In 1955, Louis Burnham, editor of the influential civil rights magazine Freedom, charged that “in all the foul record of human oppression, few crimes have matched in unbridled savagery the kidnap and murder of Emmett Till.” Till, a Chicago teenager visiting relatives in LeFlore County, Miss., was brutally mutilated and shot for whistling at a white woman, yet his killers were acquitted by a local jury that deliberated barely an hour.
The Till lynching was just one in a string of racial incidents that swept the South during the 1950s as black voting rights and public school desegregation gained momentum, yet this case had particular impact on Wisconsin artist Mona Webb, who then was living in rural Texas with her four young children. “I had [two] boys,” she explained, “and I was afraid for their lives.”
Webb’s consequent move to Mexico profoundly changed her life, for there she first fully identified herself as an artist. A large alabaster carving, Untitled [Motherhood], begun a decade after she returned to the United States, recalls that pivotal experience and the deep emotional basis for much of her work. The piece incorporates several female figures whose energetic, intersecting forms evoke the physical pleasure, psychological commitment and spiritual power of maternity.
Born Nevelle Ruth Boyce on June 14, 1914, Webb grew up in a large, middle class Houston family of African, Portuguese, Scottish and Apache ancestry. Her father, the Rev. James Henry Boyce, was pastor of Pinecrest Presbyterian Church, and her mother, Margaret Thompson Boyce, was a respected pianist and music teacher. The young girl’s early interest in medical studies eventually led to her enrollment at Virginia’s Hampton Institute [now Hampton University], where she met and married Professor Marcus H. Boulware. The birth of their first child interrupted her education, but Boulware’s promising academic career took them to posts at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Tuskegee University in Alabama, Prairie View A&M in Texas and other historically black universities. Although Webb never completed her degree, she did work as a part-time biology instructor and served briefly as dean of women at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, N.C. Years later, she liked to say, “I never got the M.D., but as an artist I did fulfill my dream of becoming a brain surgeon!”
Webb’s decision to leave the United States in the late 1950s -- taking her children but not her husband -- substantially reduced her domestic obligations and allowed her to focus again on her own creative and intellectual development. In Mexico City, she was inspired immediately by a rich tradition of visual art that included pre-Columbian ceramics, folk carvings and textiles and the revolutionary murals of Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, which were displayed throughout the city. She also was influenced by an international group of free thinkers who met periodically at the University of Mexico, especially the Indian mystic, Krishnamurti, who counseled Webb on the spiritual and imaginative powers of meditation. She was also influenced by the British writer Aldous Huxley, who sparked her interest in heightened states of perception and alternative aesthetics. He once asked her, “If you have never seen beauty in your neighbor’s garbage can, you are blind, and how can a blind person be an artist?”
In the early 1960s, Webb resettled in Madison, Wis., and opened the Wayhouse of Light -- named to suggest a shelter for pilgrims -- at 1354 Williamson (“Willy”) Street. The three-story, 19th-century building, originally a German bathhouse, was more than a home and studio for Webb; it also served as a collaborative artists’ space and lively community cultural center for the next three decades.
The storefront facade of the Wayhouse was marked by two great ornamented doors and a sign that read “Think/ Love/ Meditate/ Creativity.” The building contained performance and exhibition galleries, several chapels, a solar porch with the Laid-Back Buddha Shrine and a master bedroom that Webb called her “personal museum.”
After visiting the Wayhouse of Light in 1985, critic Dean Jensen wrote: “The place may be only slightly less astonishing than [King Tut’s] tomb before the movers came in and carried out his sarcophagus and golden throne. Almost every square inch of ceiling and wall in Webb’s sanctum bears the imprint of her hand. On [one] wall is a mural of Rubenesque-proportioned female figures. Covering the entire ceiling in another room is her conception of the ocean with actual conch shells, starfish skeletons and sea-polished stones glued right into the painted water. There is [also] a floor-to-ceiling sculpture of Aphrodite four feet from her bed.”
Recently, longtime Wayhouse resident Aretha van Valkenberg said, “I wouldn’t say it was a commune. We were a family; that’s how we viewed it. Every year we had a Thanksgiving open house and dinner for the entire neighborhood. Mona also attracted a lot of artists, and when they had enough work she gave them a show. If she had an opening, it was packed -- the mayor, judges, you name it -- everybody would be in the gallery. Lots of poetry [was] read there, too, and [there were] lots of musicians.”
