In Memoriam: Peter Williams
Photos by Evan Krape August 27, 2021
Prolific artist and educator created bold paintings with a passion for social justice
Peter Williams, 69, professor of painting at the University of Delaware and a prolific artist whose work over a half century explored issues of African American identity and experience and earned him wide recognition and numerous awards, passed away Aug. 19, 2021, at his home in Wilmington, Delaware, after a long illness.
His bold and colorful paintings used caricature and narrative to confront such dark subjects as slavery, lynching and other acts of violence against African Americans, war and mass incarceration. In an interview in 2019, he said that he had “always believed in the idea of bearing witness to the times in which you live.”
Colleagues at UD, former students and admirers from across the U.S. reflected on Prof. Williams’ long career and his many contributions as an artist, educator and mentor. He was praised for his role as a painter who transcended genres and took a fearless look at difficult subjects while still maintaining a sense of humor and a wide smile.
“Peter Williams was a larger-than-life individual with a strong voice and a unique and much-needed perspective,” said Gregory Shelnutt, chair of UD’s Department of Art and Design. “A hugely talented and visionary artist, a generous and thoughtful teacher, his loss is deeply felt.”
Prof. Williams has said that his work always reflected themes of Black identity but that it became even more focused in recent years as he became aware of the Black Lives Matter movement and delved more deeply into the history of racial injustice in America. He said that galleries sometimes urged him to tone down his depictions of racial cruelty but that he believed most people were moved by the powerful images.
Some of his recent work depicted the arrest of George Floyd and others who died at the hands of police, as well as a series he began in 2014 called “The N-Word,” in which an African American superhero uses the power of the racial epithet to fight hate and oppression.
“I teach his work in my classes at UD every semester because of the ways it forces viewers to reckon with the history of race, disability and police brutality in this country, and my students are always so intrigued by it,” said Tiffany Barber, assistant professor of Africana studies and art history. “They can't make sense of it, but they want to. I love how confounding and generative Peter's work is, how he unflinchingly confronted society's ills on the canvas while also innovating painting itself. I know his art will continue to impact our world.”
In announcing Prof. Williams’ death, the Luis De Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles said that he “was devoted to his craft and lived each day to paint. He painted until his last hours and was exploring ways of integrating sculpture and installation into his painting practice.”
Prof. Williams earned honors throughout his career, from his first solo show at age 17 to a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2021. In 2018, he was inducted into the National Academy of Design and in 2020 received the Artists’ Legacy Foundation’s Artist Award. His many other honors included 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.
In 2020, he had two solo exhibitions, in Detroit and Los Angeles, featuring his recent “Black Exodus” paintings that explored the idea of space travel and a post-racial world.
Prof. Williams has had exhibitions throughout the U.S., and 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. In 2019, the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired his 2018 painting “A Foolish Trick,” making him only the third Delaware artist listed in the museum’s collection.
His 1997 painting “Absolutely Hilarious,” is in the collection of the UD Library, Museums and Press, where it is a favorite among students and one of Prof. Williams’ outstanding works, said Julie McGee, associate professor of Africana studies and art history and interim director of Special Collections and Museums. The painting was a centerpiece of the 2014 exhibition “FreshPAINT: African American Art at UD,” which showcased works from the University’s Paul R. Jones Collection of African American Art.
Among Prof. Williams’ former students, he was known for his ability to inspire excitement about painting and to provide valuable feedback.
“Peter Williams taught me art is about the relentless pursuit of truth, in all its complexity,” said Sarah T. Cummings, who earned her bachelor’s degree in art in 2006. “As a mentor, he was caring and gentle, but did not shy away from tough conversations. Fifteen years later, I regularly reflect on the wisdom he shared in class—some truths that I didn’t understand until much later and others that revealed their complexity over time.”
About Peter Williams
Peter Williams was born in Nyack, New York, and attended college in New Mexico, until a car accident left him hospitalized for a year with severe injuries that included the amputation of his right leg.
He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Minneapolis College of Art and Design and his master’s degree in fine arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art. He taught for 17 years at Wayne State University, where he was described as a mainstay of the Detroit arts community.
Prof. Williams joined UD as a full professor in 2004 and continued to teach painting and drawing until becoming ill this year. He had been scheduled to retire on Sept. 1, 2021.
He is survived by his wife, Elishka Vitanovska Mayer, and his stepsons, Paul and Daniel Mayer.
Services will be private.
To view some of Prof. Williams’ work and read other tributes to him, visit his Artist’s Page at the Luis De Jesus Gallery.
