Robert Willson

Robert Willson

Robert Willson (1912–2000) was a sculptor, “half Texan and half Choctaw Indian,” as he liked to describe himself. A maverick in art and in life, he worked outside the mainstream. His work explores themes inspired by ancient mythologies, pre-Columbian and other native American art, and the American West. A unique and visually arresting blend of European technique and Southwestern American style, his sculpture comfortably inhabits the shifting space between Old World and New, between modern times and ancient.

Willson is considered an important figure in the American Studio Glass movement, even though he was never directly connected with it. He was one of the few Americans working in hot glass, outside industry, in the 1950s, and he was one of the first American artists to work on Murano, the historic glassblowing island of Venice.

Western Fences by Robert Wilson

Willson earned his B.F.A. degree from the University of Texas in Austin, and he did his postgraduate work in art at the University of Mexico in San Miguel Allende. In Mexico, he was exposed to the revolutionary painters José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Rufino Tamayo, as well as to pre-Columbian art. From 1952 to 1977, Willson taught at the University of Miami. He became interested in glass as a material for sculpture, and he applied for a scholarship to study glass at The Corning Museum of Glass in 1956. His first trip to Murano was partly funded by this scholarship.

After his initial trip in 1956, Willson returned to Murano almost every year. His work in glass was relatively little known in the United States, although early studio artists tended to seek him out. On Murano, he worked with such famous glassblowers as Alfredo Barbini (b. 1912). Barbini had to invent ways in which Willson’s vision of solid glass sculpture could be realized. They worked closely together on developing and refining the complex technique of “building” hot glass sculpture at the furnace, which is called a massiccio sculpting, or sculpting “in the mass.”  Theirs was a special collaboration based on a profound mutual respect and admiration for each other’s aesthetic and technical knowledge.

All of the quotes included in this chronology are taken from an unpublished memoir written by Robert Willson in 1981.

1912

Born on May 28 in Mertzon, Texas

To be born in West Texas was a lucky break... It made sure that I belonged to an elite family, called West Texans. Our land, of course, was the center of the earth, as they said in ancient Delphi.

1930-31

Attended Southern Methodist University, Dallas

1931-34

Attended University of Texas at Austin, graduated with a B.A.

In 1934, when I graduated from the University of Texas, I applied for an Farmer International Fellowship to Mexico. This fund sent a Texas student to Mexico each year and brought a Mexican student to the University. My proposal [was]...to visit every artist working in Mexico.

1935

Awarded a Farmer International Exchange Fellowship from the University of Texas to spend a year in Mexico

Studied at the San Carlos Academy of Art in Mexico City

A year in Mexico at this age was a luxury for any artist. There was no way to express to the University of Texas my appreciation and full enjoyment of that time. The real value was how much I was able to understand and take away for my use as an artist.

The year evoked my love of archeology by feeding it with actual ruins, artifacts, and remains of the pre-Conquest peoples of America, reinforced by meeting so many of the direct descendants of those ancient Americans. It was important guidance for me. During the summer I taught foreign students at the university. This course was the first ever given on the history of modern Mexican art. Some of the artists talked to my classes for me.

The first time I met Diego Rivera was while he was on his the scaffold, painting his important fresco, a history of Mexico, in the National Palace. Diego was bored and said, “Look you paint this last space. It’s all right, you can come on up here.” So I painted about a square foot of the mural on the stairway wall. Diego shrugged and did not destroy it. “It’s good enough,” he said. With him that day was his wife, Frida Kahlo, an artist herself.

1940

Became Director of Art Department at Texas Wesleyan College and Director of the Texas Wesleyan College Art Gallery in Fort Worth

1941

Received a M.F.A. with honors from the University of Fine Arts, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Married Virginia Lambert

1942-45

Served in the U.S. Marine Corps

1945

Returned to Texas Wesleyan in Fort Worth

Son Joe (Mark Joseph) Willson was born

1946

Took leave of absence from Texas Wesleyan for further study and teaching

1948

Left Texas Wesleyan College to become Director of the Nob Hill Art Gallery in Winslow, Arkansas.

Founded the Ozark Council of Artists and served as its first director

1952

Left the Nob Hill Art Gallery to become an art professor at the University of Miami in Coral Gables

1956

Received scholarship from The Coming Museum of Glass to study glass in museum collections.

Made first trip to Venice and to the island of Murano, Italy

My introduction to glass in depth came through a chance scholarship at the Corning Museum of Glass in 1956. At the museum...I began to search out examples of glass sculpture in history, and to wonder how glass could be related to me and to sculpture today...I spent a day with a great gentleman, Frederick Carder [the %%founding%% artistic director of Steuben Glass], who was 94 years old. For the first time I saw what it really meant to experiment with glass in an art sense, and how an artist could force glass to obey his ideas. Carder gave me a small sculpture...and then and there I caught the glass fever. Glass has not been the same since, nor have I.

