On October 4, painter William Lionel Sheets, the man known and loved as “Billi” by three generations of Barghigiani, passed away in California at the age of 85. The son of a wayward saxophonist and a feisty cocktail bar jazz pianist, he had lived a resolutely unconventional life from his earliest years, beating the odds at every idiosyncratic turn in the eight decades that followed. Only those who knew him best realized that each step in that long journey was measured in deep thought, solid preparation and fierce determination.
Tall, powerful and unusually agile by his teens, Bill Sheets was a 1950s basketball star in his native Hot Springs, Arkansas, a kid with a professional future in the NBA if he’d wanted it. Put simply, the irrepressible rebel in him didn’t want it. In 1957, he left the Deep South and organized sports forever, working at odd jobs in New York City, Dallas and St. Louis, where he honed the graphics skills he’d acquired as a child drawing sketches of futuristic automobiles. But his true coming of age as an artist–under the wings of Richard Diebenkorn and Frank Lobdell, leading lights of the influential Bay Area Figurative Art Movement–was set in the raucous streets and bohemian coffee bars of San Francisco, where the beat poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg held court.
Those are iconic postwar American credentials: basketball fame, the magnetic draw of the West, the transgressive antics of the Beat Generation. But the heart of Bill Sheets, American D.O.C., was soon to be profoundly shared by a tiny mountain hamlet in the Comune di Barga. Half a century ago, he and his wife, Solace Wales, an accomplished historian and eloquent writer, rebuilt an ancient stone house on the southern flank of Sommocolonia, with a dazzling vista over the Serchio Valley and the granite ramparts of the Apuan Alps. Their daughter, Gwyndolen, was born in Italy in 1973 and schooled in Barga.
If the distinctive sensibility of Bill’s painting, expressed chiefly in landscapes and still lifes, was forged in the Bay Area, it matured in the ethereal Mediterranean light of his studio on the upper floor of that Sommocolonia home.
Its hallmarks are a serene, masterly classicism in form and composition, offset by bold washes of color, most notably a cerulean blue that at once evokes the boundless depths of
the Pacific Ocean and the placid summer skies of the Garfagnana. At times, the allusion to that marriage is literal, as in a remarkable work that blends a distant prospect of Northern California’s dramatic shoreline, viewed through a window, with a Tuscan still life of fruit, zucchini, garlic, wine and olive oil, under a map of Italy (article with images here)
A persistent strain of hope runs through these works. The canvases of Bill Sheets picture a world at peace with itself, somehow freed from the mindless strife and carnage reported in the daily news that he himself followed with singular intensity.
By the time I lost my own American heart to Barga 24 years ago, there were few moments more reassuringly familiar in its daily rhythms than a chance meeting with Bill Sheets in Piazza Angelio, or over a glass of wine at a local caffè. His overwhelming favorite was the legendary Aristodemo Casciani’s, where Billi and Aristo traded jokes, comic insults, historical trivia and wildly hilarious anecdotes.
“Sei americano ma non conosci nemmeno il nome della capitale del North Dakota!” Aristo would say as the performance neared its frenetic close. “You’re American, but you can’t even name the capital city of North Dakota!” (His curious longtime habit, during slow hours at the caffè, was to memorize odd nuggets of information about the United States, which he had never visited.)
“Should I tell you, Billi?” he’d ask, in stentorian volume. “Please don’t!” Bill would shout back.
More serious conversations with Bill were among the principal attractions of Barga’s intellectual life, although I’m certain he’d respond to that phrase with a shudder. He was one of the best-informed people I’ve ever known, a proponent of ferociously held opinions on a vast array of topics–notably the serial imbecilities of the political right in both America and
Europe–always bolstered by eminently reliable sources. As a journalist, I’d always held with Ernest Hemingway’s decree that the most essential asset of a good writer is “a built-in, shock-proof shit detector.” That’s also true of a good reader, and few readers, in my experience, were more adept at shit detection than Bill.
Our friendship was established in Barga, but its thematic starting point–at Casciani’s, naturally, in 1999–was when Bill and Solace asked if I was related to the Viviano who covered China in the 1980s and the Balkan wars in the 1990s for the San Francisco Chronicle. More than 10,000 miles east of the newspaper’s offices, I learned that two of my Barga neighbors were also longtime Chron subscribers who spent half of each year in an idyllic cottage and garden in Marin County, 20 kilometers north of the Golden Gate.
It was there, on June 20th, that Bill sustained a massive cerebral stroke. The consequences left him in 24-hour hospice care, unable to function normally or form intelligible words with consistency, but fully conscious and aware of what had happened. Although it was enough to leave most of us speechless with despair, Bill kept on talking. “Most of what he says is not understandable,” Solace told me in July. He made up sentences that vaguely sounded like English, mixed with words that were recognizably Italian, both sides of his wonderfully divided heart determined to be heard.
Occasionally, the cerebral clouds inexplicably parted, and despite everything, the old irrepressible Bill was back. One day, Solace said, “a speech therapist was trying to get him to count with her, but he would have none of it.” So the therapist took another tack, announcing, “I’m going to sing you a song.”
Bill immediately answered, with perfect clarity, “Please don’t!”
He is survived by his wife of 58 years, Solace Wales Sheets, by their daughter, Gwyndolen Thiessen, by granddaughters Juliet Thiessen and Chloe Thiessen, and by his sister, Nikki Schoenfeld. Those wishing to make a contribution in Bill’s name should consider Doctors Without Borders.
Article by Frank Viviano – all of his articles on barganews.com can be see here