“When I get to heaven I’m going to smoke a cigarette 9 miles long” —John Prine
“The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” —Bruce Nauman
“Life is serious but art is fun.” —John Irving, Hotel New Hampshire
The art world of the Great Basin took a big hit last week. Early Tuesday morning Larry Williamson “shuffled off this mortal coil” and left a great void in the hearts and lives of countless artists, former students, art appreciators, and people who appreciate dumbass humor and cranky old men. Larry was a horse and canine whisperer, champion boxer, worker of magic, spreader of light, teacher, mentor, stubborn and outraged citizen of the world, coffee nerd, family man, believer in the mysteries and powers of art, friend, insatiable student of the early inhabitants of the Great Basin, and reluctant shaman.
Larry has been called all of these things, though sometimes in affectionately vulgar words. His middle name was Merlin. An appropriate moniker since he was, in his art, a worker of magic. And in his life he was an unabashed purveyor of the mysteries and beauty of the physical world. I have to insert a disclaimer before I get too carried away: if Larry read what I am writing here the first thing he would do is get on a step ladder and kick my butt. He would be mortified to think that anyone talked about him in this way.
A few memories and reflections from the past 36 years that surface as I am writing this:
Larry was rare among public school art teachers that I’ve known in that he continued to make art as his teaching career progressed and familial obligations inevitably became more pressing. Artmaking was for Larry like eating or breathing. He didn’t see artmaking as something separate from his daily life. He brought that energy and sincerity into his art classes.
Larry’s classroom was more an environment than a classroom. The “art shack” in Panaca was a WWII era barracks repurposed as an art studio, photo darkroom, kiln room, visiting artists quarters, and a hangout for students who didn’t always fit in elsewhere during lunch and after school. On a typical day kids would be scattered throughout the “art shack” and the outside area surrounding it. The bleachers between the school track and the art shack, the lower reaches of the Panaca hill (which decades before had housed the towns jail … in a cave) and the steps into the shack were all put to use as work spaces. Music wafted through the area from an ancient, paint-speckled cassette player/boom box. The sounds, selected by Larry, ranged from Mississippi John Hurt to Charles Mingus, Lightnin’ Hopkins to Tracy Chapman, Willie Nelson, John Coltrane, Tom Waits and John Prine. Pretty eclectic. And woe be to the kid who fooled with the music machine. Larry felt that an art education wasn’t only about teaching processes and techniques. He maintained that art should be a part of life; a way of living. Therefore he saw it as his job to instill the foundations of that life within each student. Larry didn’t recognize boundaries between art, music, work, politics, the various religious mythologies, and daily life. Like one of his heroes, Joseph Campbell, he believed that all great mythic narratives were underpinned by a common thread, one that for him was embodied in the beliefs of the Indians of the Great Basin.
I had driven almost non-stop from Rifle, Colorado to the Williamsons’ home and studio in Lincoln County. After navigating my way through a drift of pigs, piglets, and a gaggle of chickens on the gravel road ending at the Williamson driveway, I saw a man who looked at least like a close relative of Willie Nelson, accompanied by two mini-Schnauzers and a Cocker spaniel, working a rake through a pile of dead leaves as he scowled at my approaching car. It was 1986 and this was the first of my many residency gigs for the Nevada State Arts Council at Lincoln County High School. We’d spoken on the phone but had yet to meet in person. Despite the scowl, Larry and Lorna made me feel welcome with a nice dinner and lots of wine (the kind with a loop for your finger and a convenient screw top) and especially a lot of talking and laughing as we wiled away the afternoon around their dining table. Larry and Lorna seemed eager to share stories of life in Panaca, a village seemingly frozen in time. They were the perfect hosts into a world that hadn’t changed much since the previous century.
During many of the summers that Larry taught at Lincoln County High he would take a select group of students on a field trip to various places. Often he would arrange with the school district for me to go along as a sort of visiting artist. One year we went across the southwest towards Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado. At one point we stopped on the side of the road near Shiprock, New Mexico for a lunch break. All the food was underneath the reconditioned Trailways bus so we quickly unpacked, set up, and told the kids to line up. My purview was lunchmeat and cheese. Students would shuffle past with a couple slabs of bread on a plate and I’d slap on their preferred protein. Larry was at the far end of the line serving drinks. I kept hearing laughing and loud complaining and Larry telling kids to shut up, get back on the bus and eat. It finally hit me—we were out of water. Larry’s solution was to tell each student to hold their cup out, then he’d but in a scoop of powdered lemonade. The poor kid would ask where the water was and Larry would say, “there ain’t any. Just get on the bus and quit bitchin’!” In fairness I have to say that the students had pulled some pretty mean stunts on Larry. One involved a wayward skunk, another found Larry inside a kiln upside down with his feet kicking out the top, and yet another had Larry standing helplessly and near terminally embarrassed as several thousand students from all across the country sang “Happy Birthday” to him in a huge auditorium in Washington, D.C. One of Larry’s students, Jacob Escobado, now Creative Vice President of Turner Cartoon Network, in an interview in Juxtapoz magazine told a story about a visiting track team unloading from their busses. Jacob overheard one kid, apparently a veteran of previous trips to Panaca, warning his friends not to go up by that white building (the art shack) because “there was a mean old man up there who would yell at them.”
