A big part of Bernice Appelin-Williams’ artistic endeavor consists of collecting all sorts of odd objects, from old sepia photos of African-American women to shells, shoes, discarded TV lenses, lace, glasses, beads, sewing machine drawers and much more. ”That’s why I have a truck,” says the artist with a chuckle. “Wherever I go and see something interesting, I stop and pick it up.” Thrift stores, estate sales, junkyards and flea markets can yield surprising treasures. An imaginative artist, Appelin-Williams incorporates these finds into collages and assemblages that tell visual stories of life journeys or illuminate certain aspects of social mores or African-American history.

“There’s power in changing the use of materials,” she wrote in her artist statement for a recent Bismarck Studios exhibit: “… Things have multiple meanings, thus my attraction to them and to their reincarnation or repurposing.” Discarded old photos hold a special fascination for her. One such picture showing a serious little girl forlornly holding a large doll became the central figure of a serigraph titled Sankofa Differences Between. The term sankofa means “to move forward we must reclaim the past” in the Akan language of West Africa. It took 19 screens to produce the final effect, which is muted, the central figure subtly veiled in layers of — what? — time and history perhaps, layers that cannot be fully penetrated. Appelin-Williams found that eloquent photo in one of the houses demolished to make room for the Alamodome. The serigraph was used as the poster image for Contemporary Art Month 2009. Of the 50 copies printed, 44 were sold.

Other old photos are incorporated in her extensive Target series of mostly two-dimensional mixed media collages, some of which were exhibited at the Bismarck Studios. (Parts of the series were also shown in solo shows at the Carver and the Southwest School of Art.) In these colorful pieces, the picture, usually placed in a central spot, is surrounded by a wealth of narrative elements, both painted and attached, that help tell the pictured person’s history — most of them, but not all, imagined by the artist. The overall effect is both intriguing and touching. The series is called Target because Appelin-Williams used WWII shooting targets with their Babushka nesting doll shapes as the framework for each piece. Despite the connection with guns and war, the artist says she “saw the shape as very soft and feminine, very safe, like the shape of the Madonna.”

Other works are three-dimensional sculptures such as the striking EnterTwined, featuring a mutilated and tied female torso, or assemblages like the humorous Ant’Cha Mama, inspired by a real woman, Nancy Green, who originally served as the model for the iconic Aunt Jemima figure. The need to unearth black people’s histories was born out of her own frustration and disappointment that she could not trace her own ancestry any further than her great-grandparents and not very well at that. “So, I make up stories in my art,” she quips.

Appelin-Williams’ work has been widely exhibited in San Antonio, Austin and beyond. The list of group and solo shows she’s been in is two and a half pages long, including a show in Kenya. With a keen interest in public art, Appelin-Williams has also served on several municipal committees and review boards in charge of public art, as well as created sculptures that adorn several local public spaces.

Near-death experience changed her focus

Growing up in a still segregated society, Appelin-Williams never set foot in a museum until her French high school teacher introduced her to one. She quickly became aware that there were no black artists either in the museums or in library books. It wasn’t until she went to college and met the celebrated black painter John Biggers that a whole new world opened up for her. Still, she pursued a pre-med education for a while before dropping out of college to get married to a military man. Thanks to his military assignment in Greece, the young woman who loved art had ample opportunities to expand her horizons. But it wasn’t until years later that she finally got a degree in art from the University of the Incarnate Word. She followed that up with a master’s in urban studies from Trinity. For a couple of decades, however, Appelin-Williams worked in a variety of jobs, including seven years as the development director for the Blue Star Contemporary Art Center, while engaging in art in her free time. That all changed in 2007, when she almost died from an asthma attack. At the time, she was under a lot of stress juggling her many roles and duties, including the installation of a public art sculpture called Tree of Life that she had created with studio mate and metal artist James Hendricks.

“I felt an attack coming on, and I drove myself to the ER but once there, in the parking lot, I couldn’t even walk to the door,” she recalls. Rescued by the medical personnel, she was eventually transferred by ambulance to the Santa Rosa Hospital. In the middle of telling her daughter what needed to be done before the unveiling of the Tree of Life, she stopped breathing and ended up on life support for a week. “I remember having a conversation with Linda Pace, Reginald Rowe (both deceased) and a third (indistinct) person; we were all in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, talking together,” she says, referring to a mental experience she had while still unconscious. “Finally, Linda turned toward me and said, ‘You are not ready yet,’ and that was the day they took me off life support.” Two days later, she watched the dedication of her sculpture on TV while recuperating in the hospital.

That’s when she quit her last job (for the Alameda Museum) and decided to focus on art full time. Her latest finds are shallow baker crates that she uses as frames for a new series of paintings dealing with the restrictive symbols of women’s lives, from corsets to bizarre contemporary footwear designed by men who don’t have to wear it. She is also using a new painting medium called encaustic, or hot wax painting. But her near-death experience has taught her to take life as it comes, one day at a time. “It’s great,” she notes happily. “I do what I want to do when I want to do it. I call it ‘going through puberty my way.’ Yes, I would like to be in the San Antonio Museum of Art or in the Smithsonian, but if it doesn’t happen, I am fine with that.”

A minute or two later, however, she admits to having an ambitious dream: “There’s a monument I would love to create, a monument to Cathay Williams, the first and only female Buffalo Soldier, who had to hide that she was a woman.” And she would like to build that monument in Washington, D.C.