Williams, Hiram

Alternative names
Birth 1917
Death 2003

Biographical notes:

Hiram Williams (1917-2003) was an American painter and art educator, known for his abstract figures and portrait work.

From the guide to the Hiram Williams Papers, 1917-1966, (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries)

"Art is an invention for bringing life within an emotional grasp. This is the function of all the arts and is also the function of painting." (1) "A painting uses form to give expression to experiences that yield universal truth." (2) To write a biographical sketch of Hiram Williams one must then isolate the experiences in his life that influenced his thinking and show some of his struggles as he searched for the form which gave expression to his experience.

Hiram Williams is a short man whose generous torso houses a booming voice with which, in expressive language, he communicates -- joy, anger, frustration, confidence. Although he has entertained friends for hours with his wit and showmanship, he has firm convictions in his judgment of individuals. Quick of temper, he bounces in anger.

As a child, he had to conform to the kindly but rigorous discipline of a ministerial household where right and wrong were carefully defined. His father, a moderately liberal Baptist minister, required that Hiram and his brother, Robert, be properly indoctrinated in the tenets and beliefs of the church. The small town of Muncy, Pennsylvania, where he grew up (3) was a conservative, family-centered community in which the church members were an extended family. As a minister's son he was in the local spotlight which he soon learned to both command and enjoy.

He must have been a busy little boy for despite supervision by his parents, there were two notable incidents in his early childhood. First, Hiram lost access to his father's hobby shop following an attempt to chop off his brother's hand with a hatchet! He says he was much too young to remember what impulse provoked hum to do this but the consequences were swift and lasting!

"My understanding and sympathy for building and mechanical things is practically nil. I have repaired clogged toilets and drain fields. I have built sheds and repaired things broken. But I am all quivery emotion when I am required to do these things by unhappy fate. I am just not confident of myself in these situations. I am sure that this stems from the times my father would object when I touched his tools. Both he and mother proclaimed over the years that I was not mechanical. This is not true, but I was made to believe (and still do act on it) that I was a natural-born non-mechanic." (4)

Second, some time later Hiram suffered a severe concussion from an eight-foot fall. During the recuperation his mother, in an effort to amuse and distract him from his discomfort, persuaded a friend to teach him to draw. In Mrs. Williams' praise of Hiram's progress she convinced him that he had great talent. Supporting that conviction, he was elected class artist, his Thanksgiving Turkey having won the first prize! Mrs. Williams took great pleasure in her son's continuing interest, in watching him pursue his "gift." She arranged drawing and painting lessons which continued through his school days. Hiram remembers that, "when I was ten years old or so, Dad took me to the Carnegie International. I recall that I wanted to be represented in that show someday. And I was, in 1964." (5)

These were the years of the Great Depression; life was restricted by the lack of money with which ministers' families as well as others had to contend. While the church did provide their home and neighbors supplied food and hand-me-down clothing, young teenagers were left to their own resources. There were no televisions, toys, trinkets, ready-made diversions, no great shopping centers. They had to devise their own games. Books were available at the library, but they had to make their own trinkets and toys from scraps that were available. This served to encourage the youngsters to explore their own capacities.

To supplement the food supply Reverend Williams took his two boys hunting for wild game. Doing so instilled in them a love for the out-of-doors and respect for the life around them. Along the way they experienced the sense of freedom inspired by the Muncy hills over which they roamed. In those days there were forests and open fields. People knew and trusted one another. One stayed out of pastures where a bull might be dangerous and was careful not to destroy gardens and crops which were the food supply. But, generally speaking, life was as free as the imagination could make it.

Hiram had an insatiable curiosity which his parents carefully channeled. He was introduced to the joys of reading and was fortunate in those difficult days to have access to a good public library as well as to his father's library which contained a good selection of the classics. He read extensively. His father never limited his reading as some parents did but wisely encouraged discussion of the material at hand. Hiram still reads Ernest Thompson Seton's Two Little Savages in delightful memory of the days when Hiram and his friends wrestled and practiced gymnastics, built tepees, canoes and swam in the river.

