A work by William Britt, a developmentally disabled artist, at the ARC of Rockland office in Congers.(Photo: Mark Vergari/The Journal News)
WEST HAVERSTRAW, N.Y. — William Britt, a self-taught artist based in West Haverstraw, paints landscapes and still-lifes in his home studio, getting his inspiration from postcards, photographs and pictures he finds in books.
When his paintings are finished, Britt builds frames for them at a woodworking studio.
His art is vivid and bright, with strong shapes and highly saturated colors. A tree bearing ripe orange fruit dangles its branches over a field streaked with autumn colors; jagged mountain peaks jut into a pale sky; a watermill constructed of perfectly rendered bricks sits beside a stream where its image is reflected as if in a mirror. Britt’s obsessive attention to detail creates a hyper-real feeling.
“I like to paint flowers, nature, all the seasons,” says Britt, who creates a new scene every week. He signs his pictures “Mr. William Britt” and includes the date and day of the week when they were finished. The majority are untitled.
In most ways, Britt is just like any other artist — finding an image that inspires him, choosing the right-sized canvas, deciding if his subject should be rendered in acrylic or oil. But Britt is developmentally disabled. In 1935, when he was a small child, his family took him to Willowbrook State School, the notorious residential facility for people with mental disabilities on Staten Island. He lived there for the next 34 years.
When Sen. Robert Kennedy visited Willowbrook in 1965, 6,000 people were living at the center designed for 4,000. Kennedy said the residents were "living in filth and dirt, their clothing in rags, in rooms less comfortable and cheerful than the cages in which we put animals in a zoo." Britt would have been 30 when Kennedy visited.
There was one bright spot during Britt’s time at Willowbrook — a doctor, noticing his restless spirit, gave the young Britt a set of paints and brushes, sparking what became a lifelong interest in art. But it was small comfort in a very tough place.
A sad expression passes over Britt’s face when Willowbrook is mentioned.
“That’s a rotten institution,” he says. “They took my paints away and beat me up. Lots of fights.”
His is a lesson in overcoming circumstances. Today, his work, which sells for upward of $6,000, has been collected by Prince Charles and the emperor of Japan. Maya Angelou dedicated a poem to Britt.
Britt, a small, stocky man with white hair and large glasses, wore a suit and tie to be interviewed. He speaks slowly, occasionally gesturing with his hands to illustrate a point.
When Willowbrook was closed, Britt was moved to a group home in Westchester County and continued to paint. Years later he secured his own apartment, thanks in part to his art sales and a part-time custodial job at Rockland Music Conservatory.
“Everybody adores him,” says Marigene Kettler, executive director at RMC, where a number of Britt’s paintings are on display. “He keeps the place clean for the kids.”
Now 81, Britt is visited by a caretaker for 12 hours a week — the rest of the time, he’s on his own. He was in touch with a brother years ago, but contact was lost as they aged.
The artwork by William Britt, a developmentally disabled artist, pictured at the ARC of Rockland office in Congers, Oct. 4, 2016. (Photo: Mark Vergari/The Journal News)
“He’s a real testament to the survival of the human spirit,” says Anne Trovato, director of Medicaid Service Coordination at ARC of Rockland in Congers, N.Y., which handles Britt’s case as a member of the Willowbrook Class, as former residents have been designated.
ARC CEO Carmine Marchionda prominently displays a painting of three beagles by Britt in his office. The dogs, which stare straight out of the picture, have human-like eyes.
“I considered it an honor to purchase one,” says Marchionda.
Britt’s talent has not gone unnoticed by the wider world. He is represented by Pure Vision Art, a Chelsea-based studio and gallery for artists with a variety of developmental disabilities, including autism. A large painting by Britt can sell there from $6,000 to $8,000.
“He’s a truly great self-taught American folk artist,” says Dr. Pamala Rogers, Pure Vision’s director. “He’s been through so much, but his paintings reflect such joy, beauty and love of nature.”
Later this year, Rogers says, Britt’s work will be included in a Pure Vision group show. ARC of Rockland also has some of his paintings for sale.
In November, 1986, Britt received the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation Award for Outstanding Artistic Achievement. At the presentation ceremony, Angelou recited a poem she had written about him to mark the occasion. It reads in part:
"…The triumph of William Britt is our triumph.
He is telling us our individual stories; despite the
ignorance which imprisons us, and the loneliness
of our lives, each of us can be reached and liberated by
Divine imagination and Human concern.
Greetings to the Special Artist who allows us
all to be special at his side."
Thanks to the attention he received from the award and its concurrent exhibition, Britt’s paintings began to be collected by a number of famous people, including former First Lady Nancy Reagan, and former New York Govs. Mario Cuomo and George Pataki. Since that time, his work has been included in group shows at the American Folk Art Museum, Marlborough Gallery and at New York’s Outsider Art Fair. In 1990, Britt was commissioned to paint Rose Kennedy’s Hyannis Port home in honor of her 100th birthday.
These days, Britt says he’s working on paintings of sea life. To a visitor, he carefully lists the animals: fish, octopus, seahorse, lobster, jellyfish.
Several years ago, Britt made a large painting of a wedding scene he found in one of his books.
Two men carry a tray of dishes to a long table where the guests wait to eat. Another man pours wine into a small jug as musicians play.
Britt’s inspiration was one of the world’s great masterpieces: The Peasant Wedding, made in 1567 by the Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. That Britt chose to replicate this image is another testament to his keen eye, undimmed by hardship.