Painter Philemona Williamson Colorfully Depicts Adolescents

Her unusual childhood inspires a Montclair painter's color-drenched canvases of fumbling adolescents.

Philemona Williamson in her sun-filled East Orange studio.
Photo by Marla Cohen

The obsession with ungainly adolescents at the heart of Montclair painter Philemona Williamson’s work doesn’t seem peculiar until you meet her. Then it challenges your faith in first impressions. Is it possible this supremely poised artist, whose work is regularly shown alongside art-world darlings like Kara Walker and Kerry James Marshall, knows what it’s like to be as mixed up as the restless characters who populate her color-drenched canvases? 

The facts of her young life, as she tells them, bend toward no. “As a young girl, I was always hearing how wonderful I was, which gave me a lot of confidence,” says Williamson. But she’ll allow that the paintings that have earned her dozens of exhibitions and awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and that are on display through May 1 at Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion in Princeton, are the product of a sometimes turbulent passage into adulthood. 

“My background is just so weird. I never talked about it because nobody wants to be weird,” says Williamson as we chat in her sun-filled East Orange studio. 

On balance, it sounds like Williamson’s childhood was a good weird. She was born in Manhattan to James and Mamie Williamson, an African-American couple who lived in a glamorous Art Deco building on Sutton Place with their employers, a family of impassioned, occasionally combative Greek-Americans. James, from North Carolina, was chauffeur and cook to the Ladas family; Mamie, from South Carolina, was their housekeeper and nanny. Williamson and her mother spent most days in the company of Christine Ladas, wife of the Harvard-educated attorney Stephen Ladas, and the Ladas’s high-spirited daughters, Natalie and Cornelia.

Both mothers and the Ladas sisters doted on Williamson. Though the Ladas girls were teenagers while Williamson was much younger, “they would ask my opinion about everything from their love lives to what they should wear,” Williamson says. “It was always, ‘What does Philemona think? Ask Philemona.’” At dinner parties, they would coax her to come out of her room to chat with guests. 

Photo by Marla Cohen

All of which left little room for the typical rites of childhood, like playing make-believe and dressing up dolls. By the time Williamson was in fifth grade, she had the temperament of an adult. Her memories of a months-long move with Mamie to South Carolina in 1958 or 1959 to take care of her gravely ill maternal grandmother might have traumatized a less self-assured girl. But Williamson remembers enrolling in the segregated school there as kind of a lark. “I remember thinking, Whoa, everyone here looks like me,” she says. “That was a shock.” 

By the end of middle school, Williamson, back in New York, knew she wanted to be an artist. She enrolled in the arts program at Junior High School 104, on East 20th Street. “It was a pivotal point,” she says. “It was something that brought direction and meaning to me.”

An unfinished painting of Native American youths “stymied by” an overstuffed ballot box frames the artist as she swivels on a stool. Williamson’s work isn’t normally political, and she bristles at the suggestion her paintings are informed by race. But a 2018 dustup in North Dakota over voter suppression upset her enough to follow her into the studio, where a number of her oversized oil-on-linen paintings await their final touches. “The news filters through sometimes, even though I try to avoid it. My work is more concerned with the emotional toll of social justice issues of gender, race and class on the adolescent mind,” she says. “This painting ended up being about how certain districts were trying to take away Native American votes.” 

Williamson turns back to the story of her formative years—when her father took ill. “He had cancer, and my mother decided no one should know about it,” says Williamson. “No one could even say the word cancer then. It was stigmatized. So my mother treated it as a secret.” 

In the art room at school, that burden slid into a burgeoning self-expression. “It was all about the world you imagined,” she says. “And that world had an order to it. I liked the decisions that came with making art, in terms of color and all the formal aspects you think about when making a painting. That was exciting to me. I liked the structure.”

James’s health deteriorated while Williamson’s devotion to painting deepened. Her father succumbed to his disease, bone-marrow cancer, when she was a freshman at Bennington College in Vermont. 

Williamson attended Bennington on a scholarship, graduating in 1973. She later earned a master of arts degree from New York University. With the exception of detours as a New York City Parks Department employee and designer for a publisher and TV station, she has been a working artist ever since, teaching and painting.

