I first met Bill in 1981. I have a vivid memory of him sitting on the sunny verandah of what was then ‘Claremont Technical College’ (later it was renamed ‘Claremont School of Art’). I was 21 and I couldn’t tell how old he was because he had pitch black hair and a white beard. That confused me and I wondered whether he dyed his hair, and then if he did, why he hadn’t dyed his beard as well. Because it was a dead give away. Now I think that was just the way he was – Bill wasn’t a deceitful sort of person so I suspect dying his hair black was probably not something he would do.
It was the 80s and there was a lot of money around for the arts. We had models everywhere – they were a fundamental part of our training. Especially as sculpture majors. Later I changed to painting but I think Bill stayed with sculpture – with his background in welding and construction he was in his element.
Yes, that white beard and black hair really had me baffled. It added to the enigma of Bill. He didn’t talk much. It wasn’t until years later I realised this was probably because he was a bit deaf from working in the steel industry. He was an anomaly at the school - sure we had mature aged students, but they were mostly rich middle aged women from Claremont and Dalkieth. They probably kept the college funded. But Bill was male and a full-time student like me and my young colleagues. So I often wondered what he was doing there – youth can be so narrow minded!
Now as a mature aged student myself I appreciate what he was doing, and also why he seemed to struggle at first. He worked very hard – much harder than I did because I didn’t really take art college seriously. Writing this I wonder what he thought of that. I assume he thought I was simply young and naive, but he was kind to me. Sometimes I feel a bit embarrassed when I think of the young me trying to engage a man like Bill in conversation – he was so much wiser than I was at the time. I was very lost and messed up and he seemed so together. That myth was busted later when he told me had been an alcoholic and a dogger – a dingo shooter - and that he had suddenly stopped when he saw 2 dingoes mating one evening. He never went dogging again. He wrote a story about it and gave it to me to read. That confused me too because I thought only the young felt angst.
And that’s the other thing I remember about Bill – he was an amazing writer – what he couldn’t speak out loud rolled eloquently from his pen when he wrote. I don’t really know why but during one summer break I wrote to him. It was typical of me to become overly attached to people – I was lost and floundering around. He seemed like the voice of reason. He wrote back to me in beautiful copperplate – I wish I had kept it but I have moved around so much that many semi-precious gems like that letter have been lost. I must have been asking for advice because the one thing I do remember is Bill saying he didn’t want to ‘offer me platitudes’. I didn’t even know what that meant so I looked it up. I really wish I had kept that letter – I’d love to read it now.
Sometimes in our drawing classes we would model for each other and I remember doing a portrait of Bill. My style then as now, is to idealise, to stylise – but in all truth – I didn’t see the wrinkles that must have been there on Bill’s face. I have carried that portrait around for more than 30 years and I think, I hope, I still have it somewhere.
Michelle Frantom 2015