Suffering fools was something Larry never did. He had no patience for pretentiousness and snooty wannabe conniseurs. “That’s a fun painting” was high praise coming from Larry. He had no delusions about the preciousness of art, especially his own. McCarran Airport in Vegas had exhibited Larry’s work in one of their new “walking” galleries, and it was time to take down the show. We were loading my truck with some of his pieces and I inadvertently bumped one against another. To my horror I had damaged one of his large ceramic pots. When I told Larry about my mishap he looked at the damage and said, “Eh, don’t worry about it. I’ll just put some wood into the crack and it’ll look better than before.”
Larry was the most unimpressed with celebrity of anyone I’ve ever known. A few years ago Larry, Lorna, my wife Imelda and I were at the Martin Hotel in Winnemucca to see Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and have a Basque meal. Before the show, Ramblin’ Jack was dinning a couple of tables away from us. We all finished gorging ourselves at about the same time. Larry, who’s not all that tall, was returning from the can when Ramblin’ Jack was exiting the restaurant area of the Martin. They stood about 18” apart as each looked the other up and down. Jack, in his 10 gallon white bull riders Stetson, was about to say something when Larry beat him to it. “Huh, I thought you’d be taller than that,” he muttered. Jack burst out with his trademark cackling high pitched laugh and had a big smile on his face as they exchanged some friendly words and shook hands. Ramblin’ Jack is known for his quick wit but Larry was quicker. It was clear that they would have been friends if time and circumstances had been different.
On one of my last residencies to Lincoln County I brought a pair of really cool red high top Nike basketball shoes with me. One school day Larry showed up wearing a pair of red leather running shoes. I quickly ran back to my “quarters” in the art shack and changed into my size 16 Nikes. I’m more than a foot taller than Larry and at least 100 lbs. heavier. It must have been a sight for the kids and great fodder for their good natured insults. They didn’t let us down.
Last fall Larry and I had a show with Ed Shepard at St. Mary’s Art Center. Ed was one of Larry’s first students as a 7th grader at Traner Middle School in Reno. In the early 90s, Ed was Art Department Chair at Reed High in Sparks when I first moved to Nevada. Larry knew I needed a job. He was teaching a class at UNR in the summer and introduced me to Ed, who quickly pulled a few things together and hired me as an art teacher at Reed. We’ve been friends ever since. So when Nolan Preece offered me a show at St. Mary’s Art Center before the pandemic, I thought it was a great opportunity for the three of us to show together…something that Larry and I had talked about doing for a long time. Ed makes beautiful mixed media ceramic pieces and poignant and skillfully executed portraits. Because of the pandemic, the show didn’t go up until late last summer. Larry’s health had been declining for some time. At the opening we were all pretty busy talking with visitors, friends and family, and I hadn’t seen Larry for a while. I started wandering around the old hospital looking for him when I heard some laughing from around a corner. Sure enough, there was Larry, entertaining a group of older folks, some with drinks in hand, others leaning or sitting on the furniture. All of them laughing. Just like Ramblin’ Jack, Larry never met a stranger.
These stories barely touch the surface of all the adventures he and I have shared. There are many more. Among them: sleeping off too many Guinnesses on the sloping lawn outside the De Young at Golden Gate Park and being awakened by a bunch of primary school kids talking somberly about the two “old dead guys.” Later, on the same trip, we found ourselves quick walking away from a quartet of surfer thugs in wetsuits and Halloween masks at Ft. Point after Larry insulted one of them. Then there was the time he broke a kids finger with a leather mallet because the kid messed with the music on his boombox. If you know Larry at all, you undoubtedly have many of your own tales to tell.
I can’t close this without mentioning Larry’s dedication and love for his family. I’ve selfishly gone on about different “Larry” experiences in my life but I must say that it was always “Larry and Lorna” when I thought or spoke of them. It seems as if some of the best memories I have of the past 35 plus years include Larry, Lorna, some dogs, myself and maybe their VC neighbors Bill Beeson and Diane Dunne, who’d dropped in for morning coffee, sitting around, listening to John Prine music, talking and laughing. “Coffee” often meant mug carving sessions. Larry would be throwing mugs, Lorna, the neighbors, me and my wife Imelda sitting, eating Lorna’s incredibly delicious baked goodies, and yukking it up. All of us scrafitto-ing away intently on a bowl or cup.
An informal celebration of life for Larry and Lorna Williamson is scheduled for Dec. 3, 1-3 pm at Stremmel Gallery. The celebration is open to the public.