Although William Heydt painted portraits of hundreds of Newport residents, he still remembers the skepticism he encountered one of the first times he approached a subject and asked to paint it. That was over 20 years ago, and at the time Heydt (pronounced as “height”) had amassed a portfolio of watercolors of Newport’s streetscapes and architectural treasures – but increasingly felt drawn to the people inside these buildings, the people who made up the city’s diverse workforce.
His eye was on Ronnie Fatulli, an old-school fisherman who worked at the Aquidneck Lobster Co. Fatulli, however, had no time for distraction and “chased me away several times,” Heydt recalls. “Finally I said, ‘All I need is for you to stay here and I’ll take your picture.'” Fatulli liked the resulting painting so much that he implored Heydt to take it. make another.
These portraits of Fatulli, who died last year, are featured alongside individual and group portraits of over 400 residents in Heydt’s new book, Work in Newport, a collection of watercolors that ambitiously tries to cover just about every profession in the city. “More than portraits of important people, these images capture an essence of Newport that tourists don’t see,” notes former Newport Art Museum curator Nancy Whipple Grinnell in a preface to the book.
To understand the scale of the portraits, start at the top of the alphabet: There are artists, authors, arborists, actors, an antique dealer, an architect, a lawyer, an auctioneer…
“I like the backstory,” admits Heydt. “The backstory is this: a lot of people are characters.”
Heydt paints daily from around 5 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. in a studio overflowing with canvases, pampered plants, and tchotchkes on the first floor of the stately 1830s Greek Revival home he shares with his wife, Rosemary , and two of their three adult children. , who returned home during the pandemic. His daughter Samantha, a recycled media artist who runs the Kitsch Gallery on William Street, creates in the spacious living/working space Heydt built for her in the attic.
The house itself is a work of art – from the glorious original moldings adorned with scrollwork, flowers and mythological figures like Poseidon, to period antiques and eclectic art. The latter includes family creations, jewel-encrusted guitars by artist Gloria Woods and large-scale works by Tom Deininger – including a fascinating collage portrait of Heydt made up of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of tiny clippings. catalogs of Heydt’s works of art.
Like his approach to his paintings (he keeps the originals and only sells prints), Heydt’s new book is not a money-driven venture. The self-published tome includes an index, so readers can easily find their portrait – or that of a friend. The paintings inside date back to the late 1990s and include images from Heydt’s Newportant People series (shown at the Newport Art Museum in 2010) as well as new works painted during the pandemic. On the cover is a painting of Stop & Shop workers he represented during a labor strike in 2019. ‘It’s so ironic because this is Working Newport and they’re on strike’ , he said. “Humor is an important part of my job.”
Each painting begins with a series of photographs. Even a casual observer will notice that the vantage points of the paintings are often wide-angle or captured from above, which would be excruciating to maneuver with an easel and canvas. Heydt takes several shots of a subject at his workplace, then creates an elaborate photo composite as the basis for a painting. The final product is rendered in watercolor (he loves the bright palette of French paint maker Sennelier), a medium he adopted when his children were young and wanted to avoid oils and toxic materials.
Heydt grew up in New York, where his artistic pursuits were encouraged by his father, who ran a construction company. “When I showed an interest in going to Paris, he couldn’t have been happier,” Heydt recalled, noting that his paternal grandfather had also been an artist. In France, Heydt spent three years studying printmaking under Stanley William Hayter.
Closer to home, he earned a BFA and MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design (he has works in the permanent collection at RISD, as well as the Brooklyn Museum) and later taught printmaking at the Massachusetts College of Art, commuting from Newport three days a week. Today, he continues to lead the long-running RI Open Drawing, a three-hour Saturday figure drawing course at Newport Congregational Church.
Despite his long history as an artist and instructor, Heydt describes himself as a “retired entrepreneur who spends more time making art.” Over the years, he owned and renovated several buildings in Newport, including a church (where his family once resided), fire station, synagogue, and other commercial properties. Real estate seemed like a safer financial bet than art, he says, and he was keen to put money aside to fund artistic projects. He occasionally undertakes commissioned projects, but these represent only a very small part of his oeuvre.
One of Heydt’s biggest fans is Tom Erb, writer, actor and Newport native. At an art show in Providence, Erb says, he was introduced to the enormous scope of Heydt’s work. “I looked at these paintings and saw the stories they told. It wasn’t just the paintings of people, it was what made them who they were: the hot dog vendors, the people dipping New Years into the ocean…you had Sid Abbruzzi with his surfboard.
In 2013, Erb produced an unsold television pilot, Newport, RI: The Series, loosely based on Heydt and the people depicted in his paintings. In the meantime, he remains a staunch admirer, insisting that anyone who crosses the artist’s path is extremely lucky. “I scoured the universe trying to find another artist like Bill, who has dedicated his life’s work to capturing his community on canvas, one person at a time,” Erb says. “The man has a big heart.
To order a copy of Work in Newportgo to williamheydt.com.