Bernice Appelin Williams creates multilayered canvases that invite audiences to the past, present and future all at the same time. Her latest work, “Skin I Am In,” (featured on the cover) depicts her Aunt, who Appelin-Williams says, “looks white.”
Bernice grew up in Texas when segregation was still prominent. She was born to a white mother and black father in Cuero, Texas, just east of San Antonio. She remembers visiting the shops and theaters of San Antonio as a young child and waiting outside establishments for her white mother and Aunt as she and her cousin were deemed “too dark” to enter some places at the time.
She explored colorism within ethnic groups for her work in the exhibition at the South West School of Arts called, “Re/Devaluing Colorism: Intersections of Skin Color and Currency.”
“We had a lot of research to do,” said Appelin-Williams, “I was focused on the light and dark aspects and ethnic people who are not colored so to speak. I did a lot of homework on albino people and the struggles they face.”
This was the first time Bernice used images of her family in her art. “Skin I Am In” is that much more intimate for audiences because it unpacks the artist experience of colorism in her own family.
She describes growing up in Cuero, Texas and integrating her school in the 9th grade. She said she was able to take more liberal arts classes including languages and arts, but not all of her teachers were open to integration. Because she was bi-racial, she said was accepted by the town.
“There was only one public library in Cuero and it was for whites only. I knew one of the librarians there and they said, ‘as long as you are not seen, you are O.K,’ and I read the books in the back,” said Appelin- Williams.
Today she works closely with her granddaughter who is also biracial. She said her granddaughter often gets told by other students that she is not black, but white, despite being bi racial. Appelin-Williams said that a lot of school campuses in San Antonio include a large population of bi racial students.
“Kids want to go by skin color because that is what they see, but they don’t take into account the culture and history,” said Appelin Williams who also teaches art to 3rd graders at Wright Elementary school on the city’s southside.
Her class is huge, hosting 40 students a session, twice a week. She emphasizes the ethnic art history that stands from cultural icons like Frida Kahlo and Jacob Lawrence.
A self described “Dumpster-diver,” Appelin-Williams teachers her students that, “anything can be made into art. We use everyday items and think outside the box.”
Her class just completed a project called, “Me, Myself and I,” where they explored non traditional career occupations and introspection.
In addition to her classes, she is working on new wall hanging structures. Her latest work will be on display at the South West School of Arts until April 5.