Introducing: Professor William Wallace
“Professors are show offs,” Wallace chuckled. “The handstand is part of being a show off.”
In high school, Wallace set the record for the longest time balancing on a chair with only two chair legs on the ground—an hour and a half. From there, he sought to break even more records. He learned how to juggle, jumped over as many chairs as he could in the cafeteria, did 1,010 sit ups just to prove it was possible, and then mastered the handstand.
“I do it enough to impress the students who look at me and think, ‘God that old guy is doing a handstand,’” Wallace said. He takes his students by surprise with at least one handstand a semester, just when he thinks the class needs a boost of energy.
It’s not just Wallace who prides himself on his handstand. Professor Elizabeth Childs, chair of the Department of Art History and Archaeology, believes that may be just one of the reasons he’s so loved by his students.
“Who else do you know who occasionally does a handstand or cartwheel to get the attention of those nodding off in the back row?” Childs said.
Though Wallace may normally be considered a writer and art history professor to the Washington University community, he is also a traveler. Wallace’s family moved a lot when he was a child because his father remained in the Navy after World War II. He was born in California, lived in Japan twice, and has resided in a number of U.S. states, including Hawaii. There, he attended the same high school as President Obama, though they did not attend at the same time.
“Me and Obama went to the same school, Punahou. But I think he was a little behind me,” Wallace laughed. “I think he’s younger than I am.”
Wallace’s mother had a large influence on his life. “My mother was a travel writer. So I think my desire to put things into words came from that,” he said.
In Japan, Wallace’s family lived in a traditional Japanese house filled with his mother’s Japanese paintings. Those paintings, in addition to forced trips to art museums with his parents, were his first experiences of art. It wasn’t until his sophomore year at Dickinson College, when he took a three-week trip to Italy with an art history class, that Wallace really began to develop a great interest in art.
“That did it,” Wallace said emphatically. “Once I saw Rome and Florence I said, ‘OK, I want to come back here,’ so I majored in art history and have been loving it ever since.”
In the countless times he has been to Italy, Wallace has seen a great deal of the country. Though his favorite place in Italy used to be Florence, more recently it has changed to Rome.
“Florence is small, cute and very accessible. There’s a lot of art, but there are also a lot of tourists,” Wallace remarked. “Rome is a big, vibrant city. Since both my wife and I are from New York—that’s where we became a couple—Rome is more like a very cosmopolitan city, and even though there are a lot of tourists there too, it’s so large you get absorbed and you can kind of get away.”
Wallace’s son, Sam, works for Google, and his daughter, Katie, is pursuing a graduate degree in linguistics at New York University. Neither one is planning on a career related to Wallace’s love of art, but that’s not because they don’t love it, too. “What they say is that they already know all of that because they’ve traveled all their lives.” Wallace added, “They feel like they know all that stuff already.”
His family has traveled a lot together to places besides Italy; they’ve been to France, Greece and Germany, among others. This year they are planning a trip to Turkey. Wallace even met his wife, Beth, while they were both studying abroad in Spain.
In 1990, Wallace—along with 50 other academics, curators and conservators—was summoned to Italy for a week to consult with the Vatican over the restoration of the Sistine Chapel. His role as an advisor ensured that the Vatican was truly undertaking an international project.
“We got to meet the Pope who said something I will never forget,” Wallace said. “[He said] this is wonderful work that you’re doing but remember that the Sistine doesn’t belong to the Church or to Catholicism or to Italy—it belongs to the world and to all time.”
Michelangelo is Wallace’s “thing.” His office is lined with books on Michelangelo, including six he’s written himself. His most recent book is a biography, “Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man and his Times,” a summary of over 20 years of researching Michelangelo.
Wallace was drawn to Michelangelo instantly after his first trip to Italy because he worked on such a large scale. The fact that he was a sculptor, a painter, an architect, an engineer and a poet impresses Wallace immensely.
“Michelangelo is where the word awesome really is appropriate,” Wallace said. “It’s much bigger than me, it’s much bigger than I can imagine—it’s more meaningful, it’s more creative—it moves you and it teaches you. It helps you learn about life and yourself.”
Even though Wallace is so enamored with Michelangelo, Michelangelo paintings are not his favorite. It’s hard for Wallace to pinpoint one single favorite piece of art because, as he says, “I don’t have favorite children, either.” Wallace’s favorite artists are American landscape painters rather than Michelangelo himself.
As an expert on Michelangelo, Wallace is contacted about twice a year and asked to confirm whether a painting is a true Michelangelo or not. Few of the pieces he’s seen have been real; many are simply related to Michelangelo, as the artist had many followers and imitators.
“I’m thinking it could be a kind of funny book to write of all of the things I’ve been approached about because some of them are hilarious,” Wallace explained. “People want to know more about great artists and so we keep trying to find out more about them.”
Though he pursued his doctorate at Columbia University in New York, he got his first job out of graduate school in St. Louis in 1983 and has stayed ever since. “I had never heard of Washington University; I was a little bit terrified about coming here, and it’s been wonderful,” Wallace reflected. “First I thought, ‘OK, I’ll try it for one or two years and see if I like it.’ So I’m still here and I like it.”
Wallace decided to become a professor because of the large amount of freedom the profession allows.
“I think I’m very self-motivated, and so I love being able to make my own hours.” Wallace added, “I love the variety of being a professor: You get to teach, you get to do research, you get to have your summers free to travel, and I can’t imagine a better life.”
Wallace loves Wash. U. most for its atmosphere—there is a great amount of respect that goes from students, to faculty, to the administration.
“I think it’s very much a positive and reinforcing environment,” Wallace explained. “It allows you to be a good student, it allows me to be a good professor, and it allows administrators to really promote the school. I really think it’s that positive environment that has kept me here all this time.”