Skip to main content

Search NYU Steinhardt

2024 Dorothy Height Distinguished Alumni Award Honoree: Philemona Williamson (MA ’79)


Get to know the narrative painter, educator, and Dorothy Height Distinguished Alumni Award winner.


Philemona Williamson stands in front of a painting

Acclaimed artist Philemona Williamson (MA 79, Studio Art) has developed a long career as a narrative painter, exploring the tenuous bridge between adolescence and adulthood, as well as an arts educator for audiences of all kinds. 

After gaining her bachelor’s degree from Bennington College in Vermont, Williamson was working for the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation when she decided she wanted to go to graduate school.

“I wanted to find a community of artists that I hadn’t found in my undergrad years; I also wanted to continue working and living in New York City,” says Williamson. “I ended up discovering Steinhardt’s Studio Art program and was drawn to studying with Don Eddy and Idelle Weber, even though they were both photorealists and I was a figurative painter – I decided that was close enough.”

Oil painting by Philemona Williamson: The Gathering. Two girls play with dolls.

The Gathering, Philemona Williamson. 2021. Oil on linen.

Williamson loved the variety of classes and the energy that came from being around other students who were creating things in their own ways. “The faculty weren’t pressing an agenda; they looked at who you were and your work and thought about what you needed in your own practice. It was a very supportive community,” says Williamson.

Williamson also continued working full time for the parks department teaching preschoolers while pursuing her degree, because in her mind, “it was good preparation for how I envisioned my life: painting and having a job so I could make some money to live.”

However, this role turned out to be the spark of her drive to become an educator; shortly after graduating from Steinhardt, she interned with Muriel Silberstein-Sorfer on “Doing Art Together,” a revolutionary parent-child art workshop that began at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After learning the curriculum, Williamson was then hired to start the art program at Harlem School of the Arts.

Oil painting by Philemona Williamson, Branching Eyes. Children — some of whom are transparent — play on surrealist tree branches covered in eyes

Branching Eyes, Philemona Williamson. 2023. Oil on linen.

Over the years, Williamson continued to bring art programming to more audiences and locations, such as at halfway houses, veterans’ facilities, and to children with autism. “All of these art workshops were based on the philosophy that I learned in Doing Art Together – you’re doing something creative but talking about it in a critical way, which can be done at any age,” says Williamson. “Putting a value judgment on whether art is ‘pretty’ can take away the joy, adventure, and mystery in what could happen.”

Williamson is the recipient of numerous awards and residencies from organizations including the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Pollock-Krasner Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Millay Colony. In 2022, she received a fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and was awarded the Anonymous Was A Woman grant. 

Headshot of Philemona Williamson in a gallery of her art

Putting a value judgment on whether art is "pretty" can take away the joy, adventure, and mystery in what could happen.

Philemona Williamson, 2024 Dorothy Height Distinguished Alumni Award Winner

Her public works include fused-glass murals created for the MTA Arts in Transit Program at the Livonia Avenue Subway Station in Brooklyn, a painting used by the MTA’s Poetry In Motion and, for the NYC School Authority, a mosaic mural in Queens. She created a series of paintings for the children’s book “Lubaya’s Quiet Roar” from Penguin Random House.

Oil painting by Philemona Williamson, Cradle. A woman cradles a masked boy. Behind her, another woman holds the boy's foot in a serrated clamp.

Cradle, Philemona Williamson. 2022. Oil on linen.

In addition to her practice, Williamson has taught painting and drawing at Hunter College, Pratt Institute, SVA, Bard College, RISD, Cooper Union, and Parsons, as well as serving on the advisory board of the Getty Center for Education and is currently on the board of directors of Doing Art Together and The Visual Arts Center of New Jersey.

This past winter, Williamson debuted her first major one-person show in Paris at Semiose Gallery; her current solo exhibition at the June Kelly Gallery in New York City continues through June 4 of this year. Her work is also featured at the Montclair Art Museum’s landmark exhibition Century: 100 Years of Black Art at MAM. This summer, Williamson will be in a solo show with the Passerelle Centre d’art contemporain in Brest in western France, as well as participate in a planned group show at Jenkins Johnson Gallery in San Francisco that commemorates the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Learn more about Williamson in this clip from a PBS piece about her work.

Related Articles

Two Steinhardt Faculty Awarded 2024 Guggenheim Fellowships

A composer and a visual artist are among the 188 individuals from 84 academic institutions who have been awarded the prestigious fellowships.

2024 Dorothy Height Distinguished Alumni Award Honoree: Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz (PhD ’05, BA ’90)

Get to know the poet, writer, educator, and Dorothy Height Distinguished Alumni Award winner.

2023 Valedictory Ceremony Dorothy Height Awardee: Tania León (BS ’71, MM ’75)

Tania León is an internationally renowned composer/conductor and Dorothy Height Distinguished Alumni Award winner.

Related Programs

Studio Art

Our Studio Art program is at the forefront of contemporary art practice, with MFA and BFA degrees and two undergraduate minor concentrations in the field of visual arts.

Read More