Founder image

Exploring the emotional and psychological landscape of adolescence

– an interview with Philemona Williamson

Philemona Williamson (b. 1951) lives and works in New Jersey, USA. Williamson recently had a mid-career retrospective at the Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey, USA. She has shown in institutions including The Queens Museum of Art, The Bass, Miami, and Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis. Williamson’s work is in museums including the Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey, USA, Kalamazoo Institutes of Arts, Michigan, USA; Mint Museum, North Carolina, USA; Smith College Museum of Art, Massachusetts, USA; Hampton University Museum, Virginia, USA and Sheldon Art Museum, Nebraska, USA. Her public works include murals for the NYC subway. Art & Object named her “10 Contemporary Black Artists You Should Know More About”. She currently teaches painting at Pratt Institute and Hunter College in New York.

"The human figure and the power of storytelling are my artistic passions. The figure is a vehicle for stories I find intriguing, whether myths, folk tales, or family anecdotes."

Could you tell us about your artistic practice and how it has evolved over the years? 

The human figure and the power of storytelling are my artistic passions. The figure is a vehicle for stories I find intriguing, whether myths, folk tales, or family anecdotes.

As a narrative painter, I explore the emotional and psychological impact of our society on the most vulnerable, children, and marginalized people of color. The paintings are open-ended stories populated by invented figures.

My intent is for a conversation to develop between viewer and painting. Viewers are invited to engage with the work: initially drawn into color, then imagery, and ultimately, the content of the work. To ask themselves, what is going on in this painting, what are these figures doing, and why.

I started telling the story of my childhood in a series called Childhood Memories, which I began after graduate school. I felt it was essential to take the risk of painting my memories. This became the catalyst for all the that followed. I try to risk everything with each painting; being true to myself and exposing my vulnerability

Your work often features children and adolescent characters on the cusp of adulthood. What has led you to focus your practice upon this period of life?

I was drawn to the adolescent figure because that was the age when I discovered painting. I had an incredible artist/teacher in middle school who presented painting as a discipline, a way of putting order to chaos. As an adolescent going through the uncontrollable developmental physical and emotional changes in my body, and processing my father’s terminal illness, art was the one place that gave me the control and order I needed. The awkwardness, innocence, strength and hopefulness of adolescence are all qualities embodied in my figures.

To what extent do your paintings reflect your own experiences?

In recent paintings, I examine the figures reaction to the wider world. These are not necessarily my particular experiences, but those that echo my concerns.

Could you tell us more about ‘A Patient Spirit’? What is the genesis of this work?

“A Patient Spirit” was inspired by a letter a family friend wrote about his experience with my father on fishing trips as a child. My father would take this little boy (his employer’s nephew) fishing. One day a swarm of hornets flew all around them. The little boy was frantic and started waving and screaming. My father said, “Don't wave your arms, just calm down, don’t move. and be patient, and they will go away.” For the friend, this became a life lesson: finding the patience in difficult moments. This story felt like a gift. The painting is about finding patience in overwhelming situations.

Philemona Williamson, A patient Spirit, 2022

View work

Philemona Williamson, Dusty Afternoon, 2010

Philemona Williamson, Look All Ways, 2020

The figures in your paintings are often depicted in motion or in a state of flux, evoking the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Was that your intention?

I portray the figures in a state of motion, because the period between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood is fraught with tumult. There never seems to be steady ground to stand on or a place to find solace. The figures are in search for that safe place. I want the viewer to take that journey and ask themselves why they search for safety and where this may or may not be found.

Many of your paintings can be viewed as a scene or snapshot from a larger sequence of events that isn’t wholly revealed to your viewers but rather invites them to use their imagination. Do you prefer to keep the narrative of your paintings open-ended?

The narratives are open ended. There is a poetic quality to the paintings, as a series of images evokes associations depending on one’s mood. Ideally, the viewer wonders what the rest of the story could be. 

What does a typical day at your studio look like?

I start my day early and head to studio, a 15-minute drive from home. I have coffee while I look at the paintings in progress. I usually work on three at the same time. I choose the one that needs to be worked on for that day and start painting. I spend a lot of time changing figures and composition as I paint. The fun part is finding the mix of all the elements that bring the story to life on the canvas. My doll and toy collection is a source. I listen to the radio , music, or interviews. At the end of the day, I photograph what I have done to record any changes. I work from about 8 am to 4 pm daily.

Philemona Williamson, Here I Hold Becoming, 2020

Who or what inspires you?

I am inspired by magical realism, folk art, people who risk everything to pursue their goals in sports, arts, or social justice, as well as meeting new people and hearing their stories.

What is your definition of art? What makes a good work of art in your opinion?

For me, art is work and a good work of art makes you want run to the studio and paint.

If you could own any piece of art, what would it be?

My favorite painter is Paula Rego. I would love any of her paintings!

What are you working on at the moment?

Currently, I am working on a series of paintings about embrace: how we yearn to be close to people and how the feeling can be reciprocated or rejected and how that looks and feels.