During high school, Hiram read Bernard Shaw, Thomas Mann, T.E. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad and others. There is excitement, and a sense of discovery, even a sense of danger in the pursuit of ideas. Hiram Williams had discovered that excitement. Oblivious to the stares of those around him, he would walk to and from the library with one foot on the sidewalk and as the other in the gutter as a guide to keep from bumping into others on the sidewalk while absorbing the outpourings of his latest and favorite author. He learned Yoga, which Webster defines as "a Hindu theistic philosophy teaching the suppression of all activity of body, mind, and will in order that the self may realize the distinction from them and attain liberation". After he had sat on the roof for three days waiting for suppression to happen, his father commanded: "Son, it is time you came down and had something to eat!"

After high school, he completed one year of college but was forced to quit for lack of tuition money. In a community where boys grew up knowing something of many trades, Hiram's lack of training in the manual arts gave him little chance to compete for the few jobs available. In retrospect, however, the lack of job opportunity became an opportunity in itself. Although defiant door locks, switches, sticky bolts and the like have haunted him most of his life, at this time what he considered his ineptitude did afford him the time to paint and study. He joined the Williamsport Sketch Club and rode his bicycle forty miles twice a week to study with George Eddinger, a graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy. It was at the Sketch Club that he learned about Brueghel, Rubens, Rembrandt and many others. As if centuries did not exist between them, he identified with them; he spent hours thinking about their work. He read about them. He copied their work in an effort to learn more about their techniques. His youthful perseverance seems impressive.

The Sketch Club did not have models but Bridgeman's anatomy books were available. Hiram memorized them. Again, a limiting factor served him well; he developed a superb visual memory. To this day he speaks fondly of Bridgeman for no matter how carefully disguised, he can recognize the use of a photograph by another painter in the development of a painting. A look of disdain still flickers on his face upon such recognition, even though the use of photography in painting has become a common practice. Although he occasionally sketches from life, almost all of his paintings and drawings are from memory. He never uses a photograph except on those rare occasions when he has been asked to do a portrait of someone who is deceased.

"Dad supported me for about three years while I painted in the attic. I painted on cardboard. I painted on window blinds, green blinds, but that was no good because my brush sometimes would go right through them. I drew. Probably the best learning of my entire life was done there in that attic. I worked awfully hard while I was painting and drawing. I really did. My parents were decent to me; there was little use yammering at me to get a job, for there were no jobs. That was good. It meant I had time to pursue art while doing those chores that earned a little money . . . . I had time to wander in the sunshine along Muncy Creek and the Susquehanna, time to enjoy nature, to enjoy seasons. I burst with energy. I remember running through a field of high grass and leaping with the joy of it, thanking God. All was too wonderful to be believed. Those were golden years." (6)

In 1940, he attended the Art Student's League in New York. For the first time, he found himself surrounded by people whose concerns were his concerns, whose parallel needs gave legitimacy to his. After three months however, he was again forced to return home for lack of funds.

The year 1941 literally marked the turning point in his life. A new girl appeared in the church choir--he fell in love! With the exuberance of youth the young couple announced their engagement to their parents. Reverend Williams, after a moment of shock, squeaked out, "Well, she has an honest face!" Her father, in stunned silence. pulled his six-foot frame into a womb-like position as he struggled for composure. Finally he forced out, "What do you plan to live on?" But such mundane things as having a job and earning a living were secondary to the excitement of the moment. Mrs. Williams recovered sufficiently to serve cream puffs and tea in celebration!

The problem of earning a living was resolved shortly thereafter for at this time the forces of war were shaping up in Europe and Hiram was drafted into the army! After long soul searching talks with his father on the purpose of war and his place in it, they finally concluded that Hiram should answer the call and join the army rather than seek "conscientious objector" status. There was something to be said about loyalty to one's country and assuming the responsibility that goes along with that loyalty. On June 6, 1941, Hiram was inducted into the army. He spent the first night peeling potatoes in the kitchen, and, typical of many draftees, he learned then never to volunteer his services for anything!

In 1942, the United States declared war on Germany. Williams was sent to Officer Candidate School. Despite his meager background in things mechanical (he had not yet learned to drive a car!), he survived OCS to become an officer. He was assigned to a combat engineering company, soon rose to Captain, and was sent to Europe as a member of General George Patton's Third Army.

