The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection Mobile search icon Mobile close search icon
Advanced Biography Search
Mobile navigation icon Close mobile navigation icon

William T. Williams

Artist William Thomas Williams, Jr. was born on July 17, 1942, in Cross Creek, North Carolina, to William Thomas Williams, Sr. and Hazel Williams. Williams’s family moved to Queens, New York, when he was four years old, but Williams would continue to visit North Carolina in the summertime.

In 1956, Williams met famed artist Jacob Lawrence, an encounter that helped him believe that he could be a professional artist. That same year, Williams was admitted to the High School for Industrial Arts in Manhattan, where he often frequented the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After graduating from high school as a member of the National Honor Society, Williams entered New York City Community College in 1960, and graduated two years later with his A.A.S. degree.

In 1962, Williams was admitted into Pratt Institute. In the summer of 1965, Williams attended a summer art program at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine. Williams graduated with honors from Pratt Institute with his B.F.A. degree in 1966, then attended Yale University School of Art and Architecture, where he earned his M.F.A. degree in 1968. Williams returned to New York City, and with the help of his parents, rented a Soho loft that remained his home and studio throughout his career. Soon after, Williams married Patricia De Weese, with whom he had two children: Aaron and Nila.

Williams’s first exhibit was a part of a group exhibition called X to the Fourth Power; it was held at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York in 1969, a place he would return to for exhibitions numerous times. In 1971, Williams had his first show at the Reese Paley Art Gallery, where he sold out his entire exhibit. Throughout the 1970s, Williams’s work would be exhibited at a number of venues, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum in New York, the American Embassy in Moscow, and the Fondation Maeght in France.

In 1970, Williams became a professor of art at Brooklyn College, and in 1971, he began a summer residency as a member of the faculty at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, a position he would hold again in 1974 and 1978. Williams became the director pro tem at Skowhegan School in 1979.

In the late 1970s, Williams took his first trip to Africa, which influenced the style of his work throughout the 1980s. In 1984, Williams became a visiting professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, and the following year held a solo exhibition at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Williams became the first black artist included in H.W. Janson’s History of Art textbook in 1986, and in 1987, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Williams continued to work throughout the 1990s, and his work was included in the To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities touring exhibit in 1999. In 2006, Williams was awarded the prestigious North Carolina Award, the highest civilian honor the state can bequeath.

Accession Number

A2007.118

Sex

Male

Interview Date

3/29/2007

Last Name

Williams

Maker Category
Middle Name

T.

Occupation
Organizations
Schools

High School of Art and Design

Yale University

PS 39 Henry Brostow School

J.H.S. 198, Benjamin N. Cardozo Junior High School

Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture

Search Occupation Category
First Name

William

Birth City, State, Country

Crosscreek

HM ID

WIL37

Favorite Season

Summer

State

North Carolina

Favorite Vacation Destination

Anywhere

Favorite Quote

Do it right.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Birth Date

7/17/1942

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Potato Chips

Short Description

Painter and art professor William T. Williams (1942 - ) became the first African American artist included in H.W. Janson’s History of Art text in 1986. An abstract expressionist painter, he taught art at Brooklyn College, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Employment

School of Visual Arts

Fisk University

Virginia Commonwealth University

Brooklyn College

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
0,0:6500,84:7940,120:8740,134:19578,278:20106,285:21690,309:22042,314:25386,375:31550,472:32159,483:35870,501:36536,509:37720,531:38016,536:40014,570:40754,583:49096,645:50097,663:50713,672:60960,814:65295,887:65720,893:83620,1110:84520,1122:88204,1149:89024,1160:92620,1194:93180,1199:93740,1204:105670,1342:107510,1377:113270,1481:115910,1522:117030,1532:117750,1543:118150,1549:126934,1573:127501,1582:128149,1592:130741,1633:132118,1657:135358,1733:135682,1738:136573,1751:139165,1800:149094,1889:149758,1898:151700,1936$0,0:17189,298:20677,329:22094,351:22748,358:24702,377:25850,397:33968,650:34624,660:35854,684:38396,730:44548,770:46546,824:47360,837:48026,850:49728,878:51356,910:52318,930:56025,943:56475,951:57075,960:57900,978:58950,997:60075,1016:60750,1028:63974,1046:64810,1060:65342,1068:67394,1100:68002,1110:70662,1199:71194,1222:89854,1455:96001,1521:96540,1530:97079,1538:102040,1588:102960,1601:103696,1611:106560,1657:107370,1672:108000,1680:110880,1724:113850,1772:119652,1802:123264,1874:123768,1884:124440,1900:130824,2012:131412,2020:132588,2041:138978,2098:139302,2103:141489,2148:144665,2186:146660,2215:156611,2392:159460,2449:166000,2513:170240,2603:179085,2634:179475,2642:192306,2843:196718,2867:198030,2886:199752,3041:211924,3185:214302,3222:215204,3236:216024,3248:219740,3270:222692,3314:223484,3333:224132,3344:224924,3356:225284,3362:226364,3383:227444,3404:227804,3411:237830,3519:244926,3631:245583,3642:246824,3663:250036,3712:252810,3787:253102,3792:253905,3805:261004,3826:261212,3831:261680,3843:262304,3858:262720,3867:264300,3876:267030,3922:270579,3979:276039,4048:283030,4135:284080,4151:284360,4156:284990,4173:285620,4185:286040,4193:287510,4220:293040,4329:293530,4334:294230,4345:298570,4459:303190,4482
DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of William T. Williams' interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - William T. Williams lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - William T. Williams describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - William T. Williams talks about his maternal grandfather and step-grandfather

