Common Ground

Common Ground

Roberta And David Williamson Portrait

Roberta and David Williamson’s home is an exquisite composition – like their work. Photo: Melissa Farlow

Roberta and David Williamson met when they were just teenagers and have spent nearly 50 years together as collaborators with a shared vision of the world. As artists, they create jewelry and sculpture together, combining found and fabricated curios in charming, evocative assemblages. They apply this same vision to their home.

Over the past 33 years, the couple has made a modest ranchstyle house in northeast Ohio uniquely their own – slowly and methodically transforming the interior and gardens into equal parts sanctuary and laboratory for exploring the careful compositions that characterize their art. Their home’s densely layered vignettes, ever shifting in arrangement, are drawn from their own work and from their collections of art and ephemera.

To view this extraordinarily personal space as one of the shadow boxes the two artists frequently employ – accomplished on an immersive scale – is natural. The partners see no separation between how they live and how they work; it is all one honest expression. “The work is who we are and how we live,” says David. “We couldn’t tolerate making something that didn’t represent us.”

You have created such a distinctive living space, which plays a central role in your creative work. How do you view your home?
David: One of the things we like to think of with our home is that it’s almost like a living entity. It changes. It’s where we create compositions and live with them and alter them and move things around – current work, past work – within that vignette vision that we do.

We don’t put things [in one spot] and expect them to stay there for years; we know things are always in transition. And we find a lot of inspiration for the work through what we see materializing in our home. There might be a color, for example, that serves as an accent, and then trickles down into the pieces we design.

Roberta: Our home is such a special environment because it is really the place where we think about everything. David and I talk to each other constantly – and in talking in our environment about the things we’re viewing, we come to revelations all the time. We are constantly learning not only about how we see things, but also how we arrange things. It’s all sort of a picture of who we are.

How has your home changed over time?
Roberta: Over the years, our home has changed tremendously. Everything is redone from the way it was. We’ve ripped out paneling… put up molding… even just the basics, like the decorative fireplace, used to be midcentury modern.

David: Yeah, it would have been something that would be very popular today.

Roberta: But we love that process of changing it more to what our vision is. Even early on, when we were looking for a home, we knew it had to be a place where we could make it a special environment and transform it.

Why is that transformation so important to you?
Roberta: We like to use the saying, “Beauty surrounds you.” With beauty there’s a sense of peacefulness. It enables us to feel at home. And it is in that peacefulness that we observe nature, relationships, composition, form, and connections. It allows us to be creative and have open hearts.

David: We would not say that this is what beauty is to everyone, but it is our personal expression of what beauty is to us.

The vignettes in your home are composed of your own creations, but also of objects you’ve collected over decades. Early on you developed an affinity for tramp art, expanding to African masks, Japanese prints, and more. How do you find a sense of cohesion?
David: As we evolved through these different genres of art, it has been a very gradual process. The roots of the collection might be there, but it’s just one piece here, one piece there, that you’re able to find. And then all of a sudden, we’ll notice, for example, that all of the little white sculptures that we have accumulated over the years suddenly have a real presence in our home.

People often say, “Where do you find this stuff?” You just have to have that awareness – that if you’re out somewhere, and you connect with an object, to be able to bring it home. But it is a long process.

Are there common denominators in what you’re attracted to?
Roberta: One is that we have always focused on the portrait. Even in the tramp art, [what we were drawn to] was often a carved figure or a portrait. We have always focused on the face.

David: To me, it’s really transporting when you look at a portrait – you look at the eyes. When we are looking for material for our work, we really focus on the gaze of the eyes and what they might be thinking about at that moment.

You also seem to work within a very selective palette.
Roberta: We feel that helps us to focus and maybe glorify the things we look at with the composition.

It didn’t always used to be that way. There were periods when everything was really brightly colored; as we get older, there is more and more trying to simplify that color palette. Now anything that is too bright we have a difficult time with, unless it kind of fits into the vision of what works for us.

Speaking of your vision: You own the work of many other artists, including Nancy Crow, Mara Superior, Jack Earl, and Brian Murphy and Randall Darwall. How do you approach having other voices in your space?
Roberta: We love other artists’ work. There’s an energy we get from it. But sometimes we have to put it in areas that are not part of the work we are doing in our home, if that makes sense. We have a Nancy Crow quilt; it is incredibly vibrant and beautiful, from her Bittersweet series. We adore it, and yet it is not part of the personal work that we are doing. 

David: It moves around the house frequently to different locations, because it is powerful, and we like to see how things – just like the small vignettes – look in different areas. And sometimes, we really just have to rotate things – put it away for a while and bring it out later.

What is it like when you invite someone into your home for the first time?
David: We don’t have many people come through, but a typical response – and tell me if I’m wrong about this, Roberta – is people will come in, and we’ll think our home is beautiful and interesting, but they won’t say anything. They’ll walk through and look at things and be very quiet, and then we start getting self-conscious. Do they think it’s nuts? Or too cluttered? And then we find out later that they were just overwhelmed by the visual stimulation. That they want to come back and just pore over things, because at first they were just overwhelmed.

To us it’s not overwhelming at all; it’s just how we live and how we think. There is no real separation between how we live and who we are and what we do. It’s all one big thing that works together, that makes us whole.

Perry A. Price is the American Craft Council’s director of education. Senior editor Julie K. Hanus contributed to this story.