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Arts Features

New Warfield bust is one dream ‘about many dreams’

The bust of William Warfield, which was unveiled Sept. 27, 2021, at the Miller Center Courtyard across from the Eastman School of Music.
The bust of William Warfield, which was unveiled Sept. 27, 2021, at the Miller Center Courtyard across from the Eastman School of Music.

Thomas Warfield was thinking back about 20 years, to when Shawn Dunwoody had created a work of art for the Rochester Museum and Science Center. “Some day,” Warfield remembers thinking, “we need a bust of Uncle Bill.”

Someday came Monday, in the Miller Center Courtyard across from the Eastman School of Music, with the unveiling of Dunwoody’s bust of William Warfield. Uncle Bill. A sculpture of the singer and actor’s head, larger than life.

“When I was a kid, even though he didn’t live in Rochester, we would always visit him,” said Warfield, director of dance at Rochester Institute of Technology. His uncle, who died in 2002, is buried in Rochester’s Mt. Hope Cemetery. 

“When he was married to Leontyne Price, we would visit their Greenwich Village townhouse when we were kids, and always he came home for the holidays. So he was always here at Christmas and other holidays, and so I saw him quite a bit. And on occasions, I performed with him as I got older, so I was very close to my uncle. In fact, I have his personal belongings.”

William Warfield was born in Arkansas but grew up in Rochester, where as a senior at the now long-gone Washington High School he won the Music Educators National Song Competition. He presented his Eastman School of Music graduation recital at Kilbourn Hall in 1942, a week before he was inducted into the Army, where he worked in military intelligence.

His vast list of credits included the Broadway musical “Porgy and Bess” and the film “Show Boat,” which introduced the bass-baritone singer with the song he is best associated with, “Ol’ Man River.” Warfield also appeared on television, including “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He won a Grammy in 1984 for his narration of Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait,” recorded with the Eastman Philharmonia.

The William Warfield Scholarship Fund, formed in 1977, supports Black classical singers studying at Eastman.

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Thomas Warfield, radiant in a lilac-colored suit decorated with butterflies, recalled his uncle as a giving man. 

“He was funny, his sense of humor was extraordinarily, hmm, wry? I don’t know if that’s the right word,” Thomas Warfield said. “Funny. He was very funny, he told jokes all the time.

“I even remember one time when President Clinton came to RIT to speak. And he met me, he said, ‘Oh, Warfield, are you related to William Warfield?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Oh boy, he tells the best jokes.’”

Dunwoody said he closely studied photos of Warfield, trying to capture “his activism, his strength. His vitality to actually push ahead. Even though he had a phenomenal voice, could speak fluent German, they wouldn’t let him perform on an opera stage as a lead.”

Warfield had to persevere through the racism of the day.

“But he still stuck to his heart, and what he wanted to do,” Dunwoody said. “And so when I looked at him I saw the determination and focus, and that’s what I tried to draw from.

“And also give him a little bit of a smirk there. ‘Regardless of how you may treat me I still persevere, and I still stand tall.’”

It is a message that resonates today as well, in Black Lives Matter.

Dunwoody worked with RIT’s College of Art and Design on the bronzing. So the Warfield bust is actually an artistic confluence between RIT and the Eastman, which is a part of the University of Rochester.

“It is a win-win for both institutions and the community,” said Dr. David Munson Jr., president of RIT.

“One dream is really about many dreams,” Dunwoody said. “We are the momentum of our ancestors.”

RIT’s University Creative Productions is working on a documentary about the creation of the bust, as well as Warfield’s life, which is expected to be done next month.

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Besides members of Warfield’s family, and the academic communities of RIT and the Eastman School of Music, the unveiling of the Warfield bust before an overflow crowd in Miller Center included Mayor Lovely Warren, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello. It also included musicians of color from Eastman: A woodwind ensemble, and a knockout vocal performance by Jazmine Saunders, the current William Warfield Scholarship Fund recipient, accompanied by Ava Linvog on piano.

“We have to teach creativity,” Bello said, before the Eastman ensembles backed up his words with their performances. “We have to teach innovation.”

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.

Copyright 2021 WXXI News