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - William T. Williams describes his mother's musical background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - William T. Williams describes his family's religious upbringing

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - William T. Williams describes the Overhills estate in North Carolina

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - William T. Williams describes his father's U.S. Army service

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - William T. Williams talks about his childhood in the North and South

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - William T. Williams describes his family's food traditions

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - William T. Williams remembers his grandmother's garden

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - William T. Williams recalls his family's traditions in New York City

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - William T. Williams describes his family's craftwork

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - William T. Williams lists his schools and siblings

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - William T. Williams describes his neighborhood in Queens, New York

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - William T. Williams describes J.H.S. 198 in Queens, New York

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - William T. Williams recalls his early interest in art

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - William T. Williams remembers meeting Jacob Lawrence

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - William T. Williams recalls attending the School of Industrial Art in New York City

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - William T. Williams describes his early artistic development

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - William T. Williams recalls his commute to the School of Industrial Art

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - William T. Williams describes his peers at the School of Industrial Art

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - William T. Williams recalls his decision to attend the Pratt Institute

Tape: 2 Story: 12 - William T. Williams remembers his growing interest in painting

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - William T. Williams describes the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - William T. Williams recalls his relationship with Leonard Bocour

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - William T. Williams remembers reencountering Jacob Lawrence

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - William T. Williams remembers the Yale School of Art and Architecture in New Haven, Connecticut

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - William T. Williams describes the exclusion of black artists from galleries

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - William T. Williams recalls discrimination at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - William T. Williams remembers teaching at the School of Visual Arts in New York City

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - William T. Williams recalls acquiring his studio

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - William T. Williams remembers protests against the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - William T. Williams describes his decision to decline a museum guard position

Tape: 3 Story: 11 - William T. Williams recalls his artist residency program at the Studio Museum in Harlem

Tape: 3 Story: 12 - William T. Williams remembers his early art career

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - William T. Williams remembers founding the Smokehouse Associates

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - William T. Williams describes the black arts community in New York City

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - William T. Williams recalls the exclusion of black artists from museums

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - William T. Williams remembers his first solo art show

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - William T. Williams remembers exhibiting his artwork in France

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - William T. Williams describes his artistic influences

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - William T. Williams remembers his inclusion in the 'Whitney Annual'

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - William T. Williams talks about his philosophy of art

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - William T. Williams reflects upon his growth as an artist

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - William T. Williams describes his interest in teaching

Tape: 4 Story: 11 - William T. Williams reflects upon aging as an artist

Tape: 4 Story: 12 - William T. Williams remembers his trip to Nigeria

Tape: 4 Story: 13 - William T. Williams describes the shift in his art career

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - William T. Williams recalls his residency at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - William T. Williams describes his courses on African American art

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - William T. Williams talks about being a father

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - William T. Williams recalls directing the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - William T. Williams remembers the emergence of pop art

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - William T. Williams remembers Jean-Michel Basquiat

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - William T. Williams talks about the value of work by artists of color

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - William T. Williams describes his generation of African American artists

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - William T. Williams talks about the next generation of artists of color

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - William T. Williams describes teaching at the City University of New York

Tape: 5 Story: 11 - William T. Williams describes teaching in the South

Tape: 5 Story: 12 - William T. Williams describes the shift in his artistic style

Tape: 5 Story: 13 - William T. Williams describes his painting, 'Cape Split'

Tape: 5 Story: 14 - William T. Williams describes his painting, 'Batman'

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - William T. Williams remembers his role in the opening of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - William T. Williams recalls his exhibition at the Museo Alejandro Otero in Venezuela

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - William T. Williams describes his award from the Studio Museum in Harlem

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - William T. Williams reflects upon his career

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - William T. Williams describes his hopes for his paintings

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - William T. Williams describes his plans for the future

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - William T. Williams describes his children

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - William T. Williams talks about his approach to business

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - William T. Williams shares his advice to aspiring artists

Tape: 6 Story: 10 - William T. Williams describes how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 6 Story: 11 - William T. Williams reflects upon the impact of affirmative action policies

Tape: 6 Story: 12 - William T. Williams talks about African American museum curators and directors

Tape: 6 Story: 13 - William T. Williams remembers his parents' support

Tape: 6 Story: 14 - William T. Williams narrates his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

