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Signs and Symbols: UH School of Art Student Investigates Meaning Through Sculpture

Hilary Williams turns to emerging technology to explore the complex field of biosemiotics.

Fusing technological processes with natural elements, Hilary Williams’ artwork operates at the intersection of biology, technology and the study of meaning.

Williams, an undergraduate student in the UH School of Art, discovered the discipline of biosemiotics — the study or interpretation of meaning-making through signs and symbols, focused on those connected to natural or living systems — almost by accident during her studies.

As she was trying to develop a glue that would replicate or mimic natural processes, researching and experimenting with new methods and materials, she found the field of biosemiotics — and a whole new world opened up before her.

“I was really interested — and really confused!,” she laughs.

Though the vastness of the field felt a little daunting at first, her curiosity was piqued and she knew she had to learn more.

She connected with the organizers of 18th Annual Biosemiotics Gathering, which was held at the University of California, Berkeley last June, and was invited to attend as their official artist-in-residence. There, she had the opportunity to display one of her sculptures — made from biodegradable plastic covered in lichens and other greenery from tree bark — during the conference.

Williams has continued to participate in biosemiotics conference across the country — last fall, she served as the panel chair of “Advancing from Narration Toward Narratology: The Art, the Craft, the Science” at the Semiotic Society of America’s 43rd annual conference and just this spring, she attended a semiotic symposium, entitled “Expanding and Excavating Narration,” at the Central States Anthropological Society’s 2019 Annual Conference.

“As a sculptor, I think it’s really crucial to be knowledgeable about the materials you’re using,” says Williams. She also enjoys seeing where new technology will take artistic practices, how they will evolve over time.

“I love art history, and being able to see where we’re going with new technology is really exciting. I like to consider what the next evolution of processes will be. With semiotics, I’m looking at that line of meaning within emerging practices, like digital fabrication, 3D printing and laser cutting.” 

She has access to these processes, and more, in the Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Art’s newly established Arts & Technology Center (ATC). The lab serves as an invaluable asset for her work on the UH campus, and she is exploring tools for semiotics in the digital arts through a customized independent study course with the ATC’s general manager, Heather Bisesti.

“Being able to have these tools help me deconstruct processes in my art practice, ultimately allowing me to rebuild and create something new.”