During her more than 30 years tending the Wayhouse, Webb produced a large and diverse body of artwork. Among the earliest examples are two glass memory jugs from the mid-1960s, each encrusted with unfired clay and a multitude of small objects. These jugs clearly announce Webb’s adoption of the salvage/transformative aesthetic proposed by Huxley and also combine customary commemorative use with a more intimate and modern autobiographical function.
Van Valkenberg remembers that all of these memory jugs were “decorated similarly with sentimental and family objects” and “each had a [specific] theme for her.” One of these early jugs features a cross on one side and a flower on the other, both surrounded by a dense field of glittering orbs, which refers to Webb’s lifelong effort to harmonize her Christian upbringing with her pagan and pantheistic reverence for nature. The other jug, inscribed “Girl Wanted” and heavily clad with buttons, buckles, costume jewelry and porcelain doll fragments, seems to reflect uneasily on her memories and experiences as a woman.
A later and more elaborate vessel, which Webb described as an “effigy” figure, admits a different inspiration. Created in the early 1980s and marked with a colorful, textured surface, a crown of miniature ivory skulls and a loose spray of peacock feathers, this piece bears striking resemblance to wrapped Congo-style bottle charms often found on Haitian Vodou altars.
Webb produced many paintings on canvas and wood panels -- including portraits of family and friends, descriptive and imaginary landscapes, and larger historical and mythological subjects -- that were arrayed (along with string murals and mixed media mosaics) on the walls of the Wayhouse.
By 1980, however, Webb’s interest in more sculptural (as well as abstract) modes of expression began to rival her two-dimensional work. The Web, a wall-mounted construction, is a symbolic portrait of her Hawaiian-reared second husband, Garrett Webb, that deftly combines linguistic, emblematic and aesthetic elements to represent their shared love of the sea and of Pacific culture in particular.
Several of Webb’s most ambitious constructions show a deep concern and sense of wonder about her own identity. Woman with Snakes measures more than five feet in height and consists of painted twigs, dyed feathers, beads, fiber, cast metal, plastic, paper and hundreds of small squares of mirror glass that conjoin to represent a single iconic black female figure. The figure’s grand scale and plumed headdress connote strength and nobility, while the blood-red snakes that surround her allude to the temptation of Adam by Eve. In the video “The Gods of Beauty,” produced by Webb’s friend, Niels Nielsen, in 1995, she exclaimed: “The women’s movement is one of the strongest in the world. . . . To get rid of the goddesses, Christianity destroyed [them] in the Bible. As a punishment to Eve for giving the fruit to nice, clean, little Adam, He made her menstruate. I was taught that God is love. If you are love, how can you hurt people as women have been hurt?”
Moreover, in this extraordinary kinetic sculpture, Webb’s Eve is “double” hurt, for she is a black woman whose neck is bound by a golden snake and whose body hangs -- literally and historically -- from a rope. To offset this hurt, Webb undoubtedly took comfort in positioning her foil and shell-encrusted Aphrodite, ancient goddess of love, “floor-to-ceiling” and “four feet from her bed.”
Webb survived cancer and diabetes in the early 1980s and hip replacement in 1991, yet her creative efforts seldom waned. Among her late freestanding sculptures, the life-size Single-Horned Figure is probably a self-portrait that links her life to old and new wisdom. The horn, traditional symbol of potency, is also an attribute of the great mother-goddesses, Isis and Astarte. Beneath the figure’s bright protruding eyes and black skull, a weightless ball of colorful electric wires gives her body and the basket it bears a modern vitality. Supporting the entire work, Webb’s discarded crutches, no longer needed, act as legs and affirm her belief in art as the ultimate healer and art as “the love of God.”
Mona Webb died in 1998, and her Wayhouse of Light was dismantled two years later. After a limited campaign to find sufficient support for its preservation, her children elected to sell the property, which stood on the cusp of Madison’s gentrification zone. At least there is extensive photographic documentation, and Wisconsin collector Paul Phelps was able to acquire some fragments -- the two main doors, a few signs and ornaments, a string mural and a birdhouse -- and several individual art works. A sampling of other pieces remain with Webb’s family. Perhaps this fate was inevitable, but the destruction is a real loss. Few such substantial urban environments have been created by self-taught female artists of color.