For more than 25 years, Ben Williams has stood before a small group of artists each week and dispensed the wisdom gained during a lifetime spent enthralled with art.
One by one the artists bring a piece of work to the front of the room, set it on the easel and wait for Williams’ critique.
Williams has been a painter, a collector, a curator and a teacher. Among his students, he is known for his ability to look at a painting and know almost instantly how to improve it.
A few weeks ago, at this semester’s last critique class, Williams, 88, stood a few feet from the easel in a classroom at the Jaycee Community Center in Raleigh and pondered the canvas in front of him.
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“Another winner! Oh, how nice,” he said of a mixed media piece by artist Mary Storms.
He peered a little closer.
“I’m wondering if there would be something right at this spot there,” he said, stretching a finger toward the edge of the piece, a swirl of yellow and gray with flashes of red.
Perhaps a line of blue, he decided. Williams picked up a blue paper napkin from a nearby table and ripped off an inch-long scrap.
He held it up to the painting, cocked his head with its wisps of white hair. Yes, a bit of blue would do nicely, he told Storms.
He turned back to the class, pleased with the results of the day’s class.
“When did you all sleep last night?” he asked. “Everyone’s got such great stuff.”
The students come in search of advice about whether they, too, should add a bit of blue, fix an edge or lighten a shadow.
They trust Williams’ 70 years of public life in the art world, most of it spent in his native state of North Carolina, including as the first curator at the North Carolina Museum of Art.
As Williams ages, his students are looking for ways to honor his contributions. A December exhibit at the 311 West Martin Street Gallery features work by Williams as well as five of his students: Billy Farmer, Marriott Little, Margaret Hill, Robert Case and Betty Debnam.
Museum of Art
The critique class attracts new painters as well as established regional artists, many who have been part of the class since its earliest days.
Williams can be blunt, but his critiques are never unkind and are often dispensed with a touch of humor, his students said.
Farmer has attended Williams’ class for 20 years. He’s a retired music teacher who makes the trip to Raleigh from his home in Louisburg.
“He’s just so knowledgeable, and he has compassion,” Farmer said of his teacher. “You’re exposing yourself when you put your work up there.”
The students also love to hear Williams’ stories of his life spent immersed in the art world.
Williams will tell about the time he went to Paris to study with master painter Henri Matisse or his friendships with artists at Black Mountain College near Asheville. The college was a hive for ideas about modern art and its development from the 1930s to 1950s.
He was born in Lumberton, spent some of his young adult years studying in Washington, D.C., and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He then left for Europe and further study.
Williams often recalls the day in Paris in the late 1940s when he received a letter carrying the gold seal of the Office of the Governor asking him to help develop North Carolina’s collection of fine art.
He said yes, and the collection would become the foundation of the North Carolina Museum of Art.
“I love all of the works that we bought, and people seem to love them too,” he said.
Williams was named curator of the museum in 1956, a role he held for many years. He later became a curator at N.C. State University.
Jillian Zausmer Goldberg, a member of the critique class, has written a short biography of Williams, tracing his life and encounters with major art figures.
She said it isn’t just his experiences that make Williams special. There also is a joy and wonder in Williams’ response to his students’ work that sets him apart.
“No matter who puts their work up there, he seems to be completely open to the experience. He has no prejudgments,” Goldberg said. “He looks at your work like it’s the first piece of art he’s ever seen.”
‘The art spirit’
Williams said he never intended the class as a place where he would inspire so many students. It just happened to come together.
What he takes from the class is the way it buoys him.
“It’s where I feel the art spirit,” he said.
Williams references the art spirit often. It’s the title of one of his favorite books, a collection of meditations on art by American painter Robert Henri.
In it, Henri celebrates the give and take of an artist with the larger community: “All any man can hope to do is to add his fragment to the whole.”
As his students seek to make sure Williams’ legacy is held dear and long remembered, it seems he has more than given his fragment.