When Bill Worrell sold a piece of art, he’d tip his cowboy hat to the buyer and say, “I am honored that you have chosen a piece of my artwork. Thank you for keeping me off the streets and out of the classrooms, allowing me to do what I love — making art.”
His friends insist it wasn’t marketing. That’s who Worrell was.
“He said that all the time,” recalled Worrell’s close friend Mary Adams.
Prolific, passionate and genuine, Worrell was a staple of the Santa Fe art scene for decades. He died Thursday after a five-year battle with cancer at his home in the ironically but appropriately named hamlet of New Art, Texas.
He was 85.
Worrell created thousands of sculptures and paintings during his career, but Adams — who owns the gallery in Worrell’s name in downtown Santa Fe — said the artist was really a “collector of friends.” Sometimes they were customers. Others were people who loved to have fun and hear him croon at Vanessie, where he could bring the house down with his rendition of Marty Robbins’ classic “El Paso.”
“He even knew how many words were in the song,” Adams said. “He was very much a character. You can ask anyone.”
Worrell, who grew up in Colorado City, Texas, taught art for many years at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas), Texas Tech University and Odessa College. He had bachelor’s degrees from Houston Baptist and a Master of Fine Arts in painting and drawing, plus a minor in sculpture from North Texas State.
But making art, not teaching it, was his true calling, Adams said. He was fascinated by the caves he happened upon after a flood on the Pecos River in Texas, and many of his works are copyrighted interpretations of the ancient pictographs he saw there.
Those creations helped vault him into more than two dozen galleries around the Southwest, but Worrell — always creating, always thinking about creating — also published books of his writings.
“He was prolific all the time,” Adams said. “All the time, he was carrying a journal, writing.”
Worrell, who split time for many years between Santa Fe and Texas’ Hill Country, debuted his art in New Mexico in 1986, first at the C.G. Rein Gallery. Tom Boswell, who works at the Worrell Gallery, said he drove his work to Santa Fe in a Volkswagen van and was told by a worker at the Rein Gallery that she could sell perhaps half of what he brought.
“He got home to a blinking answering machine,” Boswell said. “It was [the gallery worker] telling him, ‘We’ve sold everything. Could you bring us some more?’ ”
In 2011, Adams said she bought the space at Palace and Washington avenues and opened it as Worrell’s “legacy gallery” — a place where he could sell his work. But the artist continued working, creating paintings, jewelry and sculptures until about three weeks ago as his health declined.
Worrell is survived by his two children, Sawndra Michelle Worrell and William Walter Worrell Jr. Adams said a group of about 10 friends spent time with the man who once wrote “Carpe Every Diem, and Every Noche too” in his last days, all dipping their hands in paint and putting a handprint on a wall in his honor.
It was their tribute to Bill Worrell’s unique ability to create and maintain friendships, she said. And to see the art in life.