Visual Arts

An artful life leads back to Tomahawk

TOMAHAWK — On the night before his death, Tom Williamson ate a double portion of dinner "as if he were getting ready to travel." He had suffered from dementia but was, insists his artist daughter, Lisa Williamson, "often the wisest person in the house." He died April 13, 2006. A month later, Lisa's mother had a stroke and fought dying for almost five more months, until Sept. 26, 2006.

Williamson had sat by her parents' bedsides for a long time. While with her father, she had worked small pieces of clay into works she named and numbered Zen #1, #2 and so on.

With her mother, Williamson took to walking across the only real road in this Martin County town, the one that separated her family home from the family barn, where she had fashioned a studio. She had mowed a tight path in the undulating tangle of weeds that had once been her family's food garden. The path she had shaped now was in the form of an infinity symbol.

She walked on the path in the early morning before her mother awoke. She looked at the tangle, remembering sometimes that her grandmother had ridden on the tilling sled as her grandfather had driven the mule across this land a long time ago.

"This is your life," she said to herself. She says she realized too that the tangle itself was not a tangle at all but an organization of living things that all stretched purposefully toward the sun. They wrapped around each other for support, wanting to live and contribute, making the whole, which was beautiful.

It would be a mistake to think that the artist's exhibit in Washington, D.C., this month is titled The In- Between because she is held in that place where we are suddenly parentless and adrift. She is not.

She is asking you to look at the space between what is apparent and the shapes in between.

Just as she looked at the tangle and saw, quite literally, the light.

A child in Tomahawk

It all goes back for Williamson, and it does for us all, to where we started.

She says there wasn't a lot to do in Tomahawk in the 1950s when she was a child. But she had the Eastern Kentucky woods she could hide in and a hard-scrabble Swedish mother who kept art supplies in the dining room for her children's drawing pleasure.

Maybe it was hopeful, maybe genetic. Her mother's father had been a potter.

Williamson went to Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond intent on studying art, receiving her degree in 1973. A master of fine arts degree at Southern Illinois University, extensive travel abroad and a couple of impressive fellowships followed.

She lived and worked, with fiber art, for several years in the salt marshes of the Indian River in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., when she was invited to participate in the prestigious Smithsonian Craft Fair. (It's been written that it's easier to get into Harvard than into this show.)

There, she met a Washington lawyer who also happened to be a collector of American handmade furniture. She moved to Washington to be with him in 1989. He turned out to be a close friend and adviser to Warren Christopher, the man who would become in a few years Bill Clinton's first secretary of state.

It was during those early years, she says laughing, that she was invited to "have tea with the wife of the governor of Arkansas. He might run for president. I passed on that. Those gatherings made me nervous."

Which explains how the Washington elite got turned on to Williamson's work and made her someone whose work you needed to own. They are some of the same folks who still support her two Bush administrations later.

A lot has happened in the interim and not just in the nation's capital.

Williamson became moderately well-known in art circles. She and her lawyer parted. He went to California, and she, with her art and very few other real possessions she cared about, eventually came home to Tomahawk. To the gargantuan blueberry bush in the back yard, to the slanting light in the dining room that was her first studio and to the family's one-eyed, three-legged cat.

A daily practice

Williamson works every day at her art. It is her only job. Even if she is not painting, she is cleaning up, doing inventory, looking at sketches, working through ideas. She has worked in many media, even mono-printing on fabric by painting on plastic resin to create quilts of extraordinary depth.

Some of her works have a Matisse-like quality, some play with a containment of chaos. Each is layered, gaining texture from the color and media selection. In Mover, a man is balancing a house on his back. He is surrounded by a border of tiny houses.

"Did you notice that the watercolors used on the houses were the color of blood and flesh?" she asks.

A friend asked if this was a statement on the mortgage crisis.

It wasn't.

But it could be, she says, smiling.

Or take August Decoy, a piece so clearly composed with Tomahawk's summer bouquet of lush weeds in mind. It is richer still because it is watercolored on handmade paper.

All the better to feel the earth from whence the idea and the paper and the bouquet began.

You can go home again

It was time, after her parents' death, for their children to sell the family home. Williamson couldn't do it.

She reaches out and touches one of the white columns that holds up the wide front porch of the family home.

"I wasn't ready to let go of this," she says.

She sleeps upstairs in her childhood bedroom though there is nothing there that is reminiscent of childhood. Her artwork consumes the place. Over her bed is a hand-painted quilt. Across from her bed, a hand-painted quilt. The whole house is Williamson's now. Her sister's old room is her studio. This is where the sketches of her paintings coexist with works in progress, where piles of thoughts imagined in pencil can be accessed and rethought anew.

Throughout the house there is minimal furniture. The much beloved, well-lit dining room is where she frames her works now; on shelves near the stairs, her clay figures.

It was during blasting to remove the top of a nearby mountain that Williamson had to call in an influential cousin to ask for the cacophony to stop. Zen #10 had fallen off the shelf and "that had to be a sign of something bad," she said.

She points to a particular leaden-ashen painting and says she sees the influence of the colors of coal in it. It is why she wanted the lady-slipper flowers in the painting to be "blood red."

"That will make it," she says, emphatic now. "Some things I don't get when I'm working on them. I'm slow. I get it when I'm done."

Like living in the house, in her old bedroom. A girlfriend from Washington, upon hearing that piece of information, said, "Ah, it's apparent, unfinished business."

"I said, 'It's not apparent to me,' because it's not — but it's something I have to think about," Williamson says.

And so the painter moves with grace between an old life and a new life, all in the same place, looking at the interstitial tissue, looking at space between the solids, she says, to see what shapes are there.

That is where the interesting stuff is for Williamson. Where the art came from, where it comes from, where it continues to flow.

Even if she can still vaguely hear her mother telling her she really ought to mop the kitchen more.