Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Wil Clay, 1938-2011: Painter, sculptor renowned as book illustrator By MARK ZABORNEY BLADE STAFF WRITER

Today we pay tribute to Wil Clay, who passed away unexpectedly yesterday. We have had the pleasure of working closely with Wil over the past few months, photographing and reproducing his fine art work, interacting with him in our Showroom, and most recently having the honor of featuring his artwork on our home page. Here is a nice write-up from today's Toledo Blade. He was an amazing person and will be missed by all here at American Frame.

Wil Clay, a painter, sculptor, and nationally renowned illustrator of children's books who donned a straw hat and overalls or a colorful vest to promote art and reading through animated storytelling at schools, died Thursday in St. Luke's Hospital, Maumee. He was 72.

The cause of death was not known, his son Michael said. He'd undergone elective prostate surgery Jan. 10. Just days earlier, he'd dropped off artwork to be exhibited at 20 North Gallery in downtown Toledo for its annual Black History Month exhibit, which opens Friday. "He will be history," said Peggy Grant, art director of 20 North Gallery, which had represented Mr. Clay since the late 1990s. "He was a wonderful artist and raconteur. He gave talks around the country.

"He was just marvelous at illustrating books and telling the history of African-Americans," she said. "I fell in love with his work. This is a great loss."

Mr. Clay illustrated at least 10 books for young people, including A Biography of George Washington Carver, Little John Eight, which received the Coretta Scott King Honor Award, and Tailypo, which received several honors. The latter two were collaborations with Jan Wahl, a writer of children's books based in the Toledo area. They met in 1989 when Mr. Wahl proposed they work together. He introduced Mr. Clay to the world of illustrating children's books.

Mr. Clay "was such an animated and full-of-life author-illustrator-storyteller that he just brought smiles to children's faces through his work," said Benjamin Sapp, director of the Mazza Museum at the University of Findlay, which features art from children's picture books and has Tailypo in its collection.

Mr. Clay traveled regularly to schools, libraries, and museums to practice another aspect of his art: storytelling. He faced the children on some occasions almost as a country cousin. A bandanna around the neck and glasses at the end of his nose complemented the hat and overalls. Other times he wore a vest bearing sophisticated patterns and colors. Through his voice and dramatic gestures, he tried to make a point: "Everything, as I see it, will rise and fall based on reading," Mr. Clay told The Blade in 1995. "If [children] don't have the comprehension, it'll affect them for the rest of their lives."

He also led art demonstrations for young people. "He found sharing the art-awareness experience to be the most gratifying," his son said.

Mr. Clay taught adult students too. Last summer, he was instructor for a life-drawing workshop at Collingwood Art Center.

He made time for his own fine art. He painted, chiefly in acrylics. Radiance, his 6-foot bronze and stainless-steel sculpture, with Constancia Gafeney-Brown, is a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., and is on the bridge over the Maumee River named for the slain civil-rights leader.

Born in Bessemer, Ala., he moved with his mother and siblings to Toledo when he was 12, he told The Blade in 2008. Years earlier, though, he copied the Sunday funnies and was inspired by such illustrators as Norman Rockwell.

He was a graduate of the former Macomber Vocational High School, where he was advised by watercolorist Ernest Spring to learn hand lettering and find job security. He attended the American Academy of Art in Chicago and was in the Navy. He became a commercial artist, with a studio first in Providence, R.I., and later in Houston, where he did such graphic design as the insignia for a local hamburger chain.

He returned to Toledo about 1987 to help his mother, who was ill, and he rented a studio at the Common Space arts center on Reynolds Road. He was working toward a degree at the University of Toledo.

His marriages to Ruth Clay and Glena Parkinson, the mothers of his children, and Terry Clay ended in divorce.

Surviving are his sons, Michael and Donato Clay, daughters, Christina Polite, Alecia Cole, Melinda Reyes, and Tamorah Lopez, brothers, John Seay and Theodore Clay, sister, Bernita Swope, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

A wake service and viewing will be from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday in the Dale-Riggs Funeral Home. A memorial and celebration service will be from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday in the Toledo Museum of Art.

The family suggests tributes to the Toledo Museum of Art.


  1. The cause of death was not known, his son Michael said. He'd undergone elective prostate surgery Jan. 10. Just days earlier, he'd dropped off artwork to be exhibited at 20 North Gallery in downtown Toledo for its annual Black History Month exhibit, which opens Friday. 312-50v10 dumps

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