Atlanta sculptor Tom Williams remains loyal to his imagination

He made his first sculpture in high school, and has gone on to a 50-year career as a working artist

Tom Williams
Tom Williams

Photograph by Marie Thomas

Reddish brown sawdust blankets every surface in sculptor Tom Williams’s home studio in Chamblee. Drawers brim with dozens of carving tools—collected during his 50-year career as a working artist.

On a rainy fall afternoon, he’s finishing a dining-room table for a client in California, its curved design inspired by leaping whales in the Pacific Ocean. A marble bust sits on a stand nearby. He’ll go between those two projects and repairing a client’s wooden bald eagle until it’s time for dinner.

For all of his sculptures, he starts by drafting the design and molding a clay model. For wooden pieces, his primary medium, he starts with large blocks, gluing pieces together and carving until they start to take the desired shape. The whole process can take anywhere from a few hours to a few months.

Tom Williams

Photograph by Marie Thomas

He made his first sculpture in high school, inspired by a poster of Ernest Hemingway. “I thought, Wouldn’t that be a cool bust?” he says.

The satisfaction Williams felt from completing that piece reinforced his confidence. “My goal was always to be able to make anything I could imagine.”

The sculptor, who grew up in Eugene, went on to study art at the University of Oregon. After graduation, he sold all of his possessions and went to Europe to see the works of artists he’d studied firsthand.

“My dad was a successful doctor in Eugene, and we lived very comfortably. It never occurred to me that I could fail, which was perhaps a bit naive,” Williams says. “My plan was to live happily ever after and create art.”

Returning to the States, he worked in the Portland studio of famous wood sculptor Roy Setziol, then set up his own studio in Oregon. Several years later, he and his wife visited family in Atlanta and decided to move here. Williams found his niche sculpting one-of-a-kind wooden doors for estate builders, synagogues, and various businesses. In his home, for example, there’s one shaped like a wine bottle with grapes cascading over it.

Tom Williams
On Point

Photograph by Marie Thomas

Expanding his range, he started working with bronze. One of his favorite commissions was of a woman with a towel draped around her neck covering a mastectomy scar.

Williams also sculpts marble. He’s returned to Italy several times, including for a residency in Carrara. Marble ballet slippers sit atop a rotating stand in his own living room, which feels like a modern art gallery.

“If I wake up in the middle of the night, the first things that come to mind are figuring out a sculpture,” Williams says. “I’m always thinking of the audience. Are they going to be enriched by what I’m creating or not?”

This article appears in our Winter 2021 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.