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 Robert William Willson  (1912 - 2000)

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Lived/Active: Texas      Known for: glass sculpture, watercolorist

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Biography from The Corning Museum of Glass:
Glass sculptor and watercolor artist Robert William Willson was born May 28, 1912 in Mertzon, Texas. The son of Birdie Alice and James Thomas Willson, the latter a Methodist minister, Willson grew up in Texas and Oklahoma, moving often as his father was transferred from one congregation to the next.

He attended the University of Texas at Austin from 1930 to 1934, majoring in English and graduating with a BA with honors. The University lacked an arts program, so he worked independently during these years, concentrating on painting and drawing. In 1935, he received a Farmer International Fellowship from the University of Texas, and used the funds to study art at the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes in San Miguel, Mexico. There, he studied and researched with José Clemente Orozco and Rufino Tamayo, painted with Diego Rivera, and met David Alfaro Siquieros, and taught an art history course at the University of Mexico. He also traveled widely, and recorded his travels in his sketches.

Beginning in 1936, Willson worked as a public school teacher in Texas, until in 1940 he was hired as the director of the Art Department at Texas Wesleyan College in Fort Worth. In 1941, Willson returned to Mexico for further research, again working with José Clemente Orozco and meeting master potter Harding Black, and receiving a Masters of Fine Arts with honors from the Universitaria de Bellas Artes. On August 12, he married Virginia Lambert, a potter.

During World War II, Willson took a leave of absence from his teaching duties to serve in the US Marine Corps. He attended the US Marine School in Quantico, Virginia and the US Navy School in Washington DC. After this training, he was stationed in the South Pacific working in intelligence. In 1945, Willson was discharged, having attained the rank of captain. The same year, the couple had a son, whom they named Mark Joseph.

In 1946, Willson took a year’s leave from Texas Wesleyan for further study, funded by the GI Bill. He worked with Harding Black at the Witte Museum and taught drawing at Trinity University, both in San Antonio. Willson left Texas Wesleyan in 1948, then become the Director of the Nob Hill Art Gallery in Winslow, Arkansas and founded the Ozark Council of Artists, serving as its first director. In 1952, Willson became an art professor at the University of Miami, where he taught ceramics, enameling and drawing. He remained at the University of Miami until his retirement in 1977.

Willson began his work in glass in 1956, when he received a national study grant from the Corning Museum of Glass. With this support, he studied history and techniques of glass at the Corning Museum of Glass, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Freer Gallery and the Smithsonian, and visited glass factories in Scandinavia, Germany, France, Spain, Greece, Egypt, and Italy. While in Italy, he made his first visit to the island of Murano, touring studios and meeting the glass artists working there. He returned to Murano the following year to work with Venetian glass artists, beginning what would become a series of annual work visits.

During these work visits, Willson and his teams of glass artists produced the pieces that Willson had designed since his last visit. Because of the skill and equipment necessary to make the sculptures, Murano was the only place they could be created. On a typical work trip, which lasted about six weeks, Willson and his team were able to complete about 35 to 40 sculptures. Over the years, he worked with glass artists including Alfredo Barbini, Pino Signoretto, Luigi Toso and Mario d'Alpaos, Loredano Rosin, Aldo Bon, Ermanno Toso, and Licio Zuffi, as well as Egidio Costantini, founder of the Fucina degli Angeli. Willson received his first solo exhibition of glass sculpture in 1964, at the Galleria d’Arte dell’Opera Bevilaqua la Masa, in Venice.

In 1969, while still a faculty member at the University of Miami, he spent a year in Peoria, Illinois, as director of the Peoria Art Museum. In 1977, Willson retired from teaching to focus more fully on his own art. He divorced his wife Virginia in the same year, and in 1978 returned to San Antonio. In 1979, he established the Tejas Art Press, a small press devoted to American Indian poetry and art.

From 1979 to 1981, Willson made annual work trips to West Virginia glass studios, where he was able to produce some of his smaller pieces, while continuing his trips to Venice. On May 30, 1981, Willson married Margaret Bosshardt Pace, a watercolorist and arts activist from San Antonio, whose family had founded Pace Foods. The two received joint exhibitions on occasion, and also aided a variety of museums through their philanthropic efforts. In 1983, Willson established a studio for painting and porcelain sculpture in Texas near the Golf of Mexico.

Willson continued his annual work trips to Murano through the 1980s and 1990s, until at least 1997, earning him the appellation “Evergreen” from his Italian collaborators. During these years, his works—both watercolors and glass sculptures — were widely exhibited, particularly in Venice, as well as the southern and southwestern United States. Willson and his wife also became patrons of the arts during these decades, donating money, their own art, and work by others to various museums. By the time of his death in Texas on June 1, 2000, more than thirty galleries, museums and other institutions had acquired his works, as well as over two hundred private collectors.

Rebecca E. Hatcher, Archivist
Rakow Research Library


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