Artist Frank Williams recalls construction of Wilson Park Castle

BY SARAH K. TERRY, Northwest Arkansas Times
Posted on Sunday, September 18, 2005

The whimsical Wilson Park Castle has been a fantasy come true for local children for the past 25 years. But the single year required to make it a reality was no fairy tale.

Revolving-door work crews, backbreaking labor and 100-degree temperatures contributed to what was "a trying year," recalled Frank Williams, the artist who designed the castle.

Williams, who has lived in Russia for the past 13 years, visited Fayetteville to speak Saturday at a ceremony in honor of the castle's anniversary.

A St. Louis native with a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting and sculpture from Missouri State University, Williams arrived in Fayetteville in 1977 to share studio space with a friend who was taking graduate classes at the University of Arkansas. His plan was to build up his body of work over the next few years, then move to a larger city, he said.

In the fall of 1978, Williams became the first fine artist to be accepted by the Arkansas Arts Council into an apprenticeship program funded by the Civil Education and Training Administration. He was to take on an apprentice between the ages of 16 and 21 who would help with his projects while learning employable skills. As a sculptor, Williams passed on his expertise in welding, fiberglass, plastics and vinyl, he said.

By night, he worked as a chef at the Town Club, a "very colorful" place frequented by the Tyson's, Levon Helm and Gov. Bill Clinton, Williams recalled.

In early 1979, the Arts Council sponsored a competition for public works to be installed around the state. Williams submitted a winning design for a grotto to be constructed just west of the castle.

However, the parks board was more interested in sprucing up a spring house located where the castle now stands. The concrete structure was an eyesore, and the spring flowing from it was clogged with weeds and watercress, Williams said.

The board gave him two weeks to submit an alternate proposal.

Knowing the spring house was used by kids as a fort, Williams developed the idea of the castle surrounded by a sculpture garden. In May 1979, he submitted the second proposal, and the board went for it, he said.

The concept behind the design, which was influenced by Art Nouveau architect Antoni Gaudi, was to create an architectural relic like what might be seen in Europe or Asia, Williams said. "The city could just cut the grass, and that was it, so it had to be durable," he said. "If it was not maintained, I wanted it to have the sense of being a relic as it returned to nature."

In June, the project broke ground. Williams and a crew of five kids working for minimum wage set out with the goal of completing the castle in three to four months. The goal was unrealistic, but they continued to receive funds as long as progress was being made and the kids were learning employable skills.

Throughout the year of construction, about 25 to 30 apprentices came and went. Difficult labor for minimum wage was not attractive for long, Williams explained, and several kids returned to school, moved or entered the armed services.

By January 1980, the foundation and low rock work were completed, and the castle was taking shape. A mild winter helped speed the process. On rainy days, the crew worked in Williams' studio on the castle's support columns, tower roof, lamps and floor tiles.

In April, a funding deadline of June 1 was imposed. They pressed on, completing as much as possible, with a few people staying on for a week or two of no pay after the deadline passed.

For Williams, the project remains unfinished. Although a grand opening took place July 20, 1980, his plans for landscaping and two bronze sculptures had to be dropped. He hopes to secure funding for the sculptures in the future, he said.

Now an internationally acclaimed artist, Williams lived in Houston from 1981 to 1993 before moving to Russia. He first visited the country in 1992 when his wife, a lawyer, went there with an exchange program. He immediately met fellow artists and was offered a sponsorship by a local factory to do bronze casting there. "In Europe and Russia, artists are treated with respect," Williams said. "You're a professional, something special there."

Williams has studio space at an art school in Moscow where he teaches. In addition to sculpture, he paints, draws, builds furniture, takes photographs and creates digital artwork.

As with the castle, he begins each piece with a visual and thematic concept and develops it during the creation process, he said. "I'm always experimenting," he said. "I go in with a basic concept and work it out until I'm satisfied. I know when it's time to quit."

Williams' work has been shown in personal exhibits in more than 25 Russian museums and galleries as well as several international venues and in Houston, New Orleans, New York and other major U.S. cities. In 1996, he became the first contemporary American artist to have a solo show at the Russian State Museum of St. Petersburg.

Public address delivered 17 September, 2005 for 25th anniversary celebration


Northwest Arkansas Times:
Designer returns to celebrate 25th anniversary of Wilson Park castle, BY KATE WARD
The Morning News:
Artist, Community Celebrate 'Point 7', BY AMY M. COTHAM

back to public works