renton and designing the BLM Renton Street Mural, some nice person saw my potential. People genuinely being kind to me has gotten me into many places.
So Urban Artworks called you?
Urban Artworks called me.
What inspired me to become a teaching artist is my passion for kids and the arts. The moment I walked into the studio my life seemed a bit brighter. I saw it as an opportunity to not only generate income but as a chance to interact with other artists and develop in a creative environment. Over time I would come to the realization of the grandness and reach that Urban ArtWorks has had throughout its 30-year existence by commuting through the city seeing murals and meeting other creatives with UA ties.
Can you share a memorable moment or experience as a Teaching Artist or Muralist with Urban ArtWorks that had an impact on you?
Out of the handful of Mural Apprentice Programs I have had many memorable moments from meeting kids with incredible drawing skills to painting a 100ft long corrugated factory wall in the heat. I can say one of the most memorable moments was a project we did last summer 2023 at Lake Stickney Elementary School.
It was a daunting project that consisted of 20 to 30 students coming to paint every 40 minutes for an entire day. I’m a person that loves music and has to have a beat playing while we work but at this particular moment I let another Teaching Artist borrow the speaker and it left us without any tunes to play. Although the students were disappointed, I jokingly suggested that somebody sings instead. The class immediately points out this shy little girl and she confirms “yes, I can sing”. Sure enough the class quiets down she starts to nervously sing. To my surprise she blossoms open and the entire class starts singing the song in unison at the top of their lungs. By the way, the song was ‘Flowers’ by Miley Cyrus. It was the best thing ever! It still gives me the chills because they felt free enough to have fun, make space for other talents and get the job done. Who knows that little girl might be a singer in the future, and our mural project was her first concert. I am proud to have created an atmosphere where they could be authentic and productive.
Tree talking with a students while painting a mural with the Rainier View MAP program.
In what ways do you see art serving as a tool for empowerment and self-expression for youth in the Mural Apprentice Program (MAP), considering your role as a Teaching Artist?
As a Teaching Artist I see myself as a servant to the youth. My job is to help them navigate their ideas to the point of a completed mural. When that process is done they can step back and know they finished what started. With that they are empowered by what they have created. It gives them a level of confidence in themselves and their abilities. I believe having a posture of confidence is a tool that is necessary for survival and it will be needed in other aspects of their lives going forward. My hope is that they harness a ‘can-do’ attitude to conquer the next challenge that is thrown their way.
How has your experience being from Memphis with a rich cultural and artistic history influenced your artistic style and the themes you choose to explore in your work?
My experience of growing up in Memphis consisted of many family gatherings, home cooked meals, fantastic music, a strong stance on education and church on Sundays. Some natives now refer to the area as ‘Memphissippi’. A plain split by the state lines of Tennessee and Mississippi but still contains a country, city and suburban vibe. Growing up playing competitive sports I was able to travel the city limits and see the different lifestyles, family structures and struggles other kids my age were experiencing. That combined with the rich history of the Mississippi River has framed my creative process with a sense of wisdom, authenticity and liveliness wrapped around themes like history, culture and identity. Coming up in the 90s and 00s I didn’t see many murals or artists around my city so I never confidently thought I would grow up to become a muralist or a Teaching Artist. My goal and wish is to always give back and start a mural apprentice program similar to Seattles’ Urban ArtWorks. Therefore kids that came up like me can see their future in the arts and assume more opportunities in the industry.
Tree stands in front of a tan wall while the sun is setting and the shadow of a tree can be seen beside her on the wall. Tree is wearing a tan jacket, lavender sweatshirt and sweatpants.
Congratulations on the project managing the City of Renton’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) street mural. You also creative directed, designed, and led the BLM mural project! What challenges did you face during the process, and what impact do you hope the mural has on the community? Can you tell us about the creative decisions you made in bringing that mural to life and the significance it holds for you?
The Renton BLM Street Mural Project holds special significance in my portfolio. I’d like to offer a special heartfelt thank you and dedicate the entire success of this mural to the late Meena Merchant and the Owl Project, a Renton based nonprofit organization dedicated to creating murals that reflect the city.
In hindsight I thought my role would be finite. That mindset would change drastically as I would be propelled into leadership when our beloved Meena announced that she would have to step down due to a metastatic cancer diagnosis. With that, she entrusted me with leading, designing and executing my largest community mural thus far. We faced challenges such as getting an ordinance that officially stated that Black lives do matter in the city of Renton. Other challenges like funding, supplies and weather were all apparent but still did not waiver our plans on completing the project.
