Island artist and conservationist Rez Williams, whom some described as an Island treasure, passed away recently at 81 years of age.
Williams grew up on Long Island, N.Y. He graduated from Union College with a degree in philosophy, and later earned a MFA from New York University. He taught drawing and art history at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
The first time Williams visited the Island he would eventually call home was in 1969; he moved to West Tisbury in 1975.
Williams was the recipient of the 2013 Creative Living Award from the Permanent Endowment Fund for Martha’s Vineyard, now called the Martha’s Vineyard Community Foundation. This award recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to the quality of life on the Vineyard.
According to Williams’ website, he had numerous exhibits on Martha’s Vineyard and elsewhere in New England over the decades. He also went to off-Island areas for artistic endeavors; for example, for a fellowship with the Ballinglen Arts Foundation, he traveled to Ireland and produced a series of paintings showcasing the country’s rural areas.
Williams was known for his paintings of fishing vessels from New Bedford, although the fellowship in Ireland pushed his artistic output of landscape paintings, like those of the forests on Monhegan Island.
Williams often showcased his artworks at the Island’s A Gallery. Gallery director Tanya Augoustinos described Williams as a “treasure,” who contributed greatly to the Island’s artistic and conservation scenes for decades. “It’s such a loss for the Island’s art community, and the conservation community,” she said.
Augoustinos said Williams’ beloved artworks will immortalize him. She worked with Williams for more than a decade, and they were also friends. According to Augoustinos, Williams was an avid sailor, and made trips between the Vineyard and New Bedford to paint fishing vessels, which produced a visual history of the fleet over the years.
Island artist Barney Zeitz said the news was “pretty sudden,” adding he saw Williams at Cronig’s just last week. Zeitz, who had known Williams for nearly half a century, pointed out they were both artists who pursued the art they wanted to create.
“He was a good guy, really nice man,” Zeitz said, adding that he really appreciated Williams’ sincerity.
Island artist Kib Bramhall said he was shocked to hear of Williams’ passing. Bramhall knew Williams for 40 years, and said the Vineyard had lost a “giant” in terms of conservation and the arts.
“I happen to own one of his early paintings, which is a joy,” he said, referring to a painting by Williams of a gas tank on North Road.
Conservationists on the Island are among those with fond memories of Williams.
Brendan O’Neill, former executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, worked with Williams for many years. Williams was on the society’s board for 12 years, starting in 1992. “He was one of our longest-serving board people,” O’Neill said.
“It was an honor working with Rez,” O’Neill said. “Such a thoughtful, intelligent, and creative guy. He will be missed.”
Samantha Look, the current Vineyard Conservation Society executive director, said her father, Allen Look, was close friends with Williams, and her memories of him were mainly from her childhood. However, she said Williams was part of a group of people she holds in “high esteem and gratitude” for the work they did in conservation. “He’s just someone who’s had innate grace and was so lovely,” she said.
Look added that Williams had a love for the Island, from his work in conservation to paintings of the Island’s landscapes. “He really cared a lot about this place,” she said.
At one point, Williams was the president of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation. “We are very sad to learn of the death of Rez Williams,” Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation executive director Adam Moore said, sending his condolences to his wife Lucy Mitchell.
Moore said he had known Williams since he joined the foundation in 2008, although Williams had been with the foundation for longer than that. Moore said Williams was “very important” to the foundation, having also served as a board member, and as an honorary trustee at the time of his passing. Moore said Williams provided a lot of guidance to the board over the years on various issues, bringing with him a wealth of historical knowledge.
Williams was also commissioned to paint six paintings of the foundation’s properties, which were later made into a poster series, with more planned to be released this summer.
Moore said he learned a lot from Williams. “We will miss him dearly,” Moore said.