The first visit of any art-oriented person to Venice must be a cultural shock...even to someone from a Texas ranch as I was in 1956...The workshops and all the glass was impossibly exciting. ...Molten glass is rich and utterly sensuous and ultimately magnificent. It cools to great color, to tight tensions, and to transparency that is mysterious. All this is the heart of my creative drive.

1957

Made first annual work trip to Venice to work with Venetian glass artists

The glass dream became a reality.

Awarded Merit Prize, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Annual Exhibition

1957-1960

Used U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare grant for a world trip to study glass as a material for sculpture. Traveled to England, Scandinavia, France, Germany, Greece, Spain, Egypt, and Venice.

1964

Robert Willson: Sculpture in Glass. First solo exhibition of glass sculpture at the Galleria d’Arte dell’ Opera Bevilacqua La Masa, Venice

My art...[sought]...color, transparency, tension and basic meaning, like a symbol. I discarded all other media except glass sculpture, watercolor, and reduction glazes on porcelain sculpture.

1966

New Glass Sculpture by Robert Willson. First solo exhibition in the U.S. at Harmon Gallery, Naples, Florida

1967-1999

Participated regularly in group exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad

1968

Robert Willson: Sculpture in Vetro. Solo exhibition at the Museo Correr, Venice

Honored with membership in the Istituto Veneto per il Lavoro, Venice

1969

Served as consultant-director at the Peoria Art Museum, in Peoria, Illinois

1970

Robert Willson: Glass Sculpture. Solo exhibition at the Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota

1970-1972

Robert Willson: Glass Sculpture traveled to Norton Gallery of Art, West Palm Beach; Corning Museum of Glass, New York; Vizcaya- Dade County Art Museum, Miami

1972

Exhibited two glass sculptures in the Italian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Venice

In 1972 I was invited to show in the Venice Biennale, perhaps the world’s top art exhibition. It was a thrill to be invited by the Italians. A Texas ranch man all the way to the canals of Venice!

1973

Organized International Glass Sculpture for the Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami

1977

Retired from teaching at the University of Miami to devote more time to his own art.  Divorced Virginia Willson

1978

Returned to San Antonio

These were my best creative years.

1979

Established Tejas Art Press in San Antonio to publish Texan and Native American poetry and visual art.

Robert Willson: Sculpture in Glass. Solo exhibition at the University Art Museum, University of Texas, Austin

Made the first of three annual work trips to glass studios in West Virginia

West Virginia...was nothing like Venice. Negative. The reward was Bob and Vonnie Hamon, Roberto Moretti, and Bill Blenko.

1980

Honored as Academician with Gold Medal, Italian Academy of Arts and Labor, Salsomaggiore Terme, Italy

1981

Married Margaret Bosshardt Pace

In 1981, I began a new life of great promise.  

Robert Willson: Glass Sculpture. Solo exhibition at the Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, San Antonio

1984

Sculpture in Vetro: Robert Willson. Solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Ca ‘Pesaro, Venice

1988

The Glass Sculpture of Robert Willson. Solo exhibition at the San Antonio Museum of Art

1989

The Glass Sculpture of Robert Willson traveled to the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts, Texas

1990

Sculpture in Glass: Works by Robert Willson. Solo exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art

1991

Robert Willson: Works in Glass. Solo exhibition at the Martin Museum of Art, Baylor University, Waco, Texas

1993

Robert Willson: Works in Glass traveled to the New Mexico Museum of Modern Art, Santa Fe

1996

Transparencies: Glass Sculpture by Robert Willson. Solo exhibition at the Ellen Noel Art Museum of the Permian Basin, Odessa

Participated in the Venezia Aperto Vetro, Venice

1999

%%Trail%% of the Maverick: Watercolors and Drawings by Robert Willson, 1975–1998. Solo exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art

1999–2000

%%Trail%% of the Maverick: Watercolors and Drawings by Robert Willson, 1975–1998 traveled to the Masur Art Museum, Monroe, Louisiana and Centenary College, Shreveport

2000

Died at home in San Antonio on June 1

2001

Robert Willson: From the Permanent Collection. Solo exhibition at the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts

2002

Robert Willson: Image Maker. Solo exhibition at the Southwest School of Art and Craft, San Antonio

2003

Robert Willson: A Texan in Venice. Solo exhibition at The Corning Museum of Glass, New York

 

Published on October 19, 2011