Simon had already accepted his place to study architecture at Liverpool University, when he decided he could squeeze in a Foundation Course at Worthing Art College. While at Worthing, he formed a band called “Jump in Your Datsun” and managed to get his demo track played by DJ, John Peel. Fellow student Robert Smith also formed a band - called “The Cure”! Although his youthful adventure in music hit a commercial dead-end, the importance of music in Simon’s life never waned and it would play an integral part in several of Simon’s Liverpool performance art pieces.
While at University, in 1983, Simon made his first foray into pavement painting. He would be out at the crack of dawn with his suitcase and pastels, at the bottom of busy Bold Street, and by the time the first punters came along, he would have a recognisable square of the pastel painting ready to attract their attention and draw them towards him. Passers-by stop to watch and have a chat on their way to work, then come back during their lunch hour, to see how he was getting on. By the time they finished work, he would be standing over his completed picture of Daley Thomson, high-jumping his way to Olympic gold, or Santa doling out gifts from his sack, or an astonishing reproduction of Michaelangelo’s Creation, surrounded by shoppers, his suitcase bulging with coins. (On one train journey home, the weight of the coins caused him to topple off his seat!). From the outset, Simon’s repertoire was chosen to be topical or attention-grabbing; interaction with the public was a crucial part of his performance. Local news and newspapers soon heard about these “events” and Simon’s work was featured in both.
Simon got his first commission for a theatre poster from Liverpool Lunchtime Theatre, the brainchild of Unity Theatre Artistic Director, Graeme Phillips, where many of our better-known playwrights cut their teeth. An original 50 minute play, with pre-ordered pub lunch... fantastic idea, Graeme! After the success of the first poster, Simon did them all. The originality of his work earned him commissions to design many of the sets for the productions and to be official photographer for most of them. The posters were so striking and varied in design that commissions from other theatres started to flow. Hundreds of posters were hand-printed in the basement of the Architecture Department. They stood out from all the others, whether on fly-posting sites, in newspapers and listings magazines or theatre displays. No one who passed would fail to know about your performance if Simon had designed your poster. Simon’s first poster for the Liverpool Playhouse is permanently hung as a piece of art in the theatre.
Shortly after graduating, Simon embarked on another exciting piece of performance art at The Blackie, a massive city-centre community venue for innovative art and theatre, incorporating a commitment to homeless and socially challenged members of the local community. They were fascinated by Simon’s plan and welcomed it to the venue. A small, working car was to be bought and cut into portable pieces, with angle grinders, as the opening sequence of the performance, with the assistance of friends, musician and photographer brothers, Steve and Joel Cockerill (sons of RA painter Maurice), the pieces would then be used as instruments, on which music/sounds would be played, before the pieces were made into a piece of sculpture by Jonathan Froud, who at that time was primarily working with glass.
Time out before the responsibility of earning a living was, of course, an attempt to cycle to Hong Kong, from Liverpool, financed by pavement painting in every country it proved possible, (the Sahara turned to be a bit of a problem), portrait painting or fruit-picking where it was impossible. The bicycle didn’t quite make the whole journey, but after many months spent crossing many countries and meeting with other young travellers, Simon returned to the UK, London this time, with books full of drawings and paintings he had made along the way and began touting his poster portfolio around theatres. His pavement paintings supported him once more and in 1987, he was the Time Out Street Artist of the year.
His earliest London commissions included the poster for Kenneth Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre Company’s inaugural performance, at Riverside Studios, Renaissance Nights, The Young Vic, Theatre Royal Stratford East, The Royal Court and a pivotal commission from Trevor Nunn for A Baker’s Wife. All the big agencies had pitched and couldn’t get it right for Nunn. After Simon’s success, where everyone else had fallen short, Dewynters did the sensible thing and brought him in-house and he remained there as a senior designer for three and a half years, before joining competitors, Tangerine, as a Director. It was Simon’s experience at Dewynters which enabled him to move into a more commercial production mode and away from primarily art-based work.
After three years at Tangerine, Simon decided to go it alone and set up Simon Williams Design, which by 2005 was too large a group of excellent designers to bear the name of just one and the company was re-branded as Feast. The West End production of Guys and Dolls was the one which really put Feast on the map – and, more importantly, on the same map as the really major players. His client base now includes Sonia Friedman Productions, The Ambassador Theatre Group (the largest operator in the West End), Matthew Bourne, The Royal Court and The Menier Chocolate Factory.
Of course, there were always other things going on in the background, certainly for the last fourteen years. Outdoor sculptures have been created from driftwood and left where they were built, in Jamaica. (Simon spent three months there with his family, to give his small children the experience of another life and of the other half of their ancestry). Individual rocks have been painted, in bright colours and again left in place. A series of photographs documenting the changes in himself and his son, Archie, side by side, as each year passes has been amassed; photographs of their shoes, side by side, large and small; small “crop circle” designs have been left in meadows. All represent something, communicate something, to anyone who might come across them. Simon’s work has never existed in isolation. Whether it is to communicate other creatives’ ideas to a potential theatre audience, or his own most personal thoughts, Simon’s work has always reached outwards.
Simon’s most recently completed work is UNDER THE HAMMER; a conceptual project of 17 weekly auctions of (Un)originals artwork inspired by famous artists. More info here.