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Contemporary artist at UD wins major award

Peter Williams, professor of fine arts and visual communications
2:41 p.m., Dec. 15, 2004--Peter Williams, UD professor fine arts and visual communications, has been selected as one of only 20 artists nationwide to receive a prestigious Joan Mitchell Foundation 2004 Painters & Sculptors Grant Program award of $20,000.

Established in 1993 in memory of American artist Joan Mitchell, the foundation seeks to further the development of painters and sculptors, especially contemporary artists, through grants, scholarships, workshops and other educational activities. The nominators for the awards were chosen from the art community and include prominent curators, art educators and visual artists. Slides of the nominees’ works were viewed anonymously by a jury panel, which met in November at the New York Foundation of the Arts.

A contemporary artist, whose complex, narrative paintings offer a commentary on issues of race and culture in modern society, Williams joined the UD faculty this year after teaching for 17 years at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he was named a distinguished professor.

Williams grew up in Nyack, N.Y. His mother was artistic and encouraged his artistic talents, and art has been the focus of most of his life. Williams, who took lessons at New York’s Art Students League, had his first solo show at the Pat Merenstein Gallery in Nyack at the age of 17 and has had his work exhibited at other venues, including the Woodstock Music Festival. ”I was the local art brat,” he said of his youth.

From suburban New York, Williams went to the University of New Mexico, where his aunt and uncle lived. It was culture shock, he said. “I got off the plane in the middle of a desert.”

He grew to love the West, and combined black and Western imagery in his art. “I particularly became interested in Buffalo soldiers, African-American soldiers who were in the cavalry in Arizona and Oregon in the early 19th Century and early 20th Century. My grandfather, Master Sgt. William Banks, was one of the last living soldiers,” Williams said. “He went on to West Point as a civilian adjutant and is buried there.” Williams’ interest resulted in a body of work exploring the life and history of African-Americans in the West.

While in New Mexico, a severe automobile accident changed his life, and Williams continued his education at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where he received his bachelor of fine arts degree, later getting his master of fine arts degree from the Maryland Institute of Art.

After graduate school, Williams moved to Wayne State University in Detroit.

“Detroit is a city that was built for two and one-half million people, and less than 1 million live there,” Williams said. “Life tended to reflect the post-industrial problems of many rustbelt cities, as well as the decline of the automobile industry in the region. Population decline, under-funded services and a burdensome infrastructure, combined with cultural and racial segregation created an environment of decay and decline.”

His art reflects his social consciousness about issues of race, class and popular culture, which can be seen in the symbols and places he selects in his art. “Within my work occurs the collapse of stereotypes, representation and cultural history, such as my use of Mickey Mouse, whose origins are in the minstrel tradition,” Williams said. “Mickey, with his white gloves and white face, belies his native innocence and reinforces the use of cartoons to both denigrate and legitimate through racial stereotypes.”

Williams said he appropriates many popular icons in the hope of reassigning their meaning and complexity. “An understanding of racial complexity and reconciliation is a goal and outgrowth of my time in Detroit,” he said.

An exhibition of some of Williams’ works is on view at Recitation Hall through Jan. 28, from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday, while the University is in session.

Williams had two paintings in the 2002 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and his work was shown in the Shrinking Cities exhibition in Berlin. He and his students worked on a large project of 11,000 square feet, painting walls, ceiling and floor for the Mercedes-Benz display that was shown in Detroit, Barcelona and Frankfurt.

During his career, Williams has received numerous grants and awards, including a Ford fellowship, a McKnight Foundation fellowship, a grant from the Michigan Council for the Arts and others, and exhibits his work around the country. His work is represented by Revolution Gallery at [revolutn.com].

Williams said he is pleased and honored to receive the Joan Mitchell award. He has moved to north Wilmington, set up a studio in his home and intends to use the stipend to focus on his artwork. “I am a painter.” He said. “That’s what I do whenever I can.”

Article by Sue Moncure
Photo by Kathy Atkinson

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