She’s So Lovely , oil, 28 x 24.
By Norman Kolpas
The year was 1981. Miss McCord, the art teacher at Mechanics-town Elementary School in upstate New York, was leading the kindergartners in one of their first experiences with finger-painting. As all the little tots swirled their hands through their increasingly murky compositions, one small girl seemed lost in concentration. Placing the tips of her fingers just so, she carefully scratched an amazingly intricate grid into the paint with her nails. “I brought it home,” Tiffany Williams recalls, “and my uncle took one look at it and exclaimed, ‘How did you do this!?’ I just always knew I was an artist.”
Some rare people, indeed, seem to be born with an innate talent that emerges almost fully formed, aware, and ready to tackle any challenge it meets. How else to explain the extraordinary success and recognition Williams is already enjoying at the ripe old age of 25? Her talent, to be sure, found early nurturing. Though neither of them would call themselves artists, both her mother Linda and her father Larry were good at dashing off delightful sketches. “I would endlessly follow my mom around asking her to draw horses,” Williams remembers. “I’d hold her drawings up against the glass door, put another piece of paper on top, and trace a horse over it.”
Laundromat , oil, 28 x 17.
Miss McCord also continued to encourage her in weekly art classes through the fourth grade. “When your teachers make you feel good about it, and all the kids around you like what you do, you keep doing it,” Williams says matter-of-factly about her growing dedication. “I even wanted to join the magic club once, but they put me in the art club anyway,” she adds with a laugh.
Alas, she changed schools in fifth grade, no longer gaining encouragement from Miss McCord. Art teachers of questionable talent, and at times the lack of an art teacher at all, plagued her through middle school.
Then, at Port Jervis High, Williams had the good fortune to fall under the spell of Mr. Windgassen, a dedicated painter himself with a love for German Expressionism. “He gave me my own assignments, letting me work separate from the rest of the class,” says Williams. “Whenever I would do something, he would push me to go further. We even used to paint on the walls of the school a lot. He was very loose and thick with his paint, I learned from him not to be constrained when I painted, to let more things happen intuitively, and that becomes your style.”
As a written classroom assignment, Williams addressed the issue of how someone could make a living at art. “I asked Mr. Windgassen if I should go into advertising illustration,” she says. “He told me, ‘No way!’ He said I should go into fine art.
The Discussion , oil, 30 x 24.
At first, however, she didn’t. Staying home in West-brookville, NY, she attended community college, earning a two-year degree and working part time. But, she admits, she fell into creative doldrums that lasted about a year. “I wasn’t doing any art and felt really bad about it,” she says. “It started slipping away, and I gave up on wanting to be an artist.
A chance meeting, however, alerted Williams to a fine program in drawing and painting offered at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design in Denver. “It sounded like a nice place and not as insane as going to art school in a really big city,” she remembers. She made the move. “It was pretty much a shot in the dark, an impulsive idea, and if I had gone anywhere else, who knows what would have happened.
What did happen was that, while she was in the process of completing her bachelor of fine arts degree in 1998, Williams found herself surrounded by an inspirational and supportive environment of teachers and fellow art students. She rented an apartment above another painter, Teresa Vito, who offered encouragement and insights. She plunged into a lively regular gathering of artists who hung out and worked in St. Mark’s coffee shop. And she gained the courage to trust her instincts and her native-born talent and, simply, to view the world as an artist and to paint.
Influences from both the past and the present helped shape her approach to art. She and Vito together visited museums in search of works by 19th-century master portraitist John Singer Sargent, and his dark, moody, muted colors confirmed her own choice of palette. Professional studies in 1998 with master teacher Quang Ho at Denver’s Art Students League “taught me more about underlying form, about light and shadow and different ways to approach a painting, so that I became even more intuitive about my work,” she says. That jibed perfectly with the German Expressionist approach, the broad brushstrokes and thickly applied oils, that had seemed so right to her since Mr. Windgassen’s high-school art classes.
Waders , oil, 16 x 12.
All these influences coalesced for Williams into a highly personal style that began to gain her attention beyond the classroom. While she was winning scholarship awards every year at Rocky Mountain College, her paintings began to be shown in top Denver galleries. This past March she had a one-woman show entitled The Language of Art at Merrill-Johnson Gallery.
That show’s title is most appropriate, as Williams’ work has evolved into a visual language all her own. “I like to paint everyday scenes, the gestures of people,” she says. Presented in loose yet impeccably balanced compositions executed in a muted palette, these works don’t merely invite but more often compel the viewer to forge a connection with the people and places she portrays.
Take, for example, The Discussion, inspired by a moment Williams captured on film at a party given by one of her art teachers. “I just loved the people there, the artists and collectors,” she says. “And when I saw these two people on a sofa having a conversation, I loved his bald head and the design on the rug and the way they were sitting there. They were probably talking about art and using a bunch of big words,” she concludes with a laugh.
A visit to a friend’s art school graduation show, thronged with interesting, hip young people, set Williams snapping away yet again, gathering photographic references for future paintings. “I was like a kid let loose at a carnival,” she says. One moment she captured—an effortlessly elegant young woman strolling through the gallery, turning heads as she went—became another canvas called She’s So Lovely.
So adept has Williams become at capturing seemingly inconsequential yet emotionally charged moments that she has even begun to create paintings without people. These works, such as her recent Laundromat, seem filled with the feeling that someone very real has just stepped out of view. “I’m working on more images with no people in them,” Williams admits. “And they have an extreme feeling of absence about them.”
Lately she has also been working on whole groupings of paintings at one time. “I like to be able to show a body of work that goes together,” she explains. “So I’ll work a little bit on each one, and if I especially like one I’ll leave it out and look at it a lot, and try to paint my other pieces to be as good as that one.”
Thus, as Williams’ personal and professional standards continue to rise, her language as an artist continues to evolve. “I want to paint things that people would not necessarily think they would want a painting of,” she says. “I want every part of my life to be reflected in my work. And when I’m long gone, there will be thousands of paintings that tell the story of my life, what interested me, the connectedness I felt to the spirit of life.”
With that in mind, Williams hopes never to lose the part of her that has been an artist ever since she scored her fingernails through that tempera paint back in kindergarten. “Being an artist is just a journey, a long path, a way of living life,” she says. “And I want to follow that path for as long as I can.”
Photos courtesy the artist and Merrill-Johnson Gallery, Denver, CO; Charlene Cody Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; and Jack Meier Gallery, Houston, TX.
Featured in September 2001