Painting the Town

In a new book, artist William Heydt captures the working life of the city he has depicted for decades.

By Jennifer Blot

Paintings by William Heydt

Although William Heydt has painted portraits of hundreds of Newport residents , he still remembers the skepticism he encountered one of the first times he approached a subject and asked to paint him. It was more than 20 years ago, and at the time, Heydt (pronounced like “height”) had amassed a portfolio of watercolors of Newport’s streetscapes and architectural treasures — but felt increasingly drawn to the people inside those buildings, the people that made up the town’s diverse workforce. His eye was on Ronnie Fatulli, a hardworking old-school fisherman at the Aquidneck Lobster Co. Fatulli, however,
had no time for distraction and “shooed me away several times,” Heydt recalls. “Finally, I said, ‘All I need is for you to stand there and let me take a photo of you.’” Fatulli was so fond of the painting that resulted, he implored Heydt to do another. Those portraits of Fatulli, who died last year, are featured alongside individual and group portraits of more than 400 locals in Heydt’s new book, Working Newport, a collection of watercolors that ambitiously attempts to cover just about every profession in town. “More than portraits of significant people, these pictures capture an essence of Newport that tourists don’t see,” notes former Newport Art Museum curator Nancy Whipple Grinnell in a foreword to the book. To understand the breadth of the portraits, start at the top of the alphabet: There are artists, authors, arborists, actors, an antiques dealer, architect, attorney, auctioneer…

  1. Captain Peter Warburton, Bowen’s Wharf.
  2. Preparations for the Season: A Cloudy Washington
  3. The Team Behind Rhode Island’s Newest Tall Ship, SSV Oliver Hazard Perry.
  4. Nick Benson, stone carver.
  5. Jim Currier, bookbinder.
  6. Billy Rose at the Redwood Library.

“I like the backstory,” Heydt acknowledges. “The backstory is: A lot of the people are characters.” Heydt paints daily from about 5 to 9:30 a.m. in a studio brimming with canvases, coddled plants and tchotchkes on the first floor of the stately 1830s Greek

Jim Currier, bookbinder.

Revival Historic Hill home he shares with his wife, Rosemary, and two of their three grown children, who returned home during the pandemic. His daughter Samantha, a recycled-media artist who runs Kitsch gallery on William Street, creates in the spacious live/work space

Heydt built for her in the attic. The house itself is a work of art — from the glorious original crown moldings adorned with scrolls, flowers and mythological characters like Poseidon, to the period antiques and eclectic art. The latter includes family creations, jewel-encrusted guitars by artist Gloria Woods, and large-scale works by Tom Deininger — including a mesmerizing collage portrait of Heydt composed of hundreds (possibly thousands) of tiny clippings from catalogs of Heydt’s artwork. Like his approach to his paintings (he keeps the originals and only sells prints),

Billy Rose at the Redwood Library.

Heydt’s new book is not a venture driven by money. The self-published tome includes an index, so readers can easily find their portrait — or a friend’s. The paintings inside date back to the late 1990s and include images from Heydt’s Newportant People series (featured at the Newport Art Museum in 2010) plus fresh works painted during the pandemic. On the cover is a painting of Stop & Shop employees whom he depicted during a labor strike in 2019.

“It’s so ironic because it’s Working Newport and they’re on strike,” he says. “Humor is an important
part of my work.”

Each painting begins with a series of photographs. Even a casual observer will note that the paintings’ vantage points are often wide angle or captured from above, something that would be excruciating to maneuver with an easel and canvas. Heydt takes multiple shots of a subject at their workplace, then makes an elaborate photo composite as a baseline for a painting. The final product is rendered in watercolors (he’s partial to the bright
palette of French paint manufacturer Sennelier), a medium he
adopted when his children were young and he wanted to steer
clear of oils and toxic materials.

Preparations for the Season: A Cloudy Washington Square.

Heydt was raised in New York, where his artistic pursuits were encouraged by his father, who ran a construction firm. “When I showed an interest in going to Paris, he couldn’t have been happier,” Heydt recalls, noting that his paternal grandfather had also been an artist. In France, Heydt spent three years studying printmaking under Stanley William Hayter.

Nick Benson, stone carver.

Closer to home, he earned a BFA and MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design (he has works in RISD’s permanent collection, as well as at the Brooklyn Museum) and went on to teach etching and engraving at the Massachusetts College of Art, commuting from Newport three days a week. Today, he continues to lead the long-running RI Open Drawing, a three-hour figure-drawing class on Saturdays at the Newport Congregational Church.   

Despite his long history as an artist and instructor, Heydt refers to himself as a “retired contractor who is spending more time doing art.” Over the years, he has owned and renovated several buildings in Newport, including a church (where his family once resided), a fire station, a synagogue, and other commercial properties. Real estate seemed like a safer financial bet than art, he says, and he made a point of setting money aside to fund art projects. He occasionally takes on commissioned projects, but they make up a very small portion of his body of work.  

One of Heydt’s biggest fans is Tom Erb, a writer, actor and Newport native. At an art show in Providence, Erb says, he was introduced to the enormous scope of Heydt’s work. “I was looking at these paintings and I was seeing the stories they were telling. It wasn’t just the paintings of the people, it was the stuff that made them who they were: the hot dog stand people, the people who did the New Year’s dunk into the ocean … you had Sid Abbruzzi with his surfboard.”