Although William Heydt painted portraits of hundreds of Newport residents, he still recalls the skepticism he encountered when he first approached a subject and asked to paint it. It’s been more than 20 years, and by the time Heydt (pronounced ‘height’) had amassed a portfolio of watercolors of Newport’s streetscapes and architectural treasures – but was increasingly drawn to the people in those buildings, the people who made up the diverse workforce of the city.
His eye was fixed on Ronnie Fatulli, a hardworking, old-school fisherman at the Aquidneck Lobster Co. Fatulli, however, had no time for distractions and “shooed me off several times,” Heydt recalls. “Finally I said, ‘All I need is for you to stand there and let me take your picture.'” Fatulli was so delighted with the resulting painting that he begged Heydt to paint another one.
These portraits of Fatulli, who died last year, feature in Heydt’s new book alongside individual and group portraits of more than 400 locals. Working Newport, a collection of watercolors that ambitiously tries to cover almost every profession in the city. “More than portraits of important figures, these images capture an essence of Newport that tourists don’t see,” notes Nancy Whipple Grinnell, former curator of the Newport Art Museum, in a foreword to the book.
To understand the breadth of the portraits, start at the beginning 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: a lot of the people are characters.”
Heydt paints daily from about 5 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. in a studio full of canvases, cooked plants, and tchotchkes on the first floor of the stately 1830s home on Greek Revival Historic Hill that he shares with his wife, Rosemary, and two of their three adult children , who has returned home during the pandemic. His daughter Samantha, a recycled media artist who runs the kitsch gallery on William Street, creates in the lavish living and working space that Heydt built for her in the attic.
The house itself is a work of art – from the magnificent original crown moldings adorned with scrolls, flowers and mythological figures such as Poseidon, to the antiques and eclectic art of the period. The latter includes family creations, jeweled guitars by artist Gloria Woods, and large-scale works by Tom Deininger – including a fascinating collage portrait of Heydt, made up of hundreds (possibly thousands) of tiny clippings from catalogs of Heydt’s artwork.
Like his approach to his painting (he keeps the originals and only sells prints), Heydt’s new book is not a money-driven endeavor. The self-published tome includes an index so readers can easily find her portrait—or that of a friend. The paintings inside date from the late 1990s and include images from Heydt’s Newportant People series (exhibited at the Newport Art Museum in 2010) as well as fresh works painted during the pandemic. The cover features a painting of Stop & Shop employees he portrayed during a labor strike in 2019. “It’s so ironic because it’s Working Newport and they’re on strike,” he says. “Humour is an important part of my work.”
Each painting begins with a series of photographs. Even a casual observer will note that the paintings’ viewing angles are often wide-angle or overhead, which would be agonizingly maneuverable with an easel and canvas. Heydt takes several shots of a subject at his workplace and then creates an elaborate photo composition as the basis for a painting. The final product is rendered in watercolor (he loves the colorful palette of French paint company Sennelier), a medium he picked up when his children were small and he wanted to avoid oil and toxic materials.
Heydt grew up in New York, where his artistic activities were encouraged by his father, who ran a construction company. “When I showed interest in going to Paris, he couldn’t have been happier,” Heydt recalls, noting that his paternal grandfather was also an artist. In France, Heydt studied printmaking with Stanley William Hayter for three years.
In his local area, he earned a BFA and an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design (he has work in the permanent collections of RISD and the Brooklyn Museum) and taught etching and engraving at the Massachusetts College of Art, a three-day commute from Newport Week. Today, he continues to lead the long-running RI Open Drawing, a three-hour character drawing course held on Saturdays at Newport Congregational Church.
Despite his long history as an artist and lecturer, Heydt describes himself as a “retiree who spends more time with art”. Over the years he has owned and renovated several buildings in Newport, including a church (where his family once lived), a fire station, a synagogue, and other commercial properties. Real estate seemed more financially secure than art, he says, and he made a point of setting aside money to fund art projects. He occasionally takes on commissioned projects, but these only make up a very small part of his work.
One of Heydt’s biggest fans is Tom Erb, a writer, actor, and native of Newport. At an art exhibition in Providence, Erb says, he was introduced to the enormous range of Heydt’s work. “I looked at these paintings and saw the stories they told. It wasn’t just the pictures of the people, it was the stuff that made them what they were: the hot dog stand people, the people diving into the sea on New Year’s Eve… there was Sid Abbruzzi with his surfboard. “
In 2013, Erb produced an unsold TV pilot, Newport, RI: The Series, loosely based on Heydt and the people depicted in his paintings. Meanwhile, he remains an unwavering admirer and insists that people who cross the artist’s path are extraordinarily lucky. “I scoured the universe to find another artist comparable to Bill, who has dedicated his lifetime’s work to capturing his community on screen, one person at a time,” says Erb. “The man has a huge heart.”
To order a copy Working Newportgo to williamheydt.com.