Exhibition and Public Programming
Vera B. Williams, an award-winning author and illustrator of children’s books, started making pictures almost as soon as she could walk. She studied at Black Mountain College in a time where summer institutes were held with classes taught by John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Williams studied under the Bauhaus luminary Josef Albers and went on to make art for the rest of her life. At the time of her death, The New York Times wrote: “Her illustrations, known for bold colors and a style reminiscent of folk art, were praised by reviewers for their great tenderness and crackling vitality.” Despite numerous awards and recognition for her children’s books, much of her wider life and work remains unexplored. This retrospective will showcase the complete range of Williams’ life and work. It will highlight her time at Black Mountain College, her political activism, and her establishment, with Paul Williams, of an influential yet little-known artist community, in addition to her work as an author and illustrator.
Author and illustrator of 17 children’s books, including Caldecott medal winner, A Chair for My Mother, Vera B. Williams always had a passion for the arts. Williams grew up in the Bronx, NY, and in 1936, when she was nine years old, one of her paintings, called Yentas, opens a new window, was included in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. While Williams is widely known for her children’s books today, this exhibition’s expansive scope highlights unexplored aspects of her artistic practice and eight decades of life. From groundbreaking, powerful covers for Liberation Magazine, to Peace calendar collaborations with writer activist Grace Paley, to scenic sketches for Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theater, to hundreds of late life “Aging and Illness” cartoons sketches and doodles, Vera never sat still.
Williams arrived at Black Mountain College in 1945. While there, she embraced all aspects of living, working, and learning in the intensely creative college community. She was at BMC during a particularly fertile period, which allowed her to study with faculty members Buckminster Fuller and Josef Albers, and to participate in the famed summer sessions with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, M.C. Richards, and Robert Rauschenberg. In 1948, she graduated with Josef Albers as her advisor and sculptor Richard Lippold as her outside examiner. Forever one of the College’s shining stars, Vera graduated from BMC with just six semesters of coursework, at only twenty-one years old. She continued to visit BMC for years afterward, staying deeply involved with the artistic community that BMC incubated.
Anticipating the eventual closure of BMC, Williams, alongside her husband Paul Williams and a group of influential former BMC figures, founded The Gate Hill Cooperative Artists community located 30 miles north of NYC on the outskirts of Stony Point, NY. The Gate Hill Cooperative, also known as The Land, became an outcropping of Black Mountain College’s experimental ethos. Students and faculty including John Cage, M.C. Richards, David Tudor, Karen Karnes, David Weinrib, Stan VanDerBeek, and Patsy Lynch Wood shaped Gate Hill as founding members of the community. Vera B. Williams raised her three children at Gate Hill while continuing to make work.
The early Gate Hill era represented an especially creative phase for the BMC group. For Williams, this period saw the creation of 76 covers for Liberation Magazine, a radical, groundbreaking publication. This exhibition will feature some of Williams’ most powerful Liberation covers including a design for the June 1963 edition, which contained the first full publication of MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Williams’ activism work continued throughout her life. As president of PEN’s Children Committee and member of The War Resisters league, she created a wide range of political and educational posters and journal covers. Williams protested the war in Vietnam and nuclear proliferation while supporting women’s causes and racial equality. In 1981, Williams was arrested and spent a month in a federal prison on charges stemming from her political activism.
In her late 40’s, Williams embarked in earnest on her career as a children’s book author and illustrator, a career which garnered the NY Public Library’s recognition of A Chair for My Mother as one of the greatest 100 children’s books of all time. Infinitely curious and always a wanderer at heart, Williams’ personal life was as expansive as her art. In addition to her prolific picture making, Williams started and helped run a Summerhill-based alternative school, canoed the Yukon, and lived alone on a houseboat in Vancouver Harbor. She helped to organize and attended dozens of political demonstrations throughout her adult life.
Her books won many awards including the Caldecott Medal Honor Book for A Chair for My Mother in 1983, the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award– Fiction category– for Scooter in 1994, the Jane Addams Honor for Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart in 2002, and the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature in 2009. Her books reflected her values, emphasizing love, compassion, kindness, joy, strength, individuality, and courage.
Cover of Vera B. Williams’ A Chair for My Mother, published in 1982.
Vera B. Williams, Cover for Liberation Magazine, November 1958.