Framing a Life: Anthony Williams, Remembered

Remembering Anthony Williams, in his art and by his students
A self-portrait of Anthony Williams in oil.

If it’s the job of teachers to plant seeds, then Anthony Williams sowed enough to create a virtual forest.

For nearly 40 years, Williams taught art to thousands of students, but his teaching load never became so onerous that he didn’t find time to paint himself. Though he died of brain cancer in October 2008, his influence continues.

He and his work are being remembered in a show at Rochester’s Paint Creek Center for the Arts: Anthony Williams: A Life in Art, in the Main Gallery. It will include oils, pastels, and charcoal studies.

This untitled pastel landscape was painted late in Williams’ career.

Because he was equally regarded as a teacher, the gallery is presenting a concomitant exhibit of works by Williams’ students in the First Floor Gallery. Both shows open Oct. 7.

“We heard from so many students, some who took classes decades ago, who wanted to take part in the exhibit,” says Mary Fortuna, Paint Creek’s exhibition director. “Tony touched so many lives.”

Some of those artists include Monte Thompson, Mary Jahns, Ron Ribant, Rick Vian, Michelle Gruda, Richard Lewis, Ruth Zarger, Leonard Sokol, Cliff Harris, Kris Schaedig, and Brian Victor Ciupka.

Fortuna says Williams stressed that students must first learn fundamentals before venturing off on their own creative paths.

“He felt that they had to have a firm grounding in technique before they experimented,” she says. Williams once wrote in his own artist’s statement: “When one rebels against tradition, one rebels against history. Rebellion comes first from understanding.”

Stylistically, Williams may not have been a trailblazer, but Fortuna says his works are distinctive.

“He was a representational artist, but his works don’t have a lot of fussy detail,” she says. “He loved action and physicality in his paintings, and so there are race horses, bulls, birds of prey, wrestlers — images with high drama. But then he did some later pastel landscapes that are just beautiful.”

Left: A large untitled oil painting of a bull. Right: Cranes triptych, oil on canvas. Each panel is approximately 30 inches wide and 62 inches tall.

Williams, who was born in Detroit in 1935, studied at the School of the Society of Arts and Crafts (now the College for Creative Studies, or CCS) under such renowned teachers as Sarkis Sarkisian and Sam Pucci. In 1967, he began teaching at that school, becoming its first African-American instructor, his widow, Francia, says. After leaving CCS in 1998, he taught at Paint Creek, Wayne County Community College, and other sites.

“He truly loved people and derived extreme satisfaction from being able to open doors for their creativity on whatever level, whether it was a little old lady taking a painting class for the first time, or working with a student who was putting together a portfolio for an MFA,” Francia says.

She met Williams when she was 18 at The Minor Key, a jazz club at Davison and Burlingame.

“I think Miles Davis was playing that night,” she recalls. “But the thing that caught my interest was Anthony’s wit and sense of humor.” Five years later, they were married, a union that lasted 44 years, until his death.

Aside from art and jazz, Williams loved to cook, an affection that sometimes worked its way into his classes.

“Tony’s style of teaching wasn’t for everyone,” Fortuna says. “Sometimes he would veer off on topics like jazz or how to make a good spaghetti sauce. But he always came back to art.”

Adds Francia: “He put into cooking the same kind of passion that he put into his painting. He viewed them similarly because he compared cooking to creative work. Sometimes after class at Paint Creek, he and his students made cannolis. I had to go on a couple of rigid diets to lose weight I gained from Anthony’s cooking.”

Williams’ discipline in art and culinary pursuits extended to other interests, his widow says.

“He was a highly regarded martial artist, which a lot of people didn’t know. He had a black belt in aikido,” she says. “Later, when he was in his 60s, he took up another Japanese martial art, shotokan, and made it up to a second-degree black belt. He also turned our urban garden into a Japanese garden, with a pond and fish.”

But, Francia says, humor always prevailed.

“He didn’t take anything too seriously,” she says. “There was always a lot of laughter around our home.”

The exhibits open Oct. 7 and run through Nov. 5. An opening reception will be held Oct. 7 from 7-9 p.m. Paint Creek Center for the Arts, 407 Pine St., Rochester; 248-651-4110,

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