Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Mystery Lady and Family Heirlooms

 Unknown lady, painted by W. A. Williams, 1939, oil on masonite board;
unclaimed portrait from his studio

My great-grandfather, William Arthur Williams, was a man of many talents.  He was an artist in widely different media.   He painted the flesh (faces/hands/feet) on stained glass for the Von Gerichten Stained Glass Company in Columbus, Ohio.  He worked on ceramics for the Owens, Roseville, and Cambridge pottery companies in and near Zanesville, Ohio in the late 1890s and early 1900s.  For most of his life he painted in oils as a portrait artist (for a few years in Patterson, NJ and for many years in Columbus, Ohio).  For a long time he was also a pastor in Columbus.  He was an avid gardener with a passion for roses (he painted quite a few oils using his own flowers as models - my family jokes that I got the gardening gene from him).  In his later years he took up wood carving and made fancy canes, although unfortunately we do not have any of those.

My parents also have many of the works done by Arthur's lovely wife Lillie, my great-grandmother.  She too was an artist, who worked on ceramics (for the Roseville and Weller pottery companies, both before and after her marriage, as Lillie Mitchell), and in watercolors.  She also was skilled at tatting and crocheting, continuing to do so even as her sight failed due to diabetes in her later years.  Her two sisters, Minnie Mitchell and Hattie Mitchell, also worked for Roseville and Weller.  All three sisters are very well regarded as fine artists for both companies, and their work can be found in many books about the history of art pottery in the Ohio valley.

My parents have many of my mother's grandparents' works around their house.  Those paintings and the pottery have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.  Many of the pieces I saw in my grandmother's house before Mom inherited them.  (One large vase was in my great aunt's bedroom, and my sister and I put candy wrappers in it like a garbage can - Mom wasn't happy!  The larger oil paintings used to be stored under a bed upstairs, which my sister and I collapsed once by jumping on it - my parents had a fit!  No damage done to the art, but boy, now I shudder to think about it.)   I can't imagine Mom and Dad's house without this wonderful, personal "art gallery."  Many of the portraits they have are of family, including Arthur and Lillie, my grandmother and great aunt, and my mother as a girl.
 A cottage garden watercolor painting 
by Lillie Mitchell Williams, ca. 1920

Over the years, my Mom has divided up some of her heirlooms and passed them on my sisters and I.  We each have an assortment of paintings, ceramics, and linens.  What a wonderful legacy to have!   Mom and Dad still have quite a number of paintings and ceramics at home.  Some have been exhibited in museums in Zanesville, Ohio, and in St. Louis, Missouri.

'The Lighthouse,' a watercolor painting 
by Lillie Mitchell Williams, ca. 1920

I love Lillie's crocheted works.  I can't imagine the patience it took to make these (and the last time I tried to learn to crochet, I proved it's possible to be born with 10 thumbs), yet I've seen other skilled knitters and fiber artists who make it look easy, and they do it remarkably quickly too.  My mother remembers her grandmother, restricted to a wheelchair and losing her vision due to her diabetes, working on crocheted items.  Now that my kids are older, and not likely to grab them off tabletops with sticky fingers, I'd like to use some of these decorative linens in my home.

The bottom vase has a portrait of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe, 
by W. A. Williams for Weller Pottery.  
The tall rose vase on the middle shelf is by Minnie Mitchell for Weller.
(Chief Joseph is the vase my sister and I used to put candy wrappers in.)
Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis.

Whether or not your own family has a heritage in the visual arts, I believe it's important to have beautiful things in your home.  Display what you enjoy, and talk to your kids about it - what you like about it, why it's important to you, and ask their opinions too.  Put up their art (my refrigerator always has some of my daughter's work on it; our son isn't into drawing any more, but I used to have his stuff up too).  If you don't live near a museum, take a virtual tour of one online.  Have fun with it, and I hope you appreciate the beauty that surrounds you every day.


  1. Oh. My. Goodness! Such beautiful work and what an artistic heritage? Did your grandparents ever have formal art education? Did any of their children make art? I'd say you got more than your gardening gene from them. Thank you for sharing this with us.
    (And, is your date correct that you wrote this post last week? How ironic is that?)

  2. We know my great grandfather had formal training, most likely in NYC, although we don't know for sure where or how long. We don't know if Lillie or her sisters had any formal training, but they were all quite good at painting. Minnie was actually the best of them, IMHO, but she died young, of TB in 1902. The pitcher in the left is Lillie's work; the fluted-rim vase on the right is Minnie's. I don't have one of Hattie's yet, although you can often find work by all three sisters on eBay, and very rarely work by Arthur. One of their daughters, my great Aunt Liz, was a concert violinist. Another daughter, my grandmother, didn't do any art that I know of. My mother has always had a bent for crafts and an eye for design, but she never did anything formal with it. My generation seems to have gotten the artistic gene in spades: I do the drawing/ceramics/acrylics thing, my next sister does watercolors (amazing), my next after her does calligraphy and cross stitch (and was museum registrar for the show a the MHS in St. Louis - that's how the Chief Joseph vase and the other vase wound up in that exhibit; she went on to work as registrar at the Zanesville Art Museum, where she saw work by all of our relatives on display or in the collections), and my youngest sister paints in oils and has Arthur's genius for portraiture. Now the next generation is coming on, with Juliana and all three of my sister Tracey's kids having definite artistic ability. It's been fun to see the gifts of one generation moving on and being used anew. Funny that I did that post last week - I laughed when I saw your Mix-Tape subject this week, and hopped right on it.

  3. Thanks for this information, you often wonder what happened to those great artists of yesteryear. What years did Lillie paint for Weller?