Artist Williams dies at 85


Published: Tuesday, January 7, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 7, 2003 at 12:23 a.m.

For Hiram Williams, art was never a casual pursuit. Called "a relentless painter" by one former student and "a painter's painter" by another, he advocated total dedication to one's work.

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Hiram Williams, who retired from the University of Florida faculty in 1982, is shown at his Gainesville home. He died Monday at 85.

The Associated Press

Williams, an influential artist and professor emeritus at the University of Florida whose 60-year career touched countless people all over the world, died Sunday at his Gainesville home. He was 85.

"He was completely devoted to his art," said artist and former student William Schaaf. "Working under him was like being part of a religion."

Williams was born a minister's son in Indianapolis on Feb. 11, 1917, but spent most of his formative years in Pennsylvania, where he discovered his talent and love of art at an early age. Recovering from a childhood head injury, Williams was taught to draw by a family friend to amuse and distract himself from the pain. It was to be a lasting distraction.

In 1940, he attended the Art Student's League in New York and immersed himself in the artistic world. But all that changed in 1941, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army.

"People would ask where his intensity came from," said longtime friend Ken Kerslake. "He would say, 'Something happened to me - World War II.' "

After the war, he got a degree from Pennsylvania State University and began teaching art. But his commitment to his own work never wavered, not even in his later years.

Kerslake, who refers to Williams as his best friend, met him in 1960, when they were both starting out as professors in the art department at UF. Williams retired from UF in 1982.

"He was a fireball," Kerslake said. "He had energy like you wouldn't believe. And he was truly brilliant."

Williams became a Guggenheim Fellow and authored the influential book "Notes of a Young Painter."

He was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 1994, and his work is part of many major collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art, New York; and the National Museum of American Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art of Washington, D.C.

He has had 60 solo exhibitions and has been included in many prestigious invitationals. Much of his work is also held at UF's Samuel P. Harn Museum.

"He's the reason I'm a painter," said Margaret Ross Tolbert, a self-employed artist and former student of Williams. "I'd been spending a lot of time with him recently, and only now am I beginning to understand some of the things he told me 20 years ago."

Williams' overabundance of enthusiasm was his trademark.

"He was a passionate and honest man," Kerslake said. "And he was very generous and encouraging with young artists."

Schaaf described him as an immensely talented truth teller with a strong sense of irony and a photographic memory.

"After studying under him, I was left with the idea that art was a spiritual journey," Schaaf said.

Williams is survived by his wife, Avonell Williams of Gainesville; a daughter, Kim Williams-Boyd of Gainesville; and a son, Kurt Williams of Jacksonville.

Douglas Jordan can be reached at 374-5036 or jordand@gvillesun.com.

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