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 Vera Baker Williams (1927-2015)

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Vera Baker Williams was born January 28, 1927, in Hollywood, California, to parents, Albert Baker and Rebecca Porringer,  who immigrated from Russia and Poland. During the Depression, while the family was homeless, Vera was sent with sister, Naomi, to a Jewish home for nearly a year. Later, her parents moved the family to the Bronx, in New York City, where Vera began to find a love of the arts. 

She had one of her paintings, “Yentas,” shown at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) when she was only nine years old. This was arranged through a program developed by the Works Progress Administration. It was at the MOMA where she spoke to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt about her paintings. Williams had a tradition of painting on Saturdays with Florence Cane, an art director at a place in her neighborhood called the Bronx House. Her paintings, attributed to an artist named “Linda” would later appear in a book called The Growth of the Child Through Art.

After high school, she moved to Black Mountain, North Carolina to attend Black Mountain College and study art under the direction of Josef Albers. Albers created many murals, most notably the entrance to the Time &Life Building and the Corning Glass Building in NYC.  Throughout her life, Ms. Williams always enjoyed the outdoors – including hiking, camping, planting corn, and later in life, canoeing. She even canoed 500 miles on the Yukon. Her love of the outdoors was plainly seen as she and her husband Paul Williams helped create a commune that operated from 1953 to 1970. The commune, Gate Hill Cooperative in Stony Point, New York, can be seen here on Google Maps.  Her children grew up there and the family communed with other notable artists who lived at the facility. Some of these artist included: John Cage, Sari Dienes, Karen Karnes, David Weinrib, David Tudor and M.C. Richards.

While at the Coop, Williams became involved with a community school, the Collaberg School, created by former members of Black Mountain College. Williams’ mother had attended a school inspired by Francisco Ferrer, a radical anarchist who established the Escuela Moderna in Barcelona, Spain. The school at the Cooperative was founded by Bob Barker, but since artists all pitched in, the children learned from the masters of each subject. Vera taught art and social studies while her husband Paul educated the children in shop class, including the Williams’ own children Jennifer, Sarah and Merce. The school provided a learning experience based upon the English Summerhill School, a place where children decided what they wanted to learn, when they wanted to go to class, and how much control they wanted over their learning.

The last years of the Collaberg School where Vera had become one of the key leaders in the institution, were mired in conflict. She is quoted in Where Have All The Flowers Gone by Alice Gerard as saying, “We believed far too much in experience per se as the ultimate good, a transcendent educational force. We argued that kids could handle anything that this appetite for experience brought their way as long as we could be honest and discuss it all. But of course we were unable to be so honest.”

After the Cooperative disbanded, and a subsequent divorce from Paul Williams in the summer of 1970, Ms. Williams moved to Everdale to teach at a Summerhill school in the Ontario countryside just outside of Toronto, Canada. She cooked and taught here until 1973, when she made her way to Vancouver, British Columbia to live on a houseboat.

It was during this trip to Canada’s western coast that she illustrated her first book, Hooray for Me! (1975). Three years later she authored her first book, It’s a Gingerbread House: Bake It, Build It, Eat It!, published in 1978. She would use many of her life experiences to create books like Stringbean’s Trip to the Shining Sea, written with daughter Jennifer Williams, and her most famous book, A Chair For My Mother, which was awarded a prestigious Caldecott Honor.

Ms. Williams also had a passion for children’s charities & keeping children safe from nuclear disasters – her activities on this front include participating in a peaceful women’s protest in 1981 in front of the Pentagon. Her participation in this landed her a month’s stay in Alderson Federal Penitentiary in West Virginia. She believed passionately in the rights of women and children and preached for non-violence. In 1984, Ms. Williams took on the role of executive committee member of the War Resisters League from 1984 to 1987.

Williams’ daughter, Jennifer, raised her children in the Glen Spey, NY area and this is the catalyst that originally drew Ms. Williams to pursue a life in Sullivan County. As she always enjoyed the county life she decided to rent a home hear her daughter and grandchildren. In subsequent years, she rented a from a cabin in Highland Lake, a home near Callicoon, and a large boarding house close to Narrowsburg. Williams made many friends in the area and eventually purchased a home in Narrowsburg where she could be near the shallows of the river. She was always drawn to the water; swimming, wading, and sitting on the rocks for hours. She loved picking blueberries and foraging for mushrooms in the woods near her home as well.

In 2011 The Ethelbert B. Crawford Library hosted a benefit chair auction as part of the 75th anniversary of the library. Williams was kind enough to paint a chair to be sold for the event. Below are pictures of the chair she completed for the auction.

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The chair is presently displayed in the Minisink Middle School library in Orange County, New York where the children can continue to enjoy the artwork of Williams.

Her final work, Home at Last, was completed at her home in Narrowsburg just before she passed away at the age of 88.

Ethelbert B. Crawford Library honored Williams with the unveiling of “Vera’s Story Garden” and a community Story Walk with her book A Chair for My Mother in December 2016.

The Library is honoring Williams by becoming a Literary Landmark - becoming one of a very select few sites to bear that honor.


Literary Works & Awards:

As Author

·        It's a Gingerbread House (1978)

·        The Great Watermelon Birthday (1980)

·        Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe (1981)

·        A Chair for My Mother (1982)

·        Something Special for Me (1983)

·        Music, Music for Everyone (1984)

·        “My Mother, Leah and George Sand" (1986) An Essay in The Tribe of Dina

·        Cherries and Cherry Pits (1986)

·        Stringbean's Trip to the Shining Sea with Jennifer Williams (1988)

·        "More More More" Said the Baby (1990)

·        Scooter (1993)

·        Lucky Song (1997)

·        Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart (2001)

·        A Chair for Always (2009)

·        Home at Last with Chris Raschka (2016)

As Illustrator

·        Hooray For Me!, Remy Charlip (1975)

·        Long Walks and Intimate TalksGrace Paley (1991)

·        Home: A Collaboration of Thirty Authors & Illustrators (1996)

Awards

·        1983: Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, Picture Book category, A Chair for My Mother

·        1983: Caldecott Medal Honor BookA Chair for My Mother

·        1985: Jane Addams Children's Book Award Honor Book, Music, Music for Everyone

·        1991: Caldecott Honor"More More More" Said the Baby

·        1994: Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, Fiction category, Scooter

·        1995: Library of Congress exhibition, "Family, Friends, and Community: The Art of Vera B. Williams"

·        1998: Charlotte Zolotow AwardLucky Song

·        2002: Jane Addams HonorAmber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart

·        2008: Regina Medal of the Catholic Library Association; body of work

·        2009: NSK Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature

Other sites about Vera Williams:

Asheville Art Museum

Interview with Vera - Black Mountain Studies Journal


Vera’s Story Garden & Story Walk at Ethelbert B. Crawford Public Library