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The Whimsical Art of Philemona Williamson

PHILEMONA WILLIAMSON has recently earned the title ``up and coming artist,'' that nebulous slot located somewhere between commanding five-figure prices and living in a grimy garret. The New York artist has been receiving considerable attention in New York and Los Angeles for group and solo exhibitions of her whimsical paintings capturing the magic - and the topsy-turvy pain - of growing up. Part autobiography, part child's diary, part zany hallucination, Williamson's paintings are an ``Alice Through the Looking Glass'' adventure where the protagonist is awkwardly wedged between childhood and womanhood. Using cartoony folk-art figures that are more robust and tensile than those of noted black artist Robert Colescott, her canvases depict a young black girl teetering on one high heel amidst curious toy puppets, or eyeing the antics of grown-ups, who often hide behind bizarre masks.

The works are painted in strident swaths of poppy yellows, kelly greens, and lilacs partnered to optimize color's impact. Williamson tilts scenes and sets action in tight spaces so that works have the vertiginous magic of a Caribbean carnival.

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``My `Alice Through the Looking Glass' is clutching the familiar symbols of childhood, trying to hold those feelings near for as long as she can.... She's trying to find her way into the adult world. It's a place that seems alien, but which she must enter,'' explains Williamson in an interview.

There's a willful tenacity to the brightly colored works which the artist acknowledges: ``Isn't that what growing up means for everyone? We all hurt, but we all manage to survive?'' In fact, she did not grow up like everyone. In many ways she grew up the way children should, in what she calls a ``colorless'' environment where people nurtured people.

Williamson's parents worked for an wealthy Greek family in New York's prestigious Sutton Place. ``I didn't know about racial stereotypes, about blackness or whiteness. We lived with them, dined with them, we were part of the family.

``All the way through my adolescence I perceived that my mother and father ran and basically held together this huge, busy household. If anything, it was a houseful of intense, exotic women where the everyday took on the intrique of high drama. I think that feeling has fueled my art.''

Things changed drastically when the Williamsons moved and the teenager was hurled into dealing with another world: ``I went from the best schools and finest neighborhoods to the inner city. Suddenly I was forced to reckon with my childhood, my heritage, who I was, what my values were, and where I belonged. It was a difficult time and art was my safe harbor.''

An edge of anxiety animates Williamson's folkish yet sophisticated imagery, where figures have believable volume but act out their dramas in flat, strange environments built from shadows. ``I like that tension. If I make time and place seem fantastic, that lets the universality of my feelings and experiences come through. What I depict are things that we all go through, regardless of the particulars of our lives.''

In high school Williamson was offered a scholarship to a girls' prep school, but she decided instead to study at an inner-city school for music and art. From there it was on to Bennington College in Vermont where she was interested in figurative art. This was at the height of American abstract painting.

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``I was busy exploring my newly forming identity through images of black Madonnas, and the college art department was busy insisting that everyone master the new color abstraction. By the end of college I was not only struggling to find my personal identity, I was also trying to locate my own artistic voice.

``After college I came to New York. I was working for a publishing company illustrating book jackets by day, painting every night in my tiny flat, still groping for a vehicle that suited my symbolic and artistic needs. Right around that time I began to dig deep into the pain and peculiarity of my own childhood and this work poured out.

``The work has a definite autobiographical component, but I do not make `black art.' If my work bridges racial gaps it is because I am sharing a part of myself and I happen to be black.''

Williamson just landed a college teaching post and a coveted Krasner/Pollock Foundation grant that will allow her lots of time to paint, but over the years she's supported herself with jobs as an art educator. Staunchly committed to the idea that art really does have the capacity to enrich lives, she's taught art appreciation at veterans hospitals, museums, and in Harlem schools to teachers, parents, and students.

``When a child runs in displaying a precious scribble and an adult says, `But what is it?,' a little magic dies,'' she says. ``There aren't rules for making or looking at art. It should just be fun and honest, and always magical.''

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