In May last year. Penny Williams, a Canadian artist, flew to Saudi Arabia from Beirut to execute a specific assignment: paint Saudi Arabia.
Considering the size of Saudi Arabia—about a quarter the size of the United States—and the variety of scenic grandeur—high mountains, shimmering salt flats, vast deserts and two long, empty coastlines—this was harder to do than assign. But to Miss Williams, who has been working in the Middle East for seven years, it was simply one of a lengthening list of commissions that has won for her a reputation as one of the foremost illustrators in—and of—the Middle East. Furthermore, it was not Miss Williams' first visit to Saudi Arabia. In 1970 she spent two months preparing drawings for Aramco World's special issue; "The Arab Woman: An Untypical View."
As anyone who studies a Williams drawing or painting will instantly note. Miss Williams is a stickler for detail. Be it the intricate needlework of a handsome abaya , the close carving of a stone façade or the stance of a desert lizard, she obstinately insists on a meticulous correctness. It is a trademark that admirers have come to expect.
In Saudi: Arabia, where the fierce heat of summer starts early and where artists of either sex, but especially female, are scarce, the hours of sketching that precede a finished painting required great patience. Miss Williams was baked by the sun, covered by dust, surrounded by crowds of curious boys and in one public square was firmly, if amiably, shooed away twice. By the time she finished her travels, she had walked the streets of Jiddah, camped overnight in remote Mada'in Salih, sweltered on the pier of busy Dammam Port as freighters winched cargo onto freight cars below, dipped grateful fingers into the clear water of ancient Hofuf's vast irrigation project and driven the twisting roads of mountainous 'Asir Province—where she stopped a week to turn out four paintings at the personal request of the Governor of 'Asir, His Royal Highness Amir Khalid al-Faysal.
With her basic research completed—20-odd rolls of film and bulging portfolios of swift sketches—she settled down to paint seriously, emerging only to check a color or remeasure a doubtful perspective.
The results, which will also grace Aramco's 1973 calendar, are Miss Williams' impressions of an Arabia where the contrasts between custom and innovation are probably more sharply defined than in any country in the Middle East and where the beauties of an ancient culture have yet to bow to the onslaughts of unthinking change.