Tennessee Williams was already a famous playwright, known for “A Streetcar Named Desire’’ and “The Glass Menagerie,’’ when he bought a small home in Key West, picked up a brush and began to explore a new form of artistic expression: painting.
Some of those paintings — poignant pieces in tropical colors that are striking for their depictions of Williams’ loneliness — are now on exhibit in Miami Beach at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU.
“These beautiful paintings tell a different story about one of literature’s greatest writer’s personal and innermost feelings, as expressed through an artistic medium that Tennessee Williams loved but that most of us did not know about — his painting,’’ said Susan Gladstone, executive director of the museum.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer moved to a cottage on Duncan Street in Key West in 1949, using the patio as an open-air studio and finding a new kind of freedom on the canvas, from delving into personal themes to sketching his friends and acquaintances. He lived and wrote — and painted — there for more than 30 years.
The art, on loan to the museum from Williams’ longtime friend in Key West, David Wolkowsky, includes a portrait of British actor Michael York, who made his Broadway debut in Williams' play, “Out Cry,’’ in 1973, and a painting called “Citizen of the World III,’’ of a man sitting on a chair with numbers on his chest, a symbol of Williams’ acceptance that he was a target because he was gay.
As the museum notes in the text accompanying the painting, Williams once said, “Sexuality is a basic part of my nature. I never considered my homosexuality as anything to be disguised. Neither did I consider it a matter to be over-emphasized. I consider it an accident of nature.’’
Other paintings, though, seem to indicate that Williams, who suffered from bouts of depression and died in 1983, struggled with feelings of being an outcast. In one piece from 1976 called “Le Solitaire,’’ a man walks with his hands on his hips, alone in the dark, as dark red buildings box him in on each side, with the parallels between the painting and Williams’ own life “abundant,’’ the museum said.
Williams also drew from his own writings for his art. In “Sulla Terrazza della Signora Stone,’’ he refers to the lead character from his first novel, “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone,’’ as he imagines the aging American actress with her Italian lover Paolo on the terrace of her Roman apartment.
The nine works in “Tennessee Williams, Playwright and Painter’’ are among those that have been shown in New Orleans at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and at the Custom House Museum in Key West. but they've never before been exhibited in Miami.
Gladstone said the Jewish museum was the perfect place to display Williams’ foray into oil painting because the works are owned by Wolkowsky, whose family is one of the oldest in Key West and played an important role in the history of Florida Jews.
Wolkowsky, whose work as a developer and preservationist helped shape Key West, owns Ballast Key, a private island nine miles off Key West where Williams sometimes painted. Wolkowsky also hosted Williams at his Pier House Resort.
“His paintings each had a story, always filled with his humor,’’ Wolkowsky remembered. “I gained a great penpal of Michael York, who for years sent letters about buying the Tennessee painting of him I owned.’’
IF YOU GO
What: Exhibit of Tennessee Williams paintings from Key West
Where: Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU
When: Through Oct. 7