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From printmaking to catering to art curation to interior and furniture design, it seemed like there wasn’t a creative endeavor that Harvey McWilliams couldn’t master. His rich life of virtuosic and award-winning accomplishment across multiple mediums came to a close on Dec. 30, 2021, after a long illness. He was 88.
Born William Harvey McWilliams in Aurora, North Carolina, he was an inspiring presence for multiple generations of Richmond’s creative class.
“He was one of those rare people who had an eye for design,” says Rubin Peacock, a renowned sculptor who first met McWilliams when they worked together at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “He was an all-around excellent artist and designer – not to mention the fact that he was a social hub, so to speak. He surrounded himself with likeminded people that were involved with the arts.”
After serving in Army intelligence during the Korean War as a codebreaker, McWilliams enrolled at Richmond Professional Institute – now Virginia Commonwealth University – and received a bachelor’s in interior design.
While employed in the commercial design department of now-defunct department store chain Miller & Rhoads, McWilliams created the original interior of St. Mary’s Hospital, including custom-designed wall coverings, textiles and accessories. He then returned to VCU, becoming the first person to receive a master’s in printmaking at the school in 1969. He worked in the programs department of the VMFA, curating exhibits for its artmobile and accompanying its travels around the state. McWilliams was also a graphic designer for the Virginia State Library and an artist-in-residence at the Glasgow House of the Richmond Intercultural Center for the Humanities.
In the early 1980s he founded Mainly Pasta, one of the city’s first gourmet take-out eateries, in the Fan; he also cooked there for more than 16 years. A gourmand who enjoyed discussing food with other chefs, McWilliams frequented Rowland, Bacchus and 8½ often.
Long a prolific printmaker of bold, abstract works, McWilliams added furniture design to his repertoire in 2015 while undergoing chemotherapy and unable to do anything but sit. His modern wooden chairs were sold at the VMFA gift shop for a time. The museum recently chose some of McWilliams’ larger works to add to its collection, as well as some of his modern chairs; some of McWilliams’ prints are currently on display at Rowland.
McWilliams also had a long association with the Firehouse Theatre, serving on its board as well as its informal in-house caterer, providing food for opening nights of shows. Joel Bassin, the theater’s producing artistic director, says that even here McWilliams’ close attention to detail was evident, including making sure the tablecloths were uniform.
“It was like a military operation: loading all the food in, making sure the tables were set up the way he wanted them. He would bring in flowers,” says Bassin, who recalls McWilliams’ positive, creative spirit. “I never saw him defeated, negative, beaten down, depressed, even though he sometimes said, ‘This cancer thing is really getting me down.’”
McWilliams built the bar at the Firehouse, helped with the lighting, and married his husband Ken Coleman at the theater; the Firehouse also hosted Coleman’s memorial service in 2017.
In Nov. 2020, the theater produced a staged reading of McWilliams’ “The Windshield Poems,” a collection of unsigned love poems a secret admirer left on the windshield of his truck over the course of 16 years. McWilliams was moved by the performance. “He was very touched, and he often cried, because it was a big deal to him, and we were just thrilled that he trusted us with that story,” Bassin says.
McWilliams’ base of operations was his home on West Main Street in the Fan. He purchased the circa-1888 home in the 1970s and worked constantly to reshape it. Filled with modernist designs and nationally and internationally renowned art and furniture, the house was featured in the September 2020 issue of R-Home magazine.
“His house was really a reflection of himself and his partner, and his life in Richmond was full of both Richmond artists and creatives,” says creative collaborator, friend and neighbor Kevin Daley, who now operates vintage furniture store Mainly Modern in the space that once held Mainly Pasta.
In McWilliams’ kitchen was a photo of Julia Child that reads “Best wishes to Cousin Harvey, Julia”; some believe there was a familial connection (McWilliams was Child’s maiden name).
Every two months or so, McWilliams hosted dinners at his home for roughly a dozen people that included a piano concert with McWilliams ad-libbing on the keys. “You would think he was reading right off a sheet of music,” Peacock says of McWilliams’ riffing. “You’d never hear a sour note or a break in his mood. It was a constant kind of mood or melody.”
McWilliams was still designing and printmaking from his backyard studio up until a couple weeks before his death. He was also working on other projects, including an operatic adaptation of “The Windshield Poems” and a retrospective of his work at the Virginia War Memorial.
“He really brought out the creative in me and a lot of the other people that he had friended over the years,” Daley says. “He was one of the most creative, multifaceted, generous people.”