The art collection of St. Mary’s College of Maryland has an inventory of over 1000 pieces. Many of the artworks that students see everyday in academic buildings are pieces from the collection. Many of the displays for these pieces avoid providing greater context for the pieces, leaving many students curious about what the pieces depict and what the intentions behind them are. Tales from the Collections is devoted to finding the hidden histories of some of St. Mary’s most notorious and bizarre art, without coloring students’ own interpretations too heavily.
There isn’t a single student that doesn’t pass through the 2nd floor of Montgomery Hall who hasn’t asked the question “What is it?” “What does it mean?”. Even if that’s not the case, surely they can’t have helped but stare as it loomed overhead. It has no title listed, but all you have to call it is “The Boob Painting,” and it’s a safe bet anyone here would know what you were taking about. The seven panel mural is unmistakable, a grotesque blend of swarthy pinks and whites, bloody browns and reds, and other fleshy colors. A jumble of seemingly unfinished, cartoonishly rendered knees and legs attach to disproportionate, enormous bodies distinguished by bizarrely detailed, pantagruelian breasts. In the space where a face might be supposed to be, there is the occasional cutout of a nose. I have to confess, the painting challenged me on one or two fronts to the point of utter frustration. That’s what led me to choose this to be the artwork to search for some context on. Here’s what I learned about the Monty Boob Painting.
The first step was finding the artist of the painting. The artist’s signature in the bottom of the rightmost panel is fairly prominent, a person who definitely has the last name “Williams” along with the number ’72, presumably the year the painting was made. Monty has been open since late 1979, and in an archived edition of the Mulberry Tree from the 1987 I catch a glimpse of the painting in the background of an unrelated picture. So from what I can determine for certain, the painting has been there at least since then. So, in fact, I had a great deal of information to start with. But for years, I was under the impression that the artist’s first name was Liam, because the first letter of the first name appeared to be an “L”. I searched Google in vain for days looking for artists named Liam Williams and “Liam Williams SMCM.” I’d heard a rumor that the painting had been an art SMP, so I searched the online archives for students named Liam Williams. When nothing turned up, I decided there was nothing left to do but return to the painting and hope for a revelation. And by a stroke of luck, I got one. The letter I had been sure was an uppercase “L” was in fact a lower case “h.'” The artist’s name was Hiram Williams. A web search of “Hiram Williams artist” quickly revealed what I had hoped for; paintings of unfinished knees, gory colors and grotesque bodies. Jackpot.
Research into Hiram Williams tells me a little more about him. Born in 1913, he was a Florida-based artist and a teacher, who was best known for his evocative human figures. Williams was attempting to capture the entirety of the human form without having to fragment it. If you have trouble understanding how Williams planned the piece, it might be because he didn’t. An article in Explore Magazine claimed that Hiram was a process painter, a method of painting “where the artist discovers the true subject of a painting through the act of painting it” (Conversations with Hiram: Reflections of an Artist. Explore Magazine, Volume 6 Issue 2). According to the book Hiram Williams: Images of Compassion he sees images from this period of his art as depictions of “momenti mori as we live in our mortality” (Page 9).
Looking at some of his pieces on the Asheville Art Museum web page on his collections, many of pieces resemble the untitled piece in St. Mary’s collection, the picture above. The pieces that most closely resemble the piece in Monty are untitled, but described as being a part of the ‘Seated Figure’ series. The most interesting thing about Williams’ pieces is that even if they appear to be an unflattering depiction of humanity, Williams doesn’t seem to see them that way at all. In this unpublished piece from Art/Life Journal, Williams has just this to say about his body of work:
“I believe that each of us is locked in his own skin. Art, science and social behavior result from our efforts to escape. Socially, at best, all we can do is rub pores. I believe that if every man Jack of us understood man’s situation on spaceship earth, we would be kinder to one another, holy wars would cease and the health of our planet would be attended to. My images are thought to be horrific; on the contrary, they are images of compassion.”
So if you happen to be passing through Monty and by Hiram Williams’ mural in the near future, think about Williams’ interpretation and see if you agree!