Rez Williams, an acclaimed Island artist known for his large-scale paintings of boats and his devotion to Island conservation, died in Boston on Sunday, Feb. 4, after a long illness, his family said. He was 81.

Mr. Williams lived in West Tisbury with his wife, the artist Lucy Mitchell. He grew up in New York City, was raised on Long Island and began visiting the Vineyard in 1969.

Not only would he eventually call the Vineyard home, he would be instrumental in protecting the Island and its rural way of life. He was one of the longest-serving board members of the Vineyard Conservation Society and also served as president of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation.

In 2013 he was awarded the Creative Living Award by the Martha’s Vineyard Community Foundation, an annual award given to members of the community who have made significant contributions to the quality of life on the Island.

Brendan O’Neill, then executive director of the conservation society, recalled at the awards ceremony Mr. Williams’s “calm courage” during fights to protect open space on the Vineyard.

Mr. Williams was long known for his paintings of boats.

“Through all these challenges Rez was really an anchor in the VCS boardroom,” Mr. O’Neill said, adding that he helped launch the Island’s first Earth Day beach clean-up and advocated prescribed burns to maintain habitats.

But it was his art that truly led the way.

“He is one of the most important painters on the Vineyard,” said Paul Karasik, who was a board member of the community foundation at the time of the award. “And he continued to make exciting, inventive and brilliant work. It is a seismic loss for the Island arts community.”

Tanya Augoustinos, who represented Mr. Williams at the A Gallery since 2012, said she was honored to have had such a long working relationship with him.

“He was a constant mentor to me,” she said. “The integrity of his work was an inspiration. He was always so uncompromising to his subject matter without being influenced by commercial trends.”

 Ms. Augoustinos also noted that in more recent years Mr. Williams continued to explore new avenues in his craft, lifting up a series of more minimalist work he did for Sheriff’s Meadow.

“He was always interested in pushing his own boundaries,” she said. 

Chris Morse, owner of the Granary, Field and North Water galleries, described himself as a huge fan and friend.

Mr. Williams at an opening at the A Gallery in 2017 for a series of paintings he created in Monhegan, Me. — Jeanna Shepard

“We carried his work in the gallery and I have several in my home,” Mr. Morse said. “I’ve known him for over 25 years. He had the respect of all his contemporaries.”

Mr. Williams gained international recognition after Thomas Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, named him in an article for Cigar Magazine in 1995 as one of the “finest artists alive in America today.”

“He paints out of West Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard, but he’s about as far from one of those sticky-sweet chroniclers of Island life and times as one can get,” Mr. Hoving wrote. “His scenes of the Vineyard smash into your eyes like crescendos. The spaces warp and move. The colors clash and rebound. You gaze at something like Gay Head Light for a few seconds and you get out of breath.”

He was particularly known for his colorful depictions of boats, a subject he continued to turn to.

“It’s funny,” Mr. Williams said in a 2011 article for Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. “You’d think maybe a semi-truck or a choo-choo train...but I’ve always loved boats, I’ve been around boats since I was a kid.”

In the same article, Mr. Williams talked about a series of paintings he did of New Bedford fishing trawlers, seeing them as living things with personality aglow.

“When you go to New Bedford you’re in a completely different world... But then you see the fishing boats... like hot rods. They’re colorful, and a little crazy.”

“There’s the brutality to them,” he continued. “There’s the rigging, there’s the complexity, there’s the know-how, there’s the rust, there’s the devil-may-care.”

Mr. Williams was also instrumental in helping to create the art collection at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, donating several pieces and suggesting other artists to do the same.

At the close of the Creative Living award ceremony, Mr. Williams addressed the crowd.

“A friend of mine said that, you know, it really is the compilation of all the people that you know and all their influences that have gotten you wherever it is I am,” he said. “And it’s really true, I thought about this for a long time.”