This was the real world in one of its most dreadful moments. The reality of war caused him to rethink his beliefs and he found that, for him, his Christian background had not prepared him for the slaughter he saw: the stench, the blood, the exploded bodies, the brutality of which man is capable.

"I found that man is exceedingly corporeal. The first thing that happens upon his death is unrestrained bowel movement. I saw his innards scattered upon the landscape and I had a frightening sense of our mortality. Nothing in it suggested or corresponded with the view that I had as an attentive Baptist in the Protestant denomination. In my father's theology and what I lived with was the death of Christ crucified and his resurrection and somehow through the tangle of what I finally concluded to be a miasmatic complement of thought, a heavenly world is created for all believers in this Christ. What I saw was the obverse." (7)

Williams came back from the war physically exhausted and completely shaken in his beliefs. Moreover, nothing in his prior training nor in his war experience had prepared him to earn a living. He was married now and compelled to find some way to sustain life. After a year of recuperation, he and his wife moved to Philadelphia where he earned a meager salary drawing cartoons of the life of Luther for a company that published religious literature. He visited art museums and libraries. A friend introduced him to "modern" art. This was an emotionally turbulent period in his life for he had not yet fully recovered from the war. He was working for a company whose mission espoused beliefs he no longer shared; additionally, he was forced to recognize that the old secure foundations in art had been largely abandoned for new definitions of what painting was about.

In the fall of 1948, at the age of 31, he entered The Pennsylvania State University. Though largely self-taught, he was well-grounded in Western Art up to the time of the Impressionists. He was eager to explore current ideas, current movements in art. There was fascination with the literary world as well. Meanwhile he would prepare himself to teach art in the public schools.

"In combat I developed a sense of man's fate--that we were only too material, that there was nothing spiritual about us, that we were simply bodies like any other animal body on the face of the earth. This wasn't catalyzed into a philosophic belief until I went to Penn State and encountered the existential writers--Camus, Sartre, and others. I had a sense that these were people who were saying and thinking the things that I had come to believe." (8)

His exploration continued until he finally realized that "as an artist my interest has been in re-creating the images of the human figure. Why the human figure? Because it is us." (9) But the human form had been used through the ages. What could be done with it? How could he add to what had already been done?

"It seemed to me that American art was much the loser when it by-passed the depicted human figure, and I planned to reintroduce it into art. I understood that this meant I had to re-invent it, updating representation of the figure would not be enough." (10)

Despite the war, Williams clung to a belief in the basic potential for good in man. Like his father before him, he had the messianic need to point out the problems that beset mankind, fully confident that man would correct his wrongs once they were made known to him. A naive and perhaps arrogant view, but an ideal that would sustain the young man as he accepted the challenge of developing the body of work through which he would make his contribution. There was also the not-so-small challenge of supporting his wife and new son while doing so.

Upon graduation from the University, he was fortunate to secure a job teaching art in the public school in Harrington, Delaware. Williams seemed to be a natural teacher, the imagination he developed in childhood served him well, his commitment to his art continued to be a driving force and eighteen-hour days ended many times with him asleep at his easel.

But, depression plagued him. The doctor informed him that he had to choose between teaching and painting, he couldn't do both. He sought solace in his painting. His students, however, had absorbed Williams' enthusiasm. With great excitement they produced a show that won first prize in the state competition for public school art projects.

The many hours of study and work on his painting began to pay off; he was beginning to develop a new approach to the human figure, a shape through which he could give expression to his ideas.

"The key lay in consideration of Cezanne whose multiple views in still life led to Cubist fracturing of the image. What would result if I followed Cezanne's lead and painted multiple views without fracturing?" (11) He painted his Undulating Figure, (Man Moving Through Doorway), an 8' x 8' painting that seemed to fill his studio.

In the meantime, his son, a sickly child, required continuing attention. Then a daughter was born. His salary never quite covered even basic expenses. In addition, the community offered no stimulation or even conversation in the arts. Consequently, he was happy to have the opportunity to accept a teaching position at the University of Southern California. The family sold what little furniture they had and drove to California, taking the one painting with them. It was only after they arrived there that they learned that the appointment was for nine months only!

