Tennessee Williams Was a Secret Painter

Tennessee Williams, L'inconnu: C'est les Yeux, depicting David Wolkowsky. Photo: courtesy Key West Art & Historical Society and David Wolkowsky.
Tennessee Williams, L'inconnu: C'est les Yeux, depicting David Wolkowsky. Photo: courtesy Key West Art & Historical Society and David Wolkowsky.

 

Tennessee Williams, <em>L'inconnu: C'est les Yeux</em>, depicting David Wolkowsky.  Photo: courtesy Key West Art & Historical Society and David Wolkowsky.

Tennessee Williams, L’inconnu: C’est les Yeux, depicting David Wolkowsky. Photo: courtesy Key West Art & Historical Society and David Wolkowsky.

Feel free to add Tennessee Williams to your list of celebrity artists (see San Francisco Art Institute Professor Critiques Paintings by James Franco, Johnny Depp, and Others and We Rank 16 Celebrities Aspiring to Art World Recognition—Who Will Win?): the famed playwright/poet painted dozens of canvas over a period of 30 years, works that are now finally being shown to the public at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans.

Williams took up the brush in his home in Key West, which he purchased following the success of 1944’s The Glass Menagerie. He lived there until shortly before his death in 1983, the last 20 years of his life marked by a deep depression and alcohol and drug abuse following the death of his partner, Frank Merlo.

Through it all, Williams continued to write prolifically. What few know is that painting was another important creative outlet for the Streetcar Named Desire author.

“The act of painting is an intimate mirror,” William Andrews, the Ogden’s executive director, told the Washington Post. “I think Tennessee Williams liked the reflection he discovered in this work,”

David Wolkowsky, a friend of Williams’s who owns all but two of the paintings on display at the Ogden, remembers the author’s regular visits. Williams would come in the afternoon, he told the Post, bearing “a bottle of red wine, Billie Holiday tapes, and paint,” and work until nightfall.

The resulting tropically-hued oil paintings were often given away as gifts, or were lost and discarded. Over the years, and with great difficulty, Wolkowsky has brought many of them back together—including his portrait, on which Williams left the following inscription: “Dear David, you realize I wasn’t painting the physical you, but the spirit visible to me. Love, Tennessee.”

“Tennessee Williams: The Playwright and the Painter” is on view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, February 7–May 31, 2015.


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