Tributes and remembrances
Following are some of the many thoughts that have been shared about Prof. Williams.
- Julie McGee, associate professor of Africana studies and art history and interim director of Special Collections and Museums: “I met Peter Williams in the context of curating an exhibition for the New Jersey Art Center in 2007, Peter Williams: Artistic Repair. It was fortuitous. I had no idea then that I would later become his colleague at the University of Delaware. Peter made sure my entry to Delaware included plenty of humor as well as professional and political satire, a trait that kept me on my toes, and in good ways. The UD Library, Museums and Press is fortunate to have one of his outstanding works, a favorite among students when it is on display: Absolutely Hilarious, 1997. It has not lost any of its contemporary sensibilities.”
- Luis De Jesus, principal and director of Luis De Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles: "We are saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend, Peter Williams. We will miss his humor and stimulating conversations about his work, society, and family. He was an artist who painted for himself and was not afraid to poignantly portray the truths of contemporary society. His passing is a huge loss for us and his many friends and colleagues in the art world."
- Tiffany Barber, assistant professor of Africana studies and art history at UD: “I first met Peter Williams in 2015 when, as a curatorial fellow, I organized an exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum titled Dark Humor. The show, drawn from UD's African American Art collection, chronicled how artists of African descent deployed humor and satire as social critique with regard to the persistence of racist imagery in popular culture. Peter's painting, Absolutely Hilarious (1997), was the anchor for the show. Prof. Julie McGee introduced us. This was all before he and I became colleagues at UD, and we remained friends up until his death. He was incredibly prolific. I had just seen him a few weeks prior to his passing. I teach his work in my classes at UD every semester because of the ways it forces viewers to reckon with the history of race, disability, and police brutality in this country, and my students are always so intrigued by it. They can't make sense of it, but they want to. I love how confounding and generative Peter's work is, how he unflinchingly confronted society's ills on the canvas while also innovating painting itself. I know his art will continue to impact our world.”
- Emily Anunias, UD2020, a former student: “I truly learned so much from him in such a short period of time. He had this ability to make students excited about what they were making and always gave the best feedback (even if it wasn't what you wanted to hear)! His work is absolutely incredible, and he will be dearly missed by so many young artists like myself.”
- J. Susan Isaacs, professor of art history and gallery curator, Towson University: “I was privileged to work closely with Peter twice on exhibitions, first at the Delaware Contemporary and more recently at Towson University. Peter was an amazing artist and a phenomenal person. Not only was he incredibly skilled but he was a deep thinker who believed in addressing difficult issues in his paintings. He was a prolific artist, generous with his time, his friendships and his teaching.”
- Gregory Shelnutt, chair of UD’s Department of Art and Design: “Peter Williams was a larger-than-life individual with a strong voice and a unique and much-needed perspective. It’s been clear from the outpouring of support from former students from across the nation that Peter’s teaching—at UD, Wayne State and beyond—will continue to have a profound impact on the next generation of artists. It was gratifying that his work was recognized in his lifetime by the Guggenheim, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Artists’ Legacy Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Joan Mitchell Foundation, among others. A hugely talented and visionary artist, a generous and thoughtful teacher, his loss is deeply felt. He will be sorely missed by faculty, students, alumni, and the art community at large.”
- Sanjit Seti, president, Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD): “Peter was the embodiment of a creative, cultural leader. His work never shied away from topics that were controversial, uncomfortable, and at the same time, critically important for us as a society to address. Through his work, Peter spoke of a world filled with both whimsy and trauma in equal measure and created a window into the African American experience. We were fortunate to be able to celebrate Peter earlier this year, as we honored him with the 2021 MCAD Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award.”
- Kyle Hackett, UD2011, a former student: I met Peter in 2009. He was my figure drawing and figure painting professor at UD. His generosity in collecting my early artwork and mentorship offered candor from someone I admired and trusted as I developed into an artist and professor. Peter's belief in my journey, guided by candid openness about his, over nachos at Deer Park, at crowded exhibition openings or on social media, continues to inspire me. With an unapologetic wit, booming laughter and poised empathy, he helped me understand an authentic classroom while studying the figure. Many of these approaches remain central to my practice, which I share with my students. Meanwhile, during his exhibition openings, Peter always proudly welcomed me into different communities, making sure to create space with everyone to catch up on painting and life. That's who Peter was. He was a towering and fortifying figure in my world who stood me on his shoulders while keeping it real. The world has become richer through his life's body of work, something I'm blessed to have encountered early on, starting with my time at UD. Peter was a force for good. His legacy and genius remain a call to action, will continue to inspire many, and always be a special part of my journey.