Video by: Buck Kahler

Article by: Debra Dylan

Layer Cake, a multimedia performance art sculpture, recently won Best in Show at The Arts & Culture Alliance’s 2014 National Juried Exhibition. This show will remain at the downtown Knoxville Emporium Building until March 1, 2014.

Layer Cake was artist Mitchell Williamson’s MFA thesis project. The piece reflects Williamson’s evolution as a non-traditional (that means old) graduate student who boldly experimented during his 3 year program at the University of Tennessee. “I feel like I have always played it safe throughout my entire life,” says Williamson, “but maybe I felt so free to experiment and try new things in this program because I knew my day job didn’t depend on the outcome.”


Williamson enrolled in graduate school 25 years after receiving his Bachelor’s Degree in graphic design. At that time Apple computers were just hitting the market. “When I graduated I was still doing pen and ink on boards, but I taught myself all the new design software.” For a while, he taught part-time in Pellissippi State’s Engineering Technology Department. He says, “I loved it. They stressed software like Illustrator and Photoshop, but I wasn’t able to get hired full-time because I didn’t have a Master’s Degree.”

“I wanted to go back to school. I love learning and making stuff with my hands. I was fortunate to be working in graphic design at UT, and I was able to take advantage of the tuition benefit.

“I wanted to work in illustration and animation, but the problem was I didn’t have a portfolio. I needed one to get accepted into the graduate Art program. All I had were a few video clips.”


“I talked to Dr. Norman Magden and he was very encouraging. He allowed me to enroll in his class for one semester, and  that’s where I created my portfolio. Because of my software background, I had an advantage in knowing how to implement my ideas,” he says. But animation is immensely time consuming. Williamson’s determination, hustle, and skills set quickly led to success.

One of the 3 animated pieces he made that semester won the Faculty Award at the Hand Held Film Festival. Williamson had earned his place in the 4D graduate program.

A still photo MASS, an animated short film.

A still photo from MASS, an animated short film.


Williamson experienced a eureka moment while creating his mind map assignment in Associate Professor Emily Bivens’ class. “We had to include things we love in the mind map. For me that included miniatures, models, machinery, and set design. At that moment I realized I didn’t want to just do computer work anymore, which is what I had been doing for years. I love learning how to build stuff – how to build art,” he says.

"Political Theater" includes a viewing machine with interchangeable video clips.

“Political Theater” includes a viewing machine with interchangeable video clips.

Williamson thrived in Associate Professor Jason Brown’s metal sculpting class. He says of his Political Theatre piece, “This sculpture stands on its own, but it also allows me to do film work, and it’s a personalized viewing experience. Professor Bivens said this was a performance piece. Dr. Magden cautioned that the film component creates a ‘time based medium and requires a time investment from the audience. They will not know what to expect or how long the film will last.’ At this time, I began thinking about what would eventually become Layer Cake.”

The award winning Layer Cake sculpture also led Williamson to discover new skills in engineering, electronics, soldering, and working with LED chips to provide the sculpture’s light features. (For more information on Layer Cake‘s components and political and economic subject matter, please see the attached video.)

Teslascope by Mitchell Williamson.

Mitchell Williamson’s award winning Teslascope.


Williamson’s art history work with Dr. Tim Hiles led to an exhaustive study of painter/sculptor Marcel Duchamp.

“I’ve always been interested in Duchamp.  He’s a central figure to everything I’m interested in: conceptual art and surrealism. I knew I wanted to make a film about him. Dr. Hiles asked me to consider how Duchamp would have liked for his work to be shown. In my film I used humor.  I incorporated how Duchamp reacted to other artists, and how other artists followed his example. The film is unpredictable and it involves a lot of media,” says Williamson. 


Poster for “This is Not a Dada Film.”

Williamson’s 16-minute film Marcel Duchamp and the Spirit of Dada won the Dille Award for Best in Show for Graduate Art and  the Norman Magden Award for Video Art.

At the Hand Held Film Festival, the film won Best of Show, Best Graduate Work, and Best Editing.

Marcel Duchamp and the Spirit of Dada was also an Official Selection in the Glove Box Short Film and Animation Festival and has been submitted to the Bare Bones International Film and Music Festival.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy The Art of Halloween and Creature Seeker Studios.

© Debra Dylan, 2014.

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