The Way House of LightMona Boulware Webb (1914 - 1998)
1354 Williamson Street, Madison, Wisconsin, 53703, United States
1960s to 1998
About the Artist/Site
Mona Boulware Webb’s “Way House of Light” was a home for her expansive creative practice as well as a site of collaboration and community on Williamson (“Willy”) Street in Madison, Wisconsin, from the 1960s until her death in 1998.
Webb was born Nevelle Ruth Boyce to a middle class Houston family in 1914. Initially interested in pursuing medicine, she enrolled in Virginia's Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). Her education was interrupted, however, after the birth of her first child with her husband, university Professor Marcus H. Boulware. Webb was extremely shaken by the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 and other acts of violence against African Americans during the early Civil Rights Movement, and left the United States (and Boulware) with her four children in the late 1950s. They resettled in Mexico City where she was inspired by the creative vibrancy of the city and began spending time with free thinkers and intellectuals at the University of Mexico, including Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti and British writer Aldous Huxley. Huxley once posed a question to Webb that she found deeply impactful on her artistic practice, “If you’ve never seen beauty in your neighbor’s garbage can, you’re blind. And how can a blind person be an artist?”
In the early 1960s, Webb returned to the United States as an artist, settling in Madison, Wisconsin’s capital and the home of the University of Wisconsin. She purchased a three-story building on Willy Street in a neighborhood that was experiencing disinvestment, resulting in lowered rental prices that attracted students, artists, and the like. The area developed a reputation for collective responsibility and cooperation, in which Webb’s gallery “The Way House of Light” played a role. The building was not just Webb’s studio but also a venue that welcomed and celebrated other local creatives, including artists, writers, poets, and musicians. A longtime Way House resident Aretha van Valkenberg said, “I wouldn’t say it was a commune. We were a family; that’s how we viewed it. Every year we had a Thanksgiving open house and dinner for the entire neighborhood. Mona also attracted a lot of artists, and when they had enough work she gave them a show. If she had an opening, it was packed – the mayor, judges, you name it – everybody would be in the gallery.”
Throughout the years, Webb continued to transform the Way House, including a large wooden construction built onto the back of the building called the “Layed Back Buddah.” The construction operated as a “shrine” and was dual-sided; the inside depicted “solemnity” and the outside – temptations. She also created walls out of glass bottles filled with water to attract “solar energy.” The inside of the home was also completely activated with Webb’s artwork (and probably that of other Way House residents). Critic Dean Jensen described a 1985 visit: “The place may be only slightly less astonishing than [King Tut’s] tomb before the movers came in and carried out his sarcophagus and golden throne. Almost every square inch of ceiling and wall in Webb’s sanctum bears the imprint of her hand. On [one] wall is a mural of Rubenesque-proportioned female figures. Covering the entire ceiling in another room is her conception of the ocean with actual conch shells, starfish skeletons and sea-polished stones glued right into the painted water. There is [also] a floor-to-ceiling sculpture of Aphrodite four feet from her bed.”
Webb passed away in 1998, and the Way House was dismantled several years later. The building still stands, however, and is now the Madison Greenhouse Store. Webb’s legacy is referenced on their website: “The ‘Queen of Willy Street’ transformed the building into more than just a home studio, she decorated every square inch of the property and created a welcoming community space that was the site of artistic collaborations for 3 decades… We like to think that her creative energy still lingers in the building.”
–Annalise Flynn, 2022
- "Mona Boulware Webb: 'The Queen of Willy Street'" by Jeffrey Hayes, Folk Art Messenger: Vol. 15, No. 3, Winter 2002
- The Gods of Beauty, Niels Nielsen, 1995
- "Funky Town: Can Willy Street go upscale and still maintain its character?" by Nathan J. Comp, September 29, 2011, Isthmus
The Gods of Beauty
A Portrait of the Visionary Artist: Mona Boulware Webb by Niels Nelsen, 1995
Map & Site Information
1354 Williamson Street
Madison, Wisconsin, 53703 us
Latitude/Longitude: 43.0852884 / -89.3617591
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