1$4

DAStory

11$8

DATitle
William T. Williams remembers his grandmother's garden
William T. Williams talks about his philosophy of art
Transcript
But I think that the, the porch, the extended porch in the late evenings, you know, after everything had been done, the exchanging of stories, the laughter, the joke-telling, I would never exchange any of that experience for anything that I, you know, that could have come if I wasn't there. One of the, the fond memories, and I always kind of relate this, is my [maternal] grandmother [Sophia Davis Jackson] made all of the kids rake the yard in the late evenings. And this was a ritual every day, work is over, dinner is over, kids have to go out and rake the front yard and she would meticulously instruct us of how to do it. You couldn't just rake it, the patterns that were there, she was really very particular about the patterns and forces us to go back and really kind of manicure this yard the way she wanted it manicured. And the odd thing, I was in Japan many, many, many years later, and saw a temple where the sand had been raked and it was like a thunderbolt had hit me, between that experience as a child and raking the yard out front, and this experience of having seen that in Japan. Two things came together, and an aesthetic experience came to me, you know, the, it was more than just her implanting labor for us, she was implanting an idea about an aesthetic and about a, a kind of spiritual environment that she was cultivating, and certainly she was transmitting a kind of body of information to us as well.$$Where had that information come from, do you know?$$I have no idea. My grandmother's house had flowers on three sides. It is the thing that she spent the most time in, in this garden, other than working. Once work was over, there were two passions, the yard out front and the garden, and there were just endless flowers. There were some in the ground, some in buckets. She would move these jars and buckets around, but that's, that's what I really remember about the South, a great deal of that.$So when you were living in the area [New York, New York] and you had all of the, like Camille [HistoryMaker Camille Billops] and all of you guys were in this, you know, this very small area, was there any opportunity ever to collectively do something amongst yourselves?$$Yes. Yeah. I organized, early in 1970 I organized this show called 'X to the Fourth Power.' 'X to the Fourth Power' was a show of Mel Edwards [Melvin Edwards], [HistoryMaker] Sam Gilliam, myself and a white artist named Steve Kelsey [Stephen Kelsey], another Yale [Yale School of Art and Architecture; Yale School of Art, New Haven, Connecticut] graduate. The thrust of the work were people that were making really large-scale paintings 'cause Steve was working, you know, like his painting, I think in the show is eight by eighteen feet. Sam was working very large, I was working ten by ten, and you could not, if you looked at the work, you could not separate the work in terms of this thing called quality. What you could see was that there was a commonality of an interest in a certain modern idea of art making. You could see different sensibilities like Sam's sense of color was drastically different than Steve's sense of color and how color was going to be used. And certainly different than my sense of color. You--if you could look closely, you could see all of these sensibilities, the difference in sensibilities. Well, I think what that show did, The New York Times reviewed it, Sunday New York Times, gave it center stage in terms of talking about it. And the critic was sensitive enough to bring up the issue and suggest that here were four artists that were working on the highest level and that it, it is the dialogue about race becomes secondary and maybe unimportant in relation to this exhibition. Later on, Sam and I and Mel showed together a great deal. There were a number of shows that were organized during that time that were all African American artists, but the overriding thing was alright we were African Americans but it was quality of the art in the exhibition. There was another show called 'Five Plus One' [ph.] that Sam Hunter organized. Again, along artists that were in this case, primarily abstract, but again the underriding thing again was what are the difference in the sensibilities, what are the difference in the aesthetic, what are the difference in the ideas among these artists. And that's the way we tried to, to focus and tried to do this. There were endless panels I was on during that period of time, where the issue of black art came up, the issue of art in the community, and (pause) I think what we always tried to do during those times, we had a lot of conversations with, among ourselves. We had a lot of conversations with artists that were not abstract. We had a lot of conversations with, with writers, try to come to terms with what we were trying to do as artists. What is the role and the responsibility of the artist, you know, I mean, those discussions (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) What were those answers? What were some of those answers for you, the role and responsibilities?$$Well, it depends on if you see yourself as a vehicle. In other words, if you see yourself as a vehicle for culture, and that you have an internalized experience and you may have the God-given ability to communicate those experiences to other people, then you are just a vehicle for maintaining those experiences and transmitting those experience to other people, and that's the primary function and role of the artist, as you are a God-given medium to do that. Now I liked that idea a lot because it forces an incredible responsibility upon the artist that you not only have to see that, you have to internalize that and you have to realize why it's important to preserve that. I, I like that way of making art and thinking about it because it, it, it's an, it's an accumulative responsibility of every lady that ever touched me in the church, my head and said, "Hey Scooter Boy." Every uncle that I had that came home tired and took the time to ask how I was doing, to all of those kind of disappointments that people have. It seems to me part of what an artist does is you become your collective consciousness of all of that and it's not you to illustrate that, but to realize that that experience that you've internalized is all of that's contained in it. There's pain, there's joy, there's all of these other things contained in it.