Lawrence Willette, painter, died in New York City on Nov. 13, after a short struggle against intestinal cancer. He was 53 years old.
Many will remember Lawrence as the artist who displayed his paintings on the southwest corner of W. Broadway and Prince St. in Soho for well over a decade. His paintings were bold, graphic, colorful, brilliant and potent. At times they were also confrontational and rude. The same could be said about the artist.
Not many people know that Lawrence was half African-American. He certainly did not appear to be. His long blond hair and light complexion did not give a hint of his ethnicity. He rarely mentioned it, but the fact is, that it became a problem for him as a youngster. He told me that he took a lot of grief from those who thought he looked “too white,” and so he became defensive and overcompensated to the point of being abrasive.
The magnified sense of personal and ethnic isolation that Lawrence experienced ultimately led him to rely on his artistic voice to express his inner strength. Lawrence became passionately creative to the point that it overruled everything else in his life. This included sex — which is really saying something about Lawrence. He loved women and devoted much of his energy to the appreciation of their beauty. You can see this playful obsession displayed in much of his work.
However, if you really wanted to get into a deep, concentrated conversation with Lawrence Willette, you would talk about art, artists and the creative spirit. That is why I and many others loved him the way we did. We all admired his endless energy and his willingness to live for his art alone. It was hard to doubt Lawrence’s passion if you saw him standing on W. Broadway at 10 p.m. on a freezing night with his coat turned up to the wind, a cigarette in one hand, a cup of “bodega coffee” in the other, waiting for someone to stop and talk about his paintings. Lawrence was the first street artist to set up his paintings on W. Broadway in Soho, and for that alone he deserves every original public artist’s deepest gratitude. He lived for his art — and in the end he died an artist. That is his legacy, and I know he would be proud of it.
I salute Lawrence Willette and his unique spirit. I wish his family and his children well. I also salute all of the other artists who dare to live for their work, who speak with their own voices, who do not compromise and who live their dream. God bless the artists. Long live Lawrence Willette.