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The University Magazine

William Keyser crafts a new direction

William Keyser '61, '06

'Gouldian Cartouche,' acrylic on chrome steel. Collection of Dr. & Mrs. Jack Clarcq. (Photo by John Peters)

He says he doesn't throw much away; he even enjoys digging through dumpsters at the local recycling center to collect used building materials, broken bikes, rusted metal - anything that looks useful and interesting to his artwork.

William Keyser '61, '06 (MFA furniture design, MFA painting) integrates these cast-off found objects in his three-dimensional sculpture and painting designs - many like those on view earlier this year in his solo exhibition at RIT's Dyer Arts Center.

"My home and artist studio is on overflow with boxes of scraps I've collected," he says with a laugh. "I look at the debris around the shop and say to myself, 'Hey, that could be a piece of sculpture.' I find inspiration in architecture, junkyards, yoga, calligraphy and in the last piece I did."

Woodworking and furniture design were Keyser's passion during his 35 years of teaching at RIT's School for American Crafts. Known as a working artist, his career span included a yard-long list of commissions in designing furniture and sculpture for residential, corporate, ecclesiastical and public art installations.

The scope of Keyser's artistry remains emblematic at RIT. In 1992 he was commissioned to build a credenza and desk, conference table and wall treatments for incoming RIT President Albert Simone, who retired in 2005. The same office furniture now serves RIT President Bill Destler. Keyser also designed several altar ensembles for Campus Ministries, as well as a black walnut cross that hangs in the Schmitt Interfaith Chapel.

"Catholics prefer a cross with a corpus or what's known as a crucifix, while most Protestant denominations eliminate the body and prefer it to be just a cross, so I ended up designing the piece with a very abstract image so people can choose to see what they want to see - or not." His modus operandi changed after he retired from RIT in 1997 and came back to school to study painting.

"Furniture - especially my ecclesiastic work designing altars, pulpits, and objects for sanctuaries in many churches in the Rochester area - is what I have been noted for," Keyser says. "So this is my first initial foray into painting and sculpture; it's sort of my coming out."

The spontaneity of creating abstract paintings and free-standing sculptures is what drives him to work in solitary bliss for six- to-10-hour intervals at his studio - a 2,000- square-foot building behind his residence in Victor, N.Y.

"This work is not about me; I'm just the conduit," he says. "You might call it serendipity; I prefer to think it's the spirit at work."

Timothy Engstršm, professor of philosophy at RIT's College of Liberal Arts, says Keyser's continued success is built on blurring the boundaries while retaining the perceptions. "The best art presumes a way of seeing and then makes us reflect on just such habits; it poses challenges and offers new opportunities to think about the very nature of perception. William Keyser's work performs this service with great clarity and economy."

Keyser says creativity is the precursor to furniture design, while it remains a constant with painting and sculpture. "With furniture everything is premeditated, and once the designs are approved by the clients there are none, if any, changes made during the process of building it," he explains. "With painting I don't start with an idea and if I do I feel very free to change it along the way - something I never could do with furniture."

"I feel a joy working both ways. I try hard to surprise myself, to have fun and to go where I've never been before."

Marcia Morphy