Deborah Willis

BirthplacePhiladelphia, PA
CitizenshipUnited States
Cultural HeritageAfrican-American
Light Work RelationshipArtist-in-Residence, 1990
Main Gallery, 2003 (Group Exhibition - Embracing Eatonville)
Fine Print Program, 2004
Robert B. Menschel Gallery, 2016 – 2017 (Place: Selections from the Light Work Collection)




Sunday afternoons were always special in my young adult life. Visits to family and my parents friends were commonplace. One Sunday in 1989 Crocker came to visit my father at our family home in North Philly. Crocker had moved out of the neighborhood years ago; he moved to the affluent Mount Airy. He talked with my father at great length of their childhood and the old neighborhood. I listened and started photographing them, he seemed to have missed their special talks. It also was an eerie feeling watching the two of them talk -- we never knew that would have been their last conversation. Crocker died within months of that visit and daddy died the next year. They laughed about the color of their suits; proudly bragged about their eating habits; reminisced about their career choices. As they recalled their memories, I began to think about what I recalled about their relationship. They were best friends from the age of twelve to the age of sixty-seven.

Their spiritual connection remained throughout, this Senegalese printed fabric was used because one of their last trips together was to Dakar.

Deborah Willis-Kennedy (c)1994

Embracing Eatonville Portfolio

Prints from the portfolio:
Lonnie Graham, Thompson Avenue, Eatonville, FL, June 2003;
Deborah Willis, View from the Pulpit, Eatonville, FL, 2003;
Dawoud Bey, Jason, 2003;
Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled, 2003
Embracing Eatonville is a photographic survey of Eatonville, FL-the oldest black incorporated town in the United States, and a place where celebrated writer Zora Neale Hurston lived and worked. The project is a collaboration among Light Work, the artist's collective A Social Studies Project (ASSP), and the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts in Eatonville.

Beginning in January 2002 and continuing through the middle of 2003, photographers Dawoud Bey, Lonnie Graham, Carrie Mae Weems, and Deborah Willis spent time in Eatonville making photographs in an effort to provide a meaningful reflection of Eatonville's spirit and character while concentrating on the social, political, and cultural landscape of this historically unique place in Central Florida. In an attempt to address the unique character of the community and its history, these artists have produced a diverse portrait of Eatonville using traditional documentary approaches, as well as interactive and interpretive methods.

Deborah Willis' color landscapes and portraits describe the look and feel of the community, while emphasizing the importance of the church and the beauty parlor as traditional meeting places. Lonnie Graham's black-and-white landscapes evoke the feel of romantic charm reminiscent in the work of Clarence John Laughlin-on a more modest, but equally revealing scale-while his portraits present an openness between photographer and subject that reveals as much as his landscapes conceal. Dawoud Bey looked to the next generation of Eatonville's residents as he combined portraits of high school students along with quotes from each subject, which serve as both time capsules for the community and expressions of personal hopes, fears, and dreams. Carrie Mae Weems departs most from the traditional photographic survey format as she assumes the character of Zora Neale Hurston wandering through Eatonville. Her photographs reflect the quiet serenity, simple pleasures, and ease of enjoyment that Hurston found so familiar and comforting in her adopted home.

Later in this catalogue Franklin Sirmans discusses the artists' work in greater detail, and N.Y. Nathiri, executive director of the Hurston Museum, provides her reflections on Eatonville's history and contemporary significance. The exhibition will travel to the Hurston Museum in January 2004 to be included in the Fifteenth Annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities. Plans are also underway for a more extensive traveling schedule for the exhibition.

Zora Neale Hurston was an enigmatic artist and folklorist who wrote stories, novels, plays, anthropological folklore, and an autobiography. When compelled, or perhaps when necessary, Hurston would often embellish stories about her own life and experiences, never at a loss to improve on the ordinary. In the decades after her death in 1960, her spirit of creative independence, mixed with serious scholarship and a powerful personal writing style, made Hurston the perfect muse for a generation of artists and cultural workers looking for the signpost of change and a beacon of hope in the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. She expressed her own passions for the creative spirit when she wrote, "Anyway, the force from somewhere in Space which commands you to write in the first place, gives you no choice. You take up the pen when you are told, and write what is commanded. There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you." The artists and organizations that came together to produce this project wanted to illuminate the untold story of Eatonville, while carrying the torch of Hurston's legacy as their inspiration.

In the ensuing years since Hurston's time in Eatonville, the landscape of Central Florida has become fertile ground for the creative capital of America's tourist industry radiating out from Orlando a few miles away, increasing the pressure on Eatonville to retain its unique historical place and character. In 1987, a group of concerned citizens led by N.Y. Nathiri formed the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc. (P.E.C.), which was successful in having Eatonville listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. These efforts also led to the founding of the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts in 1990.

Carrie Mae Weems was invited to exhibit her work at the museum in 1999. At that time, conversations between Weems and Nathiri led to serious discussions concerning the formation of this project. All of the artists selected to work on Embracing Eatonville have also participated in Light Work's Artist-in-Residence program, bringing the project's partnership full circle from Eatonville to Syracuse. The collaboration, sparked by Weems' inquiries, began in earnest in 2001 with the idea to give artists the opportunity to look at Eatonville in order to draw attention to its character, its citizens, and its place in history.

Photographic surveys were so popular in the 1970s that the National Endowment for the Arts created a funding category devoted to sponsoring these efforts. Several significant projects were supported during this time, but changes at the NEA and in the public's support of the arts eliminated the funding category of photographic surveys, leaving support of future projects to other sources which practically eliminated them altogether.

Artists always work whether there is support of their work or not. Embracing the importance of a project about Eatonville, these artists, led by Weems, set out to do what the government no longer felt was relevant.

While there are aspects of Embracing Eatonville that link it to the tradition of photographic surveys, the artists have worked to look at Eatonville as a starting point and springboard to extend Hurston's vision for the celebration, accomplishment, and preservation of African-American art and culture. We honor many things with this project: the enigmatic and creative character of Zora Neale Hurston, the importance of history celebrated by the successful efforts of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, and the muse that Zora Neale Hurston is for artists more than forty years after her death, where her sense of the importance of place became a destination, a state of mind, a call to independence, and a cradle where community ideals and shared experience provide inspiration and sometimes, daily bread.

Jeffrey Hoone (c)2003