Small Studio Creates Big Art: Rob Williams produces abstract landscapes in Gills Rock

Rob Williams, who holds a master’s degree in art from the University of Illinois, taught art in Chicago suburban schools before buying a house in Gills Rock in 1990 as a summer place. After retiring to Door County, he opened the Rob Williams Studio/Gallery in 2004. 

His home, gallery and studio are at 753 Isle View Road in Gills Rock – not exactly the busiest road in Door County, located just a few miles before you drive off the peninsula and onto the Washington Island ferry.

That’s why the Hardy Gallery in Ephraim is at the heart of Williams’ marketing strategy. 

Williams stands in his new studio. Photo by Tom Groenfeldt.

“The Hardy is really great for a little gallery like ours – especially one in the middle of nowhere,” Williams said. “The Hardy is a Door County icon, and with thousands of people going through there each summer, it’s pretty good advertising.”

He usually sells one painting during the opening invitational show around Memorial Day, and he has two paintings in the current invitational show. In that exhibition, artists display one work for sale, with the entire selling price going to the Hardy, and the other for sale, with the entire amount going to the artist. 

But more important than individual sales are the people who seek out his gallery after they’ve seen his work at the Hardy. The Williams gallery was closed in 2020, but that meant he had ample time to focus on his painting.

“I got into my art head over the last year, which means I could just push myself, do things that I wouldn’t normally do, not worry about the gallery,” Williams said. “That’s pretty pleasurable, to just do your own thing without even thinking about what the end results are going to be.”

One result was a refocus on the practical aspects of his gallery after a 12-inch-by-12-inch painting that he painted for the raffle during the Ellison Bay Art Crawl proved popular with visitors. He had it on display at the gallery while waiting for the buyers to return to Door County this fall to pick it up. 

“All of a sudden, everybody wants a painting that size,” he said. So, Williams painted eight more 12-by-12s and sold five of them.

Though the smaller size is popular, he prefers to work large, up to six feet.

“I like squares; 40 by 40 is one of my favorites. It looks large, but you can still carry it around in your car,” Williams said. “Once you get to 48 by 48, you almost need some sort of van to transport it.”

He said he’s sold six or eight of the larger works this summer, and he offered a tip for people who are unsure about what size painting would fit best in their home: Use masking tape on a wall at home to see what size is comfortable. And, if you’re drawn to a particular image, he often does versions of fan favorites in a few sizes.  

Williams’ artwork is abstract. It’s inspired by Door County’s natural beauty, but not all of his pieces are scenes straight out of the peninsula or re-creations of specific locales. A piece featuring a dramatic bluff coming down to the water could depict any number of locations on the bay side of the county, for example, but in fact, it’s an image from Pebble Beach, California, where a line of black in front of the bluff caught his eye.

“It’s an example of taking just the shape and then creating a painting from it,” Williams said. “I enjoy the creative process of landscape painting because it allows me the freedom to transform nature into dramatic areas of color, shape, texture and space.” 

Williams’ new studio was built with large windows to let plenty of natural light into the room. Photo by Tom Groenfeldt.

He said autumn is his favorite season because he likes the warm, vibrant colors. Then he pointed to a summer scene that had caused him some dissatisfaction.

“This looks OK,” he said, “but it only came alive after I turned up the volume on all the colors – yellows, greens and purple.”

Last year, to take advantage of the vibrant colors and natural beauty of the property around his gallery, Williams had a new, spacious, light-filled studio built behind his house. It’s large enough that he can work on several paintings at once.

“I was going to have a little open house and invite a lot of people to see my new studio,” Williams said, but COVID-19’s Delta variation has put that on hold – for now.

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