KEY WEST -- Art student Rachel Burke walked into the new Tennessee Williams exhibit and had an instant reaction: “I never knew he was a painter.”
She’s not alone. Williams, once called America’s Greatest Living Playwright, is renowned worldwide for literary works including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie — now playing as a hit revival on Broadway.
But even during Williams’ lifetime, few outside the island city, where he owned a house on Duncan Street for 34 years until his death in 1983, knew that he painted. But this exhibit, up through early April at the Custom House Museum, showcases Williams’ other creative side, expressed with acrylics, oil paints, pencil, chalk and the occasional stick-on letters.
The lack of awareness likely is because the enormous talent that the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning writer had with words did not exactly carry over to his art.
“His paintings are not Picassos by any stretch of the imagination,” said Cori Convertito, who curated the exhibit titled “Tennessee Williams: Playwright & Painter.”
Williams conceded in a 1975 newspaper article that the only thing he has done well in his life is to write: “I amuse myself with painting. … I enjoy that, but I’ve had no training at it. I suppose my painting is pretty corny.”
That’s one word to assess some of the 19 paintings in the collection of rarely seen artwork that make up the exhibition. Haunting, perplexing, sexually explicit, humorous and bizarre describe some of his other works.
But together, they are fascinating and interesting, providing an insight into his psyche.
“I get a better understanding of his characters in his plays, who always were really emotional, antagonistic and not really confident,” Convertito said.
The paintings — done with a technique one art critic called “to-hell-with-the-rules attitude” — display loneliness, people questioning their own sanity and a lot of sexual exploration.
“He struggled a long time with his own sexuality,” Convertito said. “While he was happy to admit he was gay down here, it was not something he admitted openly in many circles.”
The exhibit began during the 30th anniversary of his death. It is timed to run past March 26, which would have been his 103rd birthday. The museum is teaming up with the Key West Business Guild — where there is a permanent exhibit of Williams’ life on the island — to do some joint programming. It includes a poetry and art contest. The theme for both is The Rose Tattoo, a Williams play that was turned into a movie. Filmed primarily in Key West, it premiered in 1955 at the San Carlos Institute on Duval Street.
Entrepreneur David Wolkowsky, known as Mr. Key West and a longtime friend of Williams, owns 17 of the paintings in the art exhibit. He pushed for the work to be shown to the public in Key West.
“Today, people line up to see [Ernest] Hemingway’s house, but they don’t know Tennessee lived very modestly in another part of town,” Wolkowsky said. “He was a quiet giant in Key West. He anoymously and very generously helped people who had problems.”
Williams always could sympathize with those who struggled. It’s not known exactly when he began to paint, but it’s believed to be in the 1960s after his partner of 15 years, Frank Merlo, died of lung cancer in 1963.
At this time, critics also were panning Williams’ new literary works. Painting became a release for him through the 1970s as he battled heartache, alcoholism, drug use and depression severe enough to require a stay in a mental institution.
“He used to paint one a day, just crank them out,” Convertito said.
While in Key West, Williams wrote inside a private cottage he called “The Mad House” that was next to his Duncan Street Bahamian home. But he chose to paint outside in view of passersby, on an easel he placed either under the gazebo or by the pool. He signed them with just his initials: TW.
Williams also liked to paint at Wolkowsky’s remote home on Ballast Key, a private island about 10 miles offshore of Key West in the middle of a national refuge.
“He’d like to bring a bottle of table wine and play Billie Holiday and paint,” Wolkowsky recalled.
One time, he painted a somewhat dark portrait of Wolkowsky. “I was a little shocked by it,” Wolkowsky said. “I said to him, ‘Perhaps we can tear this one up.’ But he wrote on it in French: ‘It’s the eyes.’ ”
And on the back, Williams wrote: “Dear David, you realize I wasnt painting the physical you, but the spirit visible to me. Love, Tennessee.” Wolkowksy said now: “I’m glad I didn’t tear it up.”
Key West artist Poochie Myers bought one painting directly from Williams and a second one at the Duval Street gallery Artists Unlimited, which was run by eccentric Marion Stevens. Myers loaned both pieces to the Key West Art & Historical Society for the exhibit.