Young girls populate much of Philemona Williamson’s work, their limbs bare, the world tumbling around them. Four recent oil-on-canvas examples in her studio, clockwise from top left: Blues Suite, Sunset, Satin Doll and Invisible Run. Photo by Marla Cohen

Dolls are a running theme in Williamson’s work. The abstract folk-art dolls she crafts are the realization of her thwarted desire to play as a little girl. “I didn’t get toys as a child; hence my fascination with dolls,” she explains. That also helps explain her collection of African-American and folk dolls; on a shelf in her studio, she keeps a few vintage Topsy Turvy dolls,  whose skirts can be flipped to reveal either a white face or a black face.

Williamson met her husband, Marc Rosenberg, in 1980, when both were working in the design department at New York’s channel 13 that year. (Rosenberg, whose specialty was photo-animation, later became vice president of brand image, intersitial programing and on-air promotion at HBO.)

By the time they were married in 1989, the fumbling adolescents that have become Williamson’s trademark were gaining traction. They had started to takeshape a few years earlier, when she won a residency at the Millay Colony for the Arts in Austerlitz, New York. 

“I went there and worked for a while on portraits of people that I made up, and I kept asking myself, What makes me different?’” she says. “What do I really want to say? What’s the scariest thing I could reveal? I decided that the scariest thing I could reveal was my background.” 

Williamson started painting what she remembered of childhood, and the resulting series of dreamy, anxiety-ridden paintings earned her a debut solo show at the Queens Museum in 1988 and a review in The New York Times by critic Douglas C. McGill. She credits that review with winning the attention of galleries in New York and California. Since 1989, the June Kelly Gallery has represented Williamson’s work in New York.

“My work is more concerned with the emotional toll of social justice issues of gender, race and class on the adolescent mind”—Philemona

Decades of solo and group exhibitions amplified Williamson’s reputation among collectors. Fans are drawn to brightly colored, dreamlike works such as Unexpected Blues, a mammoth 4-foot-by-5-foot oil-on-linen work from 2017 that lingers on a dark-skinned girl uncomfortably aroused by the jungle of flowers and vines around her. Young girls populate much of Williamson’s work, their limbs bare, their eyes gazing out from the canvas as if trying to make sense of the world around them.

Among Williamson’s fans is first lady Tammy Murphy, who chose Williamson’s work for the ongoing series of shows highlighting living New Jersey artists at Drumthwacket started by her predecessor, Mary Pat Christie. Robyn Brenner, executive director at Drumthwacket, recommended Williamson to Murphy after learning about her through the chief curator at the Montclair Art Museum; 18 of Williamson’s works were exhibited there in a fall 2017 show.

“When I look at art and I walk away and I’m still thinking about it, for me, that’s the mark of an incredible artist,” Brenner says. “That’s how it is with Philemona. She catches those undercurrents of adolescence we all relate to. No matter who’s standing in front of her paintings, they can relate. Mrs. Murphy agreed that, since Drumthwacket is the people of New Jersey’s house, she’s a perfect fit.” 

A perfect fit has never been Williamson’s calling card. But being chosen for Drumthwacket feels important. 

“I love that it’s going to be in that setting, of a house that’s furnished so beautifully,” she says. Six of Williamson’s signature paintings will be displayed at Drumthwacket among the historic home’s artifacts and antiques. The exhibition also includes a dozen paintings from a recent residency at the Joan Mitchell Foundation in New Orleans. Those paintings detour from Williamson’s awkward youths to focus on architecture. 

There was nothing abstract about Williamson and Rosenberg’s decision to move to Montclair in 1997. The town, where the couple raised their son, Noah, 26, and daughter, Piper, 23, was among the few places they felt they could settle outside the city, says the artist. 

“It was one of the only places we could find where there were other interracial couples and trees and backyards and an art and cultural community,” says Williamson. She and Rosenberg are empty nesters now—Noah moved to California to work in film, and Piper is in Philadelphia figuring out her career—but Williamson wouldn’t consider moving back to New York. Still, she makes frequent  trips to the city, where she teaches art at Hunter College in Manhattan and Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. 

But New Jersey is where she plans to stay.  “I have wonderful friends here and a wonderful house, and I love my studio,” Williamson says. “If I’m looking for turmoil, I can always find that in my work.”  

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