In June, Williams flew his family home to Pennsylvania while he spent his last few dollars bringing the car home (he had learned to drive!) leaving the painting behind. (12) Despite the beautiful vistas of spring, the roads seemed to lead nowhere. Deep loneliness was a constant companion. He lost his sense of self-worth. Living in a time when among other things, the measure of a man meant the ability to support his family, and with his art at an impasse, Williams reached Pennsylvania completely defeated. Once again his wife's parents took care of the family. It wasn't until August that he learned of a job opening at the University of Texas.

Bad luck seemed to follow him to Texas. His son still had seizures, his wife had to have surgery, and postal authorities accused him of using the mails to slander a woman who was then head of Art Education in the Commonwealth of Delaware. It was not until he was able to prove that he was not in Delaware at the time the offensive post cards were mailed that that incident was closed. Hysteria and depression immobilized him; he found himself sitting on the steps in front of the University unable to move his arms.

Williams is a natural story teller with a wonderful ability to laugh at himself. Despite his troubles, despair gave way to hope as tales of his escapades brought laughter to his colleagues, and young faculty and students alike became friends. His wife recovered and with an increase in salary he could again concentrate on his painting. He had always painted landscapes as an adjunct to his main theme of re-inventing the figure. During his search for his own identity in art, and with the memories of his long cross-country drives, he produced some sixty or seventy fine landscapes, roads that speak both of the beauty of the earth and of the aloneness of man.

Williams was once again assigned classes in art education, although he knew now that his place in the University was in the area of studio drawing and painting. Because he believed that to teach art education one must teach something of art, he added drawing, art history and painting to the usual weaving, papier maché, and whatever else makes up art education. He began to attract students from other studio classes.

Fortunately, Donald Weismann, then Chairman of the Art Department, recognized Williams' talent, not only as an artist, but as a teacher as well, and Weismann offered encouragement. But Williams' troubles were not over. To the older members of the faculty, the all-powerful Budget Council, he was the "young Turk" who should be ignored as they stomped by him in the halls symbolically crushing him under their heels. So, Weismann's support was necessary, not only to his peace of mind, but to his ability to keep his job.

In June of 1958, through the efforts of Dr. Gordon Whaley, Dean of the Graduate School, the University Research Council awarded him a University of Texas Research Grant, the first to be given by that institution for "creative work in painting." Williams was ready! The problem of form had been solved, the pent-up frustrations of prior years gave him an energy that carried him to heights he himself had not thought possible.

Using a male figure in a black business suit, he completed a group of paintings that within the context of man running from his fates, was a scathing comment on institutional thinking and decision-making by committees.

Within four and a half months--he created a series of twenty-five paintings--twenty were 8' x 6' and five were 6' x 12'. He was given a one-man show in Houston. Mary Nye of Nye Galleries arranged shows in Dallas and contacts in New York. The Highway, a painting that sings of the beauty of the earth, won the J.J. Feldman Award.

The infighting in the Art Department by this time had reached the boiling point. Weismann resigned in protest and Williams was fired! As a vote of confidence, the provost, Dr. Harry Ransom gave him a $600.00 raise, in those days a considerable amount, for his terminal year. Weismann arranged for him to meet Clinton Adams, then Chairman of the Art Department at the University of Florida. Dr. Ransom in communication with President J. Wayne Reitz of the University of Florida, recommended Williams.

"And, oh, the experience of campus politics and human relationships. I got more education there [Texas] than I probably ever got anywhere else when it comes to the nature of survival among my fellow man." (13)

The momentum of the success of his paintings in Texas prevailed; and after he began teaching at the University of Florida, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Hobson Pittman of Penn State days introduced him to Dorothy Miller of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Museum bought Challenging Man; the Whitney Museum of American Art acquired Turning Gazer; Lee Nordness of Nordness Galleries gave him a one-man show that was a sell-out; Incubus was included in the Art: USA collection that toured the United States, England and Japan and is now in the National Collection of the Smithsonian Institution.

