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Louisville's William Duffy shows another side to his art in drawing exhibit

Artist William Duffy, a Black man, stands with his hands clasped in front of two drawings. One shows a Black woman looking sideways with a strong facial expression and jewelry on her head and neck. The other is of musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk playing three saxophones at the same time.
Scott Recker
/
LPM
William M. Duffy in front of art at his latest exhibition, "My Muse-ic.”

The renowned visual artist is widely known as a sculptor, but in his latest exhibition, "My Muse-ic," at Moremen Gallery, William Duffy shares the passion project he’s been working on for the last half century: drawings of iconic jazz, blues and gospel musicians.

Duffy grew up surrounded by music. His mother loved gospel. His father was a jazz aficionado. All of his siblings played instruments.

That sonic infusion shines through in the renowned visual artist’s latest exhibition, “My Muse-ic,” which is currently showing at the Moremen Gallery downtown. While Duffy — who has been a fixture in the Louisville art scene since the 1970s — is probably best known as a sculptor, this exhibition primarily focuses on his drawings of jazz, blues and gospel musicians that he’s been creating for a half-century, but has rarely shown in public.

The heavily-detailed, black-and-white pencil drawings of famous figures are expressive and full of life, taking viewers to the front row of a concert hall. He dives deep into the genres, and the exhibition not only is a tribute but also a history lesson.

Duffy drew the first in the series, a piece on pioneering trumpeter Clark Terry, in 1973, and the latest, a portrait of jazz giant John Coltrane, in 2022.

There’s one of the prodigious Rahsaan Roland Kirk playing three saxophones simultaneously, and one of the golden-voiced Sarah Vaughan.

Direct similarities connect the works in the series, but each one also timestamps where Duffy was in his artistic journey when he drew it.

Some utilize a cross-hatching style that conveys the dark shadows and streams of light that mimic looking at a musician live on stage, while others have brighter aesthetics and focus more on layering ideas. The collection spans the experimental to the traditional.

It also includes a few small sculptures, as well as two pieces of digital art.

Overall, Duffy told LPM News during a recent visit to the show that “My Muse-ic” represents a deep connection to his family and neighbors, and the entertainment they have enjoyed together.

“My dad, before he passed away, he would comment on them, and he just loved them,” Duffy said. “And it made me happy that he was happy to see these figures.”

Walking through the exhibition, Duffy also spoke about how he wanted this show to focus on aspects of his work that might not be as well known.

“I’ve never seen this many drawings and this scope of my work in a setting like this,” he said. “And, so, I’m really pleased with this show.”

Susan Moremen, the founder of Moremen Gallery, said that during a visit to Duffy’s studio late last year, she saw the drawings for the first time, and encouraged him to show them at her gallery.

A black and white pencil drawing is matted and framed in a gallery. It shows two views of legendary musician John Coltrane's face.
Scott Recker
/
LPM
Duffy’s drawing of John Coltrane.

“When I saw the drawings, I said, ‘God, these are so good,’” Moremen said.

While the headlines and commissions of Duffy’s illustrious career have primarily revolved around sculpture, he’s passionate about drawing.

“Drawing has always been my first love,” Duffy said. “I need to put that out there. It’s always been, and still is, my first love.”

He sees similarities between the two mediums, especially in terms of physicality.

“Pencil feels like sculpture,” Duffy said. “It feels like you’re actually carving something three-dimensional, even though you’re working on a flat surface.”

The rock and Little Red Riding Hood

When he was around five years old, Duffy was playing in an open lot next to his home in the West End. He remembers picking up a rock and receiving what he said felt like a spiritual calling to create sculpture. He didn’t fully understand it at the time.

“There was a sensation that went through me, and it was really a spiritual thing, now that I think about it, because I haven’t had that feeling since,” Duffy said. “You pick up stuff every day, all day. But, that particular rock that I picked up, a sensation went through me, and I know that it was God speaking to me, saying, ‘This will be your destiny.’”

Shortly after, Duffy’s Kindergarten class got an assignment to draw Little Red Riding Hood. Afterward, the teacher called his parents. He thought he was in trouble, but the teacher advised his parents to keep supplying him with pens and pencils.

Fast forward through the decades and Duffy’s art career stands as a force of creativity, resilience and evolution.

In the 1970s, Duffy was among a group of prominent Black artists that heavily impacted the Louisville landscape through collectives such as Louisville Art Workshop and Montage, which featured acclaimed creatives such as Robert Douglas, Sam Gilliam, Kenneth Young and Ed Hamilton.

A lifelong resident of Louisville, Duffy graduated from the Louisville School of Art in Anchorage in 1976 and then worked as an exhibits preparator at the Louisville Museum of History & Science. In the early ’80s, he taught himself to carve stone.

A small stone sculpture sits on a plinth. It depicts a woman holding a child.
Scott Recker
/
LPM
Although the focus of “My Muse-ic” is on the drawings, sculpture is also part of the exhibition.

His sculptures have won numerous awards and have been purchased by organizations such as the Speed Art Museum, Brown-Forman Corporation and Humana. He has also been commissioned for large public works, such as a bronze sculpture of “Mother Mary” at the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Bardstown, and for the (Un)Known Project’s “On the Banks of Freedom Slave Memorial Stone Benches” in Louisville.

He has also taught art for more than 40 years. Capturing the scope of Duffy’s work would take a book. Maybe two.

The next stage

While the highlight of “My Muse-ic” is the series of portraits, there are several peripheral pieces that enhance the exhibition’s themes of music, community and family. One of the sculptures in the exhibition has a mother-and-child theme, something that has intersected with a lot of his work through the years.

A few drawings shift focus from the performer to the crowd.

There’s an intricate drawing of the inside of a club. It depicts a late-night scene that feels nostalgic and familiar. People are embracing. People are whispering. Streams of light cut through figures and shadows.

“Whenever you go out, you have that feel,” Duffy said. “People just dancing and having a good time, and not worrying about things.”

One piece of digital art in the show aligns with that idea. It shows a group of people doing the Electric Slide, a line dance that dates back to the ’70s.

Duffy has tried to create one musician portrait per year, but not all of them made it to the gallery. Some were lost, and others were sold.

He once did a portrait of the iconic singer — and Louisville native — Helen Humes, but someone bought it years ago. Even though the drawing is gone, it reminds Duffy of the time he saw Humes in concert decades ago with Ed Hamilton. After her set, Humes walked over to their table, sat with them and chatted for a while, Duffy recalls fondly.

Memory is a frame around every piece of this exhibition.

Duffy is even thinking about expanding the series.

“I haven’t gone through an R&B stage yet, but I’m going to get to it,” Duffy said.