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Peter Williams, recently inducted into the National Academy of Design, in his studio near Wilmington.
long and acclaimed career as an artist and an educator recognized
recently with his induction into the prestigious National Academy of
Design almost ended before it began.
One night in the early 1970s, as an undergraduate art student at the
University of New Mexico, a car in which Williams was a passenger
plunged off a cliff from a steep, twisting road. He would spend most of
the next year in the hospital, unable for months to use his hands or to
see, while slowly recovering from injuries that included the amputation
of his right leg.
Now a professor of painting at the University of Delaware, Williams
went on to earn bachelors and masters degrees in fine arts and to
teach for 17 years at Wayne State University, where he was described as a
mainstay of the Detroit arts community.
He joined UDs Department of Art and Design as a full professor in 2004 and continues to teach painting and, occasionally, drawing classes.
His own work has won numerous awards over the years and has always
included themes of cultural identity and representations of African
Americans. He has often inserted black characters and race-based imagery
into his work, he said.
Ive always believed in the idea of bearing witness to the times in
which you live, Williams said recently. Ive always been involved with
the underdog and with global diversity, but up until about five years
ago, I had been all over the place in my art.
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Williams fills in the outlines hes drawn for a piece titled
Once We Built Pyramids, referring to the ancient Nubian Dynasty in
Africa. He uses thousands of brightly colored dots, creating a different
look from the traditional pointillist technique pioneered by
19th century artists such as Georges Seurat.
That changed, he said, with the onset of the Black Lives Matter
movement and other social-media-inspired attention being paid to the
deaths of African Americans in police custody. At the same time, a
growing awareness of racist incidents and policies, past and present,
motivated him to do research into lesser-known aspects of American
history, including lynching.
I became aware that the world hadnt changed that much, he said,
explaining why his work has become more focused on systemic racism.
African Americans are still being brutalized and killed.
In his use of narrative and story-telling in his art, Williams
invented a superhero called The N-Word who saves the lives of African
Americans as they engage with police. His recent work has also become
much more directly connected to such social-justice issues as mass
Thinking about the history of this country, learning more about it,
made me crazy and angry, he said. I wondered: How could people know
about these things and still let them go on?
Williams said that, even though galleries sometimes dont know what
to do with his work and some urge him to tone down his depictions of
racial cruelty, he hopes that most people are intrigued and moved by the
powerful images he is painting.
His work features bold colors and cartoonish caricatures that
challenge viewers to think more deeply about the dark themes they
"I know that it can be painful for people to see, but I do think many
people are enthusiastic because no one else is doing work thats so
blunt, he said.
This detail is from a new painting by Peter Williams, tentatively titled "Target," which depicts racial violence.
Williams was inducted in November as a National Academician in the National Academy of Design, considered one of the highest honors in American art and architecture.
National Academicians are chosen by
their peers and serve as ambassadors for the arts in America. Williams
art will be included in the National Academy Museum's collection of
more than 7,700 works spanning nearly 200 years.
His work is often featured in exhibitions, including the prestigious EXPO Chicago 2018,
held Sept. 19-22, and his first solo show in Los Angeles, River of
Styx, which opened in October and ran through Dec. 15 in the Luis De
Williams will be part of the upcoming exhibition Men of Steel, Women
of Wonder, at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in
Bentonville, Arkansas, from Feb. 9 to April 22.
Another recent exhibition, at the CUE Art Foundation in Manhattan, drew critical acclaim. Peter Williams: With So Little to be Sure Of was reviewed in the online arts magazine Hyperallergic by noted critic John Yau in March 2018.
Williams uses caricature to invite viewers whatever their
political persuasion to reflect upon how they see people of a race
different from their own, as well as underscore the intolerance,
distrust, and fear running throughout our everyday lives, Yau wrote.
Williams has won numerous awards, including the Whitney Biennial in
2002, Djerassi Resident Artists Program in 2018, Joan Mitchell Award in
2004 and 2007, a Ford Foundation Fellowship in 1985-87 and the Wynn
Newhouse Award in 2012.
His work is included in such permanent collections as the Detroit
Institute of Arts, Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Whitney Museum of
American Art, Delaware Art Museum and Howard University.
Article by Ann Manser; photos by Evan Krape