Thanks to the Vivid Matter Collective of Seattle the outline of the design was a direct replica of the Capitol Hill and Washington D.C. BLM design that went viral during the 2020 uprising. The Renton mural has a uniqueness to it because of the custom typographic design made by longtime local Renton artist Donald Leonard. Due to the availability of resources we had to change the color scheme. The art also includes a plethora of icons that pinpoint spaces where black and marginalized citizens of Renton could be better served. Examples would be a stethoscope in honor of #KaloniBolton and icons like a multiplex living structure to serve as an agent for affordable housing. Even drawings of Wi-Fi symbols and African motifs to represent the wealth gap and how technology can be at the forefront of our local education system preparing young Rentonians to compete in tech spaces in the upcoming decades. Lastly a light rail icon to bring attention to how Renton was left out of the public transportation revitalization in King County and how it negatively affects how certain demographics are able to commute.
I was simultaneously terrified and optimistic but at the time I couldn’t see that God had already prepared me for the moment. I am extremely thankful to a handful of talented local artists, small businesses, local government agencies and even grassroot organizations. We completed the project in 4 days! We topped it off with a community block party and a Black Love Market to celebrate. I hope that the success of this mural will lead to more funding, opportunities and permanent groundbreaking spaces to be afforded to marginalized artists within the Renton landscape. Renton gave me a start that has opened doors to even more endeavors such as becoming a Teaching Artist for Urban Artworks.
Tree stands in front of a mural painted on the street that she created in Renton, with the message ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Tree is wearing a lavender sweatshirt and sweatpants.
We are sharing this interview during Black History Month. How do you approach celebrating Black history and culture through your art? Are there specific themes or messages that you aim to convey?
American Black history month may seem mundane to some but it’s critical that Black heritage is celebrated, recognized and shared with accuracy. Our younger generations must understand the challenges and conditions their predecessors survived so they too can put their best foot forward in everything they do. It’s not inaccurate to say that some forces are actively trying to dilute and disregard the experiences and trauma Black Americans have endured and still hold till this very moment. As an artist to combat the erasure, I honor Black culture by spotlighting pivotal people through portraiture, communicate stories using symbols and typography and push boundaries by trying different mediums. Themes like ingenuity, beauty, sacrifice, fearlessness, love and tribulation are just a few subjects that inspire my messaging. This year I will produce a series of drawings of older people in my bloodline to immortalize them and pay homage to their contributions to my life. We always hear about legends like Martin Luther King Jr. but what about everyday folks like my grandfathers. Two Black men that were able to build and maintain their own businesses in the South during the 70s and 80s. Their toil would draw the blueprint to the work ethic and spirit of generosity I exude today. I believe many of us should take the time to elevate Black History Month by speaking with our elders, to appreciate their lives and highlight them in some way.
Tree painting a wooden panel with a portrait of Elijah Lewis. There is another portrait of Elijah Lewis made by Artist Edimbo Lekea behind her.
We understand that you are currently working on a portrait of Elijah Lewis. Could you share more about this piece and why you are creating it?
As a small part of a larger community project to pay respect to the late Elijah Lewis I created a portrait of him posing with zeal over Seattle. This composition signifies the larger than life impact his candid articulation, joyful aura and defining actions had on the area. As the founder of Ethereal Vision 206 he sought to shed light on discrepancies in the King County schools system that currently affect the wellbeing of Indigenous and Black students. Elijah also shared his entrepreneurial, generous and forward thinking spirit by creating spaces for the youth to learn to harness their own magnificence and create wealth for themselves. At such a young age Elijah had a gift for organizing his community and speaking truth to power and many more noble things. He was a man of integrity, friendship, courage and magnanimity who is still extremely missed to this day. His activism is absolutely continuing to guide and bring us together even after his untimely and tragic death. #longlivElijah
Processing trauma through art can be a powerful experience. In what ways does creating the mural for Elijah Lewis help you process the emotional impact of loss and contribute to healing for yourself and the community?
As humans, the trauma of losing someone close to you can be one of the hardest things to overcome. In the sense of healing, art has the power to make a loss more palatable. When one can apply different principles and elements of art to create a tangible manifestation of that person’s essence, it almost feels like they (the deceased person) are in the room! It’s a beautiful process that I do not take for granted. I am honored when I do get the call to memorialize someone in that fashion.
Tree is sitting with her hands resting on a chair. A wooden panel with a portrait of Elijah Lewis that she is painting can be seen behind her.
What advice do you have for aspiring artists, especially those from underrepresented communities, who seek to make a positive impact through their art?
The advice I have is the same advice my dear neighbor Mr. John gave to me one day and it was kind of simple. I was told, “You will never know if you don’t pursue it”. That translates to get around what you want to be around. Change your algorithm on life. Find a way to give and share your gift with others. Where I’m from we call it hustling. Even if that means volunteering! People will remember the work you are willing to put in without monetary reward. Stay consistent in your practice and the money will flow. Also keep in mind that artists are needed in every industry. So try to broaden your thinking when you visualize what path you want to take on. Another vital thing for an aspiring artist is to find your own style. I found that there is nothing like originality. It’s okay to be influenced by the work around you but find a way to tell and visualize the story from your point of view. Lastly, check your intentions behind what you are creating and have some fun.
Tree is standing on the right side of a building with a mural Tree painted in Renton that says “Black Lives Matter”.