Biographical Sketch of Robert Willson
by Tina Oldknow, Curator, "A Texan in Venice", Corning Museum of Glass, 2003.
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. A small part Native American (Choctaw) on his mother’s side, Willson identified with this ethnic group through his close boyhood friend, Bud Dukes, who was an Oklahoma Choctaw. Throughout his adult life, Willson described himself as “half Choctaw and half Texan.”
Willson attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the University of Texas at Austin from 1930 to 1934, majoring in English and earning a B.A. from the University of Texas. 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 he used the funds to study art at the San Carlos Academy of Art in Mexico City. During this year in Mexico, he met many artists, including Jose Clemente Orozco, with whom he studied, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Mardonio Margana, Francisco Goitia, Roberto Montenegro, Maria Izquierdo, and Carlos Merida. He taught an art history course at the University of Mexico, the first on modern Mexican art. He also traveled widely, visiting ancient Olmec, Maya, and Aztec archaeological sites and small rural villages. He recorded his travels in his sketches.
Beginning in 1936, Willson worked as a public school teacher in Texas, until 1940, when he was hired as director of the Art Department at Texas Wesleyan College in Fort Worth. In 1941, Willson returned to Mexico for further study, working with Rufino Tamayo and meeting master potter Harding Black. He received a M.F.A. from the University of Fine Arts in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. On August 12, after his return, he married Virginia Lambert, a potter.
During World War II, Willson took a leave of absence from his teaching duties to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps. He attended the U.S. Marine School in Quantico, Virginia and the U.S. 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, he and his wife had a son, Mark Joseph, whom they called Joe.
In 1946, Willson took a year's leave from Texas Wesleyan for further research, which was funded by the G.I. 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, became 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 in Coral Gables, where he taught ceramics, enameling, and drawing. He remained at the University of Miami until his retirement in 1977.
Willson began to work with glass in 1956, when he received a scholarship from the Coming Museum of Glass. With this support, he studied history and techniques of glass at the Corning Museum of Glass and New York City museums. Afterward, he made his first trip to Venice and Murano. Later, he received a Health, Education and Welfare grant, which he used to visit museums and glass factories in Scandinavia, Germany, France, Spain, Greece, Egypt, and Italy.
In 1957, Willson returned to Murano to work with the glass masters there, beginning what would become a series of annual work visits. During these work visits, Willson and a team of Italian glassworkers produced the pieces that Willson had designed since his last visit. Because of the skill and equipment necessary to make Willson’s 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, working on several simultaneously. Over the years, he worked with a number of master glassworkers who are themselves famous, including Alfredo Barbini, Pino Signoretto, Luigi Toso and Mario d’Alpoas, Loredano Rosin, Aldo Bon, Ermanno Toso, Licio Zuffi, and Elio Raffaelli as well as Egidio Costantini, founder of the Fucina degli Angeli.
Willson made his first solo exhibition of glass sculpture in 1964, at the Galleria d’Arte dell’ Opera Bevilacqua La Masa in Venice. His first solo U.S. exhibition was two years later, at the Harmon Gallery in Naples, Florida. In 1968, he had his first solo museum exhibition at the Museo Correr in Venice. In 1969, while still a faculty member at the University of Miami, Willson 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 Texan and Native American poetry and art.
From 1979 to 1981, Willson made annual work trips to glass studios in West Virginia, where he produced some of his smaller pieces, while continuing his trips to Venice. On May 30,1981, he married Margaret Bosshardt Pace, an accomplished watercolorist and arts activist from San Antonio. The two had joint exhibitions on occasion, and also supported a variety of museums through their philanthropic efforts.
Willson, accompanied by his wife, Margaret, continued his annual work trips to Murano through the 1980s and 1990s, until at least 1997, which earned him the nickname Sempreverde (“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 artwork by others to various museums. By the time of his death, more than 30 galleries, museums and other institutions, as well as over two hundred private collectors, had acquired his works. Willson died at his home in San Antonio on June 1, 2000, of congestive heart failure.