In the twenty-two years he was on the staff of the University of Florida, he produced an impressive body of paintings: His compassion for women forced into a secondary role in society emerged as a series of Chorus Lines; he gave vent to his outrage with corruption in government in the Watergate Series. Always mindful of the formal aspects of painting, he used man's sexuality to produce high jinks in the form of Bananas that were wounded, drunken, laughing, yellow, brown, spotted. The Audience series was a statement of man's existential relationship to the universe while the many Heads expressed man victimized by the insanity of our times.

His writings include a book directed to young art students, Notes for a Young Painter; a novel, Poons Smith, a satire on the university system and its inmates. He wrote Poons Smith while walking across campus to meet other professors for lunch, he enjoyed regaling them with the latest Poon adventure. Beginning in 1968, he began to keep a journal and has completed over 170 volumes.

Dr. T. Walter Herbert, a Shakespearean scholar and professor of English at the University of Florida, has written of these years: "A vital part of a good university's life is of course its function to bring minds from diverse fields and have them rub against one another... For years Professor and Mrs. Williams have been active in an allied way. Their genius for friendliness, their hospitality, and in particular their great Christmas celebrations have made them a happy center of good fellowship... in encouraging the mode of conversation which has been notable in universities since universities began to have character." (14)

In 1982 Hiram Williams retired as Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus from the University of Florida. He believes that out of the chaos of life, each of us has a moral obligation to give the best in us, to establish a reason for our existence. In 1987, he gave to the new Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art of the University of Florida a substantial collection of his paintings and drawings. It is the most representative collection of his works anywhere. He continues to paint of the plight of man in an uncaring universe. "There's no sense for the artist and only spots of mercy." (15)

Any book about his paintings should properly be called "The World of Hiram Williams", for there is no definitive line between the painting world he has created and the life he has experienced. The paintings are an outgrowth and an expression of the life he has lived. Significantly, the title of his journals is Art/Life. Painting has always been his first love, his refuge, his reason for being. He dared the bizarre in an approach that provided vehicles for his recognition of the tragi-comic aspects of life playing good taste to the edge of pornography to reveal his laughter bubbling through a life that recognizes the tragedy of the final abyss.

But the last word in this biographical sketch belongs to Hiram Williams: "Between cloudy nights and moonlighted nights, I have almost forgotten that Florida has stars. The past two nights have disclosed all their startling diamond glitter against depths of blue-black velvet. The atom in me, that once was part of a star, races in heady remembrance!" (16)

Notes: (1). Edman, Erwin, Arts and the Man . W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., New York, N.Y., 1960. (2). Williams, Hiram, Notes For a Young Painter, p. 7, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1963. (3). Hiram Williams was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, February 11, 1917. His family lived in Gifford, Illinois; Chester, Pennsylvania; Titusville, Pennsylvania; Plainfield, New Jersey; and Muncy, Pennsylvania as his father moved from church to church during Hiram's childhood. (4). Williams, Hiram, Art/Life, Vol. 4, p. 95, Archives, University of Florida Libraries, Gainesville, Fl., 1969. (5). From a taped interview with Hiram Williams by William B. Stephens in preparation for his book, Hiram Williams--Exploring the Sources of His Expression, 1975. (6). Ibid. (7). From a conversation with Hiram Williams, October 18, 1986. (8). Ibid. (9). From a conversation with Hiram Williams July 5, 1988. (10). From a conversation with Hiram Williams June 5, 1989. (11). From a conversation with Hiram Williams, October 26, 1988. (12). The painting still hangs nailed to the ceiling of a bookstore in Los Angeles. (13). From a conversation with Hiram Williams, October 28, 1986. (14). Herbert T. Walter, Sr., a letter to the President of the University of Florida on the occasion of Hiram William's promotion to Distinguished Service Professor. (15). Williams, Hiram, Art/Life, Vol. 177, p.26, from a letter to Mernet Larsen, dated June 1, 1989, Archives, University of Florida Libraries, Gainesville, Fla. (16). Williams, Hiram, Art/Life, Vol. 79, p.20, Archives, University of Florida Libraries, Gainesville, Fla.

From the guide to the Hiram Williams Papers, 1935-1999, 1968-1995, (Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida)


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