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In Memoriam: Sam Gilliam (1933–2022)

Kind. Generous. Silly. Surprising. All words that Bruce Crownover, MMoCA’s Installations and Facilities Associate, uses to describe artist Sam Gilliam, whom Crownover knew as a friend for 35 years before Gilliam died in Washington, D.C. on June 24, 2022, at the age of 88.

Crownover, now an expert printmaker in his own right, was a 20-something college student when he met Gilliam in 1987 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Tandem Press. Gilliam was already well-established in the art world and known for his draped canvas works.

Gilliam holds a special place in Crownover’s own history: the first print that he editioned at Tandem was by Gilliam, and he worked with the artist on numerous other works. One such project was Gilliam’s work Of Fireflies and Ferris Wheels (c. 1990). The work was printed on pelon fabric and ultimately spanned 100 yards. Crownover and dozens of UW students–along with people from the neighborhood around Tandem–helped with its production.

To create the work, Gilliam made designs on a sheet of plywood, and Crownover carved them into about 50 blocks. According to Crownover’s recollection, Gilliam declared “any color, any block, any time, doesn’t matter, just grab a can of ink, ink up a block, and put it on the press.”

“So the press bed kept going back and forth and everybody would grab a block when it came off, ink it in whatever color, and put it on the press, roll it through, do that again, and just all day long, a million colors,” Crownover remembered. Later, they went to Tandem Press founder Bill Weege’s farm in Arena, Wisconsin, where helpers stretched the canvas at intervals while Gilliam applied many colors of paint using a mop and brushes.

“What struck me about Sam early on is that there’s a lot of surprises in the way that he works, in that he seems to keep everything sort of to himself until the end.” When the works are finished, Crownover said, “they’re just so elegant and so simple and so powerful.”