Born on October 18, 1948, in Columbus, Ohio, Harry Williams became deaf at the age of one and a half due to medication administered to treat a high fever. The same medication, streptomycin, led to the deafness of two of his siblings. All three deaf children, along with two hearing children, were born to hearing parents. Williams began drawing at a young age in order to communicate with his parents, and continued throughout his schooling. A graduate of the California School for the Deaf, Riverside, he graduated from Gallaudet University with a BFA in 1974.
Williams’s work is, ironically enough, heavily influenced by music, due to having had a hearing lover who loved music. Referring to himself as a “symbolist” painter, he inserted what he called “Surrealist poetry” into his paintings. Each piece is meant to be a highly symbolic visual statement; incorporating elements like a violin without strings (to be used as a resonance chamber, like balloons, which often were used by deaf people to feel vibrations from music playing nearby) and tulips whispering among themselves, his style is reminiscent of masters ranging from Botticelli to Dali.
Williams has been featured in several documentaries, including “My Eyes are my Ears” in 1980 and “Profile of a Deaf Artist and Deaf Mechanic” in 1981 along with his deaf brother.
Colleague, contemporary, and friend Ann Silver had this to say about Williams:
To this day, people still do not realize Williams’s valuable contributions to the Deaf Art/De’VIA field. During the 1960s, books and videos about Deaf artists were non-existent. He was a fascinating cultural broker who always talked about Deaf artists of yesteryear—namely, Morris Broderson, Theophilus Hope D’Estrella, Granville Redmond, Felix Kowalewski, and Douglas Tilden.
Along with [me], Williams was the co-founder of the Deaf Art Movement in 1968. Without Deaf LGBTQ+ artists like him, both the DAM and the De’VIA movement (1989) would not have existed.
As with many other pioneering Deaf LGBTQ+ artists of his time, Williams succumbed to AIDS in 1991.