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Meet Dr. Deborah Willis, 2017 SOAPBOX Honoree

Find out what inspires the work and life of Dr. Deborah Willis, one of our 2017 SOAPBOX Honorees for Award for Art in Community:


What is your bio in six words or less?

Mother, photographer, sister, wife, curator, mentor.


Who are you are in community with?

Women artists and photographers, photographers, singers and critical thinkers.


Can you tell us about your relationship with your neighborhood (or a neighborhood), and how it may have shifted over the years?

Artist David Avalos believes “Our art and our culture does not reside in artifacts, does not reside on objects, but resides within our attitudes, our ideas, our value systems.” I love his words and what he means about where art resides…so…my neighborhood has changed over the years from finding a girl chat community in a neighborhood beauty shop either in LA, DC, NYC, Brooklyn, or Philly to just being in a community space sharing my work on black photographers and framing beauty in black culture with interested people. My neighborhood could possibly be the Village around NYU or speaking on a college campus about my work at the David Driskell Center in College Park or Eso Won bookstore in LA.


How did you first get connected with The Laundromat Project?

I am a big fan of the Laundromat Project and my connection begins with its inception. Risë Wilson was a student in my Beauty Matters seminar at New York University when she discussed the concept of the importance of presenting art to the community and the best way for community to meet and connect is the laundromat—a central place for women, men and children. I was encouraged by her vision and passion for the arts.


What most inspires your creative practice?

Old photographs, historical memory and storytelling.


Much of your career has been dedicated to the inclusion of black artists (including yourself) and representation of black beauty, in the arts, and by extension, society as a whole. What does it mean to both carry and share these histories/stories?

Throughout my writing and research, I have focused on identity and self-image, the work ultimately reminds us of the historic ways photography allowed a people to counter the negative image of them in the culture at large. In the end, I believe that the photograph has historically served as a powerful mirror in the African American community, reflecting the achievements, triumphs and positive imagery all too often erased from the culture at large and Hank has witness this body of work developing. It has also documented and disempowering images have been circulating over the years. As a professor, photographer, curator, art historian mentor, and mother, my message has always been the same – in search of beauty – only my way of communicating it has changed through organizing conferences, exhibitions and publishing books. In my view, we (Hank and other changemakers) are responsible for the future of our work in the arts, which we must bring about through our practice and writings and actions that contribute to building a stronger and inclusive social practice. It is a wonderful!


You’ve collaborated with and worked alongside your son, Hank. What does it mean to be honored with him?

It is special honor to work with my son Hank Willis Thomas and to know that he has been by my side since the day he was born. He watched me work on numerous projects – not complain when I worked long hours to help others.


What is your favorite book, film, and / or album about NYC?

Album – Alicia Keys “Empire State of Mind”

Book – Langston Hughes “The Best of Simple”

Film – Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X”


Free-association—tell us the first word that comes to mind:





























My Son



Gordon Parks


Visit Dr. Deborah Willis’s artist website here.



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