Dragonflies, luna moths, the phoenix, purple orchids, mermaids, centaurs, and other mystical creatures populate the artwork of Idaherma Williams. The Franklin Township resident’s prints and paintings take us where no plane will go, but they do take us where trains go.
Williams takes the train into New York to visit museums — she is past president of the American Color Print Society and on the board of the American Society of Graphic Artists — and brings along a sketchbook to make impressions of the passengers she sees. Back in the studio, she turns these into colorful woodblock prints. “I’m trying to understand the patterns and reactions that occur when we travel,” Williams says of the train series.
“Idaherma: Joy in Watercolor and Woodblock Prints” is a comprehensive exhibit of her work at the Museum of the American Hungarian Foundation in New Brunswick on view through Saturday, September 10. Although not billed as a retrospective, it includes a significant sampling of her oeuvre.
In her Page 1 Series, we see people reading newspapers on the train. “Overturned” is the headline about President Clinton’s impreachment. “Men Walk On the Moon and Plant Flag” takes us on a trip down memory lane. “Princess Di Dies” and “Frank (Sinatra) Dies” butt heads in a tabloid being read by a man and a woman on the train.
Not only is there history in this series, but humor. A man reading the newspaper with the headline “The Corpseflower” is wearing a gas mask, because the corpse lily, a rare and endangered species in the rain forests of Sumatra and Borneo in the Malay Archipelago, gives forth a bloom with an odor reminiscent of a stinking corpse. The blossom, with five fleshy red lobes, attracts carrion beetles and flies that shuttle the pollen from male to female flowers. Conductors and fellow passengers look on.
Besides the stories these images tell, they are fun to look at because of the colors and patterns they incorporate.
Although Williams has been creating these works since childhood, she credits a one-day workshop with Japanese woodcut artist Ansei Uchima for her “aha” moment. Uchima taught moku hanga, a Japanese printing technique using water based inks that began during the Edo period. But Williams, who earned her BFA in 1959 from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania in 1963, blended moku hanga with her own Western training to create her own woodblock prints.
She carves into the wood, often a piece as large as 24 by 36 inches, using Japanese tools, to etch out the image. Then, without a printing press, she inks the woodblock and lays over special Japanese handmade papers and applies pressure with a baren, a round disk wrapped with bamboo.
Sometimes she applies different colors separately. Each print is unique, with variations from the same block. “I never print an entire edition,” says Williams. “I have to move on. Sometimes I can’t reproduce it. It’s a miracle how it’s done.”
As she perfected this technique, sometimes using oil-based inks for their vivid colors, she began winning awards.
Williams also writes poems and essays, and in the current exhibit these are on the walls next to her paintings and prints. Near her flower series, for example:
In the heart of a flower
One sees the beauty of life.
The greatest gift to mankind
is the flower of life.
A flower is so gorgeous, she says, one can’t capture it in a realistic way, but by incorporating color and pattern, she creates her own kind of beauty.
In another section of the gallery is her window series. Here in New Jersey, an artist is cooped up indoors for more than half the year, but Williams finds beauty looking out the window. There may be plants on the windowsill or curtains in which she develops translucency and pattern. Sometimes the windows are windows from Fleischer Art Memorial in Philadelphia, where she taught for many years, and sometimes they reveal light or a gentle rain, or a candelabra, a bird and a child playing to signal the dawning of spring.
In “The Artist’s Studio” we see her collection: a sea horse, a Russian doll, a lion, a fish, a little Buddha — these come to life. In a vase, we see people in a Japanese village. The more you look, the more you see. “That’s what art is about,” says Williams. “The viewer has to do the work; it’s a two-way street.”
In the 1960s, Williams’ husband worked as a naturalist at the Churchville Nature Center in Bucks County, PA, and she wrote and illustrated a column for the nature center’s newsletter. “I had a studio upstairs at the nature center, and this woodblock was inspired by a dragonfly there,” she says of the dragonfly print that was exhibited at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA, last year, and has since become part of the museum’s permanent collection.
“I did so many sketches of the dragonfly,” she says. “They have gorgeous bodies with jewel tones. The nature center still uses it today on their stationery.”
One night, Williams had a dream about the Haida people of the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia and knew she had to travel there to learn more about their culture and cosmology. The Haida carve wooden totem poles. “These people were legendary wood carvers, and I am a woodblock artist, a carver of wood,” says Williams. “Though I am inspired by the Haida, I recognize my need to expand my vision and create my own unique woodblock prints.
“They were wonderful to me,” she continues. “They let me wear their costume, made of buttons and blankets.”
In addition to the prints in this series, Williams created her own version of a totem pole, a wooden piece painted on both sides that juts from the wall with a face painted around both sides.
Her artwork may have traveled more than she has — it’s been on exhibition in London, Barcelona, Bulgaria, and has won prizes in Japan.
Williams was born in the South Bronx and moved to Philadelphia with her family when she was eight. Her mother was a bookkeeper, and her father sold used restaurant equipment. “We didn’t have any money, but we were never poor in spirit,” she says. “We were lucky because we had art. My parents always encouraged my art.”
As soon as Williams was given crayons, she couldn’t stop creating art. On the blank pages of books she would draw imaginary people. She always loathed coloring books. “They stifle line,” she says.
Both her parents were born in this country, but their ancestry was Hungarian and Russian. “I always loved Hungarian folk art,” she says, although she saw this mostly in books — the family didn’t discuss the heritage. “I liked the costumes with flowers and embroidery.”
She took classes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s children’s program, until someone came to her home and saw her artwork on the refrigerator and recommended Fleischer Art Memorial. Years later, she had her first solo show there and would go on to teach there for many years.
Just as her parents once encouraged her, her husband and her son, now 40, have continued to encourage her.
In her Franklin Township home, Williams has three studios — one for woodblock, one for watercolor, and one for her digital work, on view on the second floor here. She also works outside for her plein air work. “The world is my studio,” she says. “Art is a wonderful journey. It brings you into another place.”
Art Exhibit, American Hungarian Foundation, 300 Somerset Street, New Brunswick. On view to Saturday, September 10. “Idaherma: Joy in Watercolor and Woodblock Prints,” an exhibit by Franklin Township artist Idaherma Williams of Eastern and Western traditions to explore the beauty of the color spectrum in her vividly patterned watercolors. The 80 works in the exhibition are inspired by mythology, nature, and everyday life. $5. 732-846-5777 or www.ahfoundation.org.