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Rez Williams on ART, Conservation and Community

by Kaysea Hart

Rez in his Studio in West Tisbury

Recently, I had the pleasure of
meeting with painter Rez Williams at his West Tisbury home (a Greek Revival farmhouse built in 1834) where he lives with his wife Lucy Mitchell, who is also an accomplished artist.

Rez moved to the Vineyard in the 1970s; a self-described “hippy from New York City” drawn to the landscape and relaxed pace. After many years of painting Vineyard landscapes, Williams came to the realization that “the landscapes themselves were all much more interesting than their paintings”.

Attracted to its toughness and the human element, Rez is now studying and painting New Bedford fishing boats. His interest was sparked while he was sailing Vineyard waters. He spotted a fishing boat, “painted a deep grape magenta that had green horizontal stripes with white whale backs”. He recalls the smell of turpentine, and thought, “now that’s something to paint.”  Although the subject matter – landscapes and fishing boats – are quite different, Rez’s style – broad strokes of rich layered color – is clear and consistent. “The way your hand moves –your signature – is your stylus. As a painter, your hand moves the same way. I couldn’t get a hard edge to save my life.”

I asked Rez what has changed about the Vineyard for him over the years. “There seems to be a growing frenzy, just what we all came here to escape. The Vineyard was changing even when I got here. Back then, many of the cars you would see were from the 1930s and 1950s. I remember Franklin Benson painting his truck with green house paint. People don’t do that anymore.”

Rez served on the VCS board during some of the most challenging moments of the ongoing Moshup Trail Project. At that time, a half-dozen strategic parcels of priceless coastal heathlands were about to be lost to development. Rez quoted ecologist Peter Dunwiddie, who described the rare habitat as “our Redwoods.”

A partnership involving the state, town, private conservation groups and foundations stepped up, resulting in preservation of one of the Vineyard’s flagship natural areas. Our board was repeatedly tested. Complex title issues were sorted out. Acquisition funds were raised with only hours to spare. The town even stepped in to exercise its eminent domain power to secure one strategic parcel, with backing from VCS. “It was quite the fight,” recalls Williams.

Rez donated the Moshup Trail painting seen below as part of an “Art for Legal Defense” auction that helped sustain the effort. He went on to serve as board president at Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation.

I asked Rez what he thought were going to be challenges for VCS in the future. “It’s a tough nut. With the population increase and the building boom of the 1980s and 90s, I see now the beginning of what I think is going to be disastrous effects on our great ponds. The consequences are getting uglier and uglier. VCS will have to get into the work of fixing things rather than heading them off. Wind power, sewering and condoms,” (Rez joked) were three things that came to mind when talking about fixing things.

The Moshup Trail painting seen here was one of Williams’ last landscapes, painted when he served on the VCS board.

Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (who died last December), counted Rez along with Andrew Wyeth, Frank Stella, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons as among the finest artists of the 21st century. Hoving said about Rez, “His scenes of the Vineyard smash into your eyes like crescendos.” A modest Williams stated that Hoving’s description was nothing more than a favor to boost interest in his art. Having been in his studio, one would have to agree that Hoving was onto something.