“You could just put your imagination into practice.”
– Vera Baker Williams
Vera Williams (1927- 2015) was one of few to formally graduate from Black Mountain College, with a graphic design project creating signage for the college. Author, illustrator, activist and educator, her life was endlessly creative.
From the 1970s she produced children’s books, often centred on working-class families, informed in part by her own. A Chair for my Mother, the story of a girl watching her mother work to save money for a new chair after they lose their home in a fire, is dedicated to the memory of her mother.
Williams came to Black Mountain in 1945 from the High School of Music and Art in Harlem. Inspired by a childhood love of Heidi, she eagerly participated in milking the cows and churning the butter on the farm. Frustrated that milk was often wasted, she even made “milk paint”, which was used to whitewash the dining hall. She took as many classes as possible: drawing, painting, design and colour with Josef Albers, weaving with Anni Albers, and a course on the Bible taught by musicologist Edward Lowinsky. From the colour classes to its education philosophy, the college informed her lifelong drive to “participate in change”.
In 1954, with her husband Paul – whom she married at the college – and other Black Mountain friends, Williams set up Gate Hill Cooperative, an artists’ community, where she taught until 1970. On 116 acres, they built a community of homes and artist studios, and a “very disorderly elementary school”. She later worked as a teacher and cook at Everdale, a Steiner school in Ontario from 1970-73.
In 1980, Williams marched in Washington DC with Women’s Pentagon Action, carrying huge female puppets to highlight women who had “lost their lives in struggles with motherhood and rape, and to grieve and resist the money and attention poured into war”. She was arrested for weaving ribbons across the Pentagon steps. “The police cut the ribbons and we threw more ribbons up,” she recalled. She served one month in federal prison in West Virginia: “a new educational experience”.
Follow our #WomenOfBMC series to discover some of Black Mountain’s pioneering women.
Banner image: Vera Baker, 1944. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.