One painting featured Alice the bourbon-drinking goat, which belonged to Williams’ flamboyant friend, eccentric artist Henry Faulkner.
“It is German expressionism, and I appreciate abstraction,” Myers said. “It is very abstract. Some people tell me I just bought it for the signature.”
The other painting, titled Recognition of Madness, features a gentleman to the side of a large orange feline that is supposed to be Williams dealing with his own sexuality. “He doesn’t understand if he really is attracted to men or if he’s just crazy, and that’s why he can see this giant cat that nobody else can see,” Convertito said.
Myers, who knew Williams, said the struggle was intense: “He didn’t like being gay. He always wanted to shoot himself — to shoot the gayness out.”
While in Key West, Williams brought several buff, young men to his home. He would sometimes paint a portrait of them before sending them on their way. One of their portraits is part of the exhibit.
Myers said she paid a lot for the paintings at the time, about $4,000 each.
Stevens’ gallery sold several Williams paintings. A few were brought to her by Viola Veidt, daughter of the great German actor Conrad Veidt, who appeared in several U.S. movies including Casablanca.
“When Viola needed money, she would run into Tennessee’s house and grab paintings off his wall,” Myers said. “She’d run downtown to Marion Stevens’ gallery and say, ‘Here’s some paintings for sale that Tennessee gave me.’ Marion would always have to call and see if it was legitimate or if she just stole them.”
Veidt sold one of Williams’ paintings for $500 to Wilhelmina Harvey, the first female mayor of Monroe County. Harvey, a frequent bridge partner of Williams’, said in a local newspaper article that when Veidt was down on her luck, Williams would give her paintings to sell for rent money.
Harvey also told of how she had to hide Williams’ paintings, which were a bit risqué for the time. “When I bought the sketch, I told my maid Florence to wrap it in newspaper and hide it in the garage so that Mr. Harvey wouldn’t see it,” Harvey said. “I didn’t want him to ask me why I was buying pictures of nude men.
“When I bought the second one, I told her to wrap it with even more newspaper than the first because it was a frontal nude.” The second painting, called The Flight of Peter Pan, Harvey had hidden under the bed, “because Mr. Harvey never looks under the bed.”
There is a theater named after Williams on the nearby campus of the Florida Keys Community College, but few associate him with Key West.
“I didn’t know he ever lived here, and I don’t think I ever realized he was a homosexual,” said Michael Miceli, a Nashua, N.H., tourist strolling through the exhibit. “I’ve read some of his poetry and seen a couple of his plays. This is not anywhere near what I expected. It’s a very pleasant surprise.”
Michael F. Gieda, executive director of the Key West Art & Historical Society, which operates the Custom House Museum, said: “I look at the artwork as a statement of the time and place and person. It gives you a sneak peek into what it would have been like to have been down here with Williams in the ’70s and into the ’80s.”
One painting about the 1976 bicentennial celebration, called A Child’s Garden of the Roses, depicts one of the many people Williams had a falling-out with over the years. Author Truman Capote is dressed as a baby with a handgun. Blood is dripping from people he shot.
“His paintings tell stories, like this feud with Truman,” Wolkowsky said. “Truman had written in Answered Prayers, one of his stories, something about Tennessee that he didn’t like. Truman didn’t name him, but Tennessee returned the feud with the ironic painting of a child bloodying everyone.”
A glass display includes much of Williams’ literary works, as well as magazine articles and his teeth. The cover of one of his books of poems, called Angrogyne Mon-Amor, features one of his paintings. “I think this shows how important his painting was to him,” Convertito said.
And they certainly are original. Art critic Larry Davis once wrote: “In a market glutted with competently rendered local scenes and decorative pictures, the unpretentious originality of TW is refreshing and the often enigmatic content of his paintings a challenge!”
Wolkowsky said he has been in discussions with museums and theaters in Miami, New Orleans and New York to also host the exhibit.
“I think his art should be shown around the country,” Wolkowsky said. “People are amazed when they see it.”