Patricia Williams’ many faces at the Feldman Family Artspace


Patricia Williams’ show, “Colleagues and Other Strangers,” in the Feldman Family Artspace at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, curated by Featherstone Center for the Arts, tells a story. But it’s a narrative of our own making, about an imaginary trial. In fact, Williams says that she likes the exhibition’s title because “it’s open-ended and ambiguous.” It’s up to us to decide what the witness for the prosecution saw, the private investigator discovered, the jurors are thinking, and whom the mysterious trio in “They Seem So Normal” represent.

William’s masterful use of paint that animates the faces runs through the highly individual portraits, so they each exude distinct personalities, helping us shape an unfolding drama. Williams uses acrylics and visible brushwork to sculpt and enliven each person. With the exception of the courtroom artist, her colors tend to be subdued, letting their personalities shine through. For instance, the chief of police and the appellate court judge look stern, the bail bondsman smiles out at us, the forensic examiner has an enigmatic expression, and the prosecutor seems mysteriously pleased.

Although Williams is currently a distinguished professor of law at Northeastern University and professor emerita at Columbia University School of Law, a prolific author, and a national law correspondent, the art was inspired by her time as a trial lawyer. Yet they reflect her inner mood rather than specific people. She says, “I was taking something that appeared to me and filling it in with details from a face — a recollection of a particular expression.” Williams has an eye for a diversity of faces, quirks, and personality ticks. “They reflect the internal way I dialogue with myself, but also the way I dialogue with my profession as a lawyer. I’m always going back and forth, arguing things. They are the litigants of some inner jockeying of this or that issue that visited me on the day I was in the studio,” she says.

Williams painted some of the works in classes she has taken with John Hollady at Featherstone. However, she does not see herself as a professional artist. “The reason I paint is partly because it’s like meditation, but I’m not a trained painter. The exercise of doing this is a bit like taking images and making them less strange. I am fascinated by faces. I relate to people by rendering them in some way,” she shares. Painting, for Williams, is an act of revealing “not simply what is on canvas, but what it is that I’m feeling. They reflect my moods. They may not look like me, but I consider all of them as self-portraits of my insides.”

Ann Smith says the selection committee who jury the exhibitions that hang at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center selected Williams’ art because portraiture is rare on Martha’s Vineyard. “They thought it was a perfect opportunity to showcase something different to present to the Island community,” she says.

Walking through “Colleagues and Other Strangers” is empowering. Living in a time when trials can seem to dominate the news, letting us come up with our own story — and outcome — can provide a sense of control of the narrative around us.

“Colleagues and Other Strangers” is on view at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center through Oct. 8.