Bill Adair in the News!

The Gazette

Maryland Community News

Student and master: Montgomery College exhibit highlights influences Adair’s work on display at Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus through Dec. 16

by Topher Forhecz, Staff Writer

When William B. Adair graduated from Walter Johnson High School in 1967, the only direction he felt he could go was west to California.
“I was on my way to San Francisco, and I was going to hitchhike out 70-S,” he recalls.
But before he could embark upon his cross-country wandering, his stepfather intervened and convinced him to spend at least one semester at Montgomery College (MC). Adair never made it to the West Coast that summer. Instead, a semester turned into a year and the time he spent at MC became the springboard for a career that would find him working with the Smithsonian Institutes, running his own studio and learning a craft with ancient roots.
“ Reflections: Mentor and Protégé, The Work of William B. Adair and His Mentors” is on view through Dec. 16 at the Cultural Arts Center on MC’s Takoma Park/ Silver Spring Campus. The show chronicles Adair’s 40-year growth as an artist and pays tribute to the professors who helped him along his way.
Adair started studying at MC’s Rockville Campus in 1967, with plans to go on to the University of Maryland. Since the only A he received in high school was in his art class, he hoped to boost his grade point average by enrolling in as many art courses as possible at MC. He did proceed to earn a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP) in 1972.
After college, Adair went to work in frame conservation at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery. He left the Smithsonian in 1982 to start Gold Leaf Studios.
Megan Van Wagoner, the art professor who curated Adair’s current exhibit, says the show was hung so that visitors could see some of the sources of Adair’s inspiration.
“You could see parallels between what Bill had done and the work that his mentors had done,” she says.
To learn more about Adair and his work, Van Wagoner visited his Washington, D.C. studio in April.
“It’s wild,” she says about his studio. “I think Bill is a sort of collector and that’s probably partly what appeals to him about framing, that you can collect all these pieces and parts.”
While at the studio, Van Wagoner received a lesson in handling a gilding material known as gold leaf. The process, which traces back to the ancient Egyptians, involves handling extremely thin, hand-beaten sheets of gold and applying them to surfaces. Adair was introduced to the practice by Henry Niese, a UMCP art professor and painter Adair describes as his mentor.
Adair later mastered the technique during his work at the Smithsonian and incorporated it into much of his artwork, including “The Gold Doors” series. Adair says the series was inspired by the song “Sin City” by Graham Parsons and Chris Hillman on their 1969 album “The Gilded Palace of Sin.” One of the pieces, “The Golden Door to Infinity,” is on display.
“It’s sort of like a pair of French doors that are hung on their door frame and they are bright red,” Van Wagoner says. “But the red paint is almost 70 percent covered with gold leaf, so that you only see some of the red door peeking through and you can open the doors. They’re sort of narrow, but you open the two doors. Inside, you can see an old mirror that’s starting to peel away and revealing what’s happening behind the mirror, which, in this case is a leather jacket.”
Adair became infatuated with sculpture while working with UMCP professor Kenneth Campbell. As important as technique is, Adair says Campbell taught him that intuition is equally essential.
“He told me to stop thinking, that an artist needs to feel, not think,” Adair remembers. “It’s very true because we have a tendency to over-intellectualize everything and an artist is a barometer of taste from his period.”
While Campbell’s work is not in the show, Adair shows how his mantra has played into pieces such as “Cloud Torso.”
“It’s a figure with no arms and no legs, kind of a result of the Vietnam War period when all our friends were coming back with blown off legs,” Adair says. “Not too different from what’s happening today in Afghanistan.”
Adair also cites MC’s art department head Alan Marsh as having a profound effect on his development as an artist. Adair was in Marsh’s art history class. He currently is seeking out Marsh’s artwork to add to his collection.
Other artists in the show include UMCP art professor Ellen Gelman and MC professors Frank Bunts and Mitchell Jamieson.
“Mitchell Jamieson was a combat artist on D-Day,” Adair says. “He went to D-Day and sketched with the initial invasion force. He went to Vietnam, too. He taught us how to draw quickly and accurately.”
In conjunction with the show’s title, “Mentor and Protégé,” Adair has served as both. His protégé is his wife, Kay Jackson, a fellow painter and artist. The two shared a studio in 1991 after Adair was awarded the Rome Prize in Design by the American Academy in Rome. Adair spent six months in Rome learning the origins of frame design, and it was there that he taught Jackson the essentials of gilding.
Jackson regularly incorporates gilding into her work with pieces such as “Endangered Species, Wallace’s Giant Bee.”
“Kay Jackson’s work is highly developed because it uses all the technique from the icon paintings from the Byzantine world all the way up to the Renaissance,” Adair points out.
Joan Rosenstein came to teach design at MC the same year Adair attended. One of his favorite teachers, Adair notes that she ”did not suffer fools lightly.”
“I think [Adair] worked a lot harder than he thought he was going to have to,” Rosenstein says. “Remember, he was right out of high school at the time, and I think he got a real surprise when he got to school because he once said that I was pretty stingy with my grading. I didn’t believe in grade inflation, and I really made my students work for my grades.”
Adair framed Rosenstein’s “Guarding Terra Incognito” in a 1930s design by artist Georgia O’Keeffe. The platinum leaf frame accents the black-and-white photograph of a veiled, nude woman.
“I really liked it because it became almost a collaboration of the two of us,” Rosenstein says.
Decades after their first encounters, Rosenstein’s student has become anything but.
“I think he has far surpassed his mentors, certainly with the gold leafing,” she concludes.
William B. Adair’s exhibit “Reflections: Mentor and Protégé: The Work of William B. Adair and His Mentors” is on display at the Cultural Arts Center on Montgomery College’s Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus, 7995 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, through Dec. 16. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Please call before visiting. Call 240-567-5775 or visit

© 2011 Post-Newsweek Media, Inc./Gazette.Net

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