By Jano Tantongco
When 7-year-old William Low had trouble seeing the blackboard, his teacher suggested he start wearing glasses.
He listened, scheduled an appointment with an eye doctor and, when he put the glasses on in the darkened office for the first time, he could clearly see the charts he once had trouble reading.
Low stepped out onto a Bronx sidewalk on a sunny day and, for the first time, he was able to see everything. What seemed ordinary to most -- the rusted spots on the 6 train, the signs and even the piles of garbage -- all took on new meaning.
“It was almost like a blind man that all of a sudden was given the gift of light,” he said. “The shock of seeing something in color, bright and sharp, was so exciting to me that I tried to hold on to that magical moment.”
This is the same mindset that Low, now 57, of Huntington, tries to carry over into each and every piece of artwork he creates, including his latest set of stamps commissioned by the United States Postal Service.
A set of four “Holiday Windows” stamps were officially unveiled at the American Stamp Dealers’ Association stamp show in Manhattan on Oct. 6. Another stamp, originally part of the set, featuring a menorah for Hanukkah will be issued next month.
The commission is Low’s second from the USPS. In 2014, he created a set of “Winter Flowers” after being commissioned by USPS Art Director Ethel Kessler.
Looking back, Low said his art career started simply as a diversion. His father, John, operated a laundromat in the Bronx, and wanted Low to succeed and go further than his father had.
Low and his brother both drew, starting with imitating of figures from comic books.
“Being an artist was never part of the plan. I only drew because we lived in the Bronx,” he said.
“It was a bad neighborhood, and it kept us out of trouble.”
As his father pushed him to learn math and English, he set his sights on the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. But, at the time, English was one of his weaknesses, and he failed the entrance exam.
“It was probably the worst day of my life because I had to tell my dad. The worst thing was… he didn’t react,” Low said. “He was stone silent. I almost would have liked for him to be angry. The silence was actually devastating.”
Instead, Low was accepted into the High School for Art and Design, also in Manhattan, and contemplated becoming an architect. However, while there, he picked up a paintbrush. He started with illustrating scenes of his native borough and never looked back.
After securing a full scholarship to the Parsons School of Design, he advanced his education while working at renowned art supply shop Pearl Paint in downtown Manhattan. That’s also where he first met his eventual wife “Peggy” Low, who also oversees the JOURNEY Arts-in-Education program for the Huntington Arts Council.
“I was in brushes, she was in markers,” he said.
While there, he received his first big break with the New York Daily News for a series of paintings to illustrate their “A New Day For The Bronx” piece in 1982.
From there, he steadily undertook more commissions and expanded his repertoire. He went on to paint a nighttime subway map for the city’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, his first USPS stamp commission, as well as illustrating for children’s books.
“Once I understood who I was, then I could actually start making artwork… and that’s what I tell my students,” said Low, also a full-time tenured professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where he teaches digital illustration techniques.
He often shares the “classic immigrant story” with his students, advocating hard work and “a little self-exploration.” He stressed that one’s innate artistic ability is just “a small piece of the puzzle.”
"It's easy for a student to look at someone who has reached that level of success as something that's unattainable," he said. "I try to tell that story to my students because no one is going to hand it to you. You can't go out and discover where you want to be unless you understand where you've been."