With his recent gift to the Sarah Moody Gallery of Art’s Permanent Collection, alumnus Thornton Willis’ art has found a home for his artistic legacy to live on through teaching and exhibiting. Willis, considered a second generation abstract expressionist, and his wife, art historian Vered Lieb, gave 27 paintings and two sketchbooks to UA last fall, in what Willis described to the College of Arts & Sciences’ Collegian as “a gift of appreciation for the time I spent here as a graduate student and how it enriched my life.”
“I owe thanks to William Dooley who took the time to come to New York City and handpicked each work. It feels just natural that I give back what I can. Although my career path took me to the North, my roots in many ways remain in the South,” Willis told the Collegian.
Thornton Willis earned his MA in art in 1966 (the equivalent of today’s MFA) from The University of Alabama’s department of art and art history, where he came to study under the renowned abstract expressionist Melville Price, who taught at UA from 1958 to 1970. While still in school and considering a move away from Tuscaloosa to New York City, Willis asked the advice of visiting artist Theodore Stamos, a close friend of Mark Rothko’s, if he should leave to study painting. Willis said that Stamos replied, “Why would you do that? You have Mel Price here.” So he stayed, learning from his primary professors Price and Howard Goodson. He eventually made his way to New York after graduation, going on to a successful career in art.
Now UA students will be able to experience Willis’ artistic legacy without leaving Tuscaloosa. Along with the 29 works gifted this fall, the Permanent Collection holds eight other paintings by Willis, for a total of 37 pieces. Studying Thornton Willis’ art in person brings the rich history of the ideas and techniques of American twentieth-century painting to life before students’ eyes.
For more information about the UA Department of Art and Art History and its programs, visit our website: https://art.ua.edu/academics/or contact the department at (205) 348-5967.