“I’ve been drawing ever since I can remember, since about four or five,” says 92-years-young Wheat Ridge artist Cam Williams. “I recall I sat on my grandpa’s lap and asked him how to draw a woman’s shoe – why I asked that, I don’t know.” She recalled how, in first and second grade, kids would come over to look at her drawings and say, “Wow.”
Williams was born and raised in Elsberry, Mo., a town of about 2,000, 60 miles north of St. Louis and midway between there and Hannibal – the birthplace of Mark Twain.
“Elsberry was like Mayberry [the fictional town depicted in the Andy Griffith Show], and everybody knew everybody, which is good and bad,” she said. “I lived there through high school, and there wasn’t an art teacher during all that time; but a girlfriend, who wanted to draw better, and I took ‘private lessons.’ I was good at drawing people, she liked to draw horses; she’d help me draw horses, and I helped her draw people, and that was our art training.”
Because it was close to home, Williams attended Lindenwood College [now Lindenwood University] in St. Charles, Mo., a women’s college at that time. With the idea of becoming an artist, she took formal art classes at Lindenwood for the first time. Her father had been a teacher, a principal and a superintendent of schools.
“I didn’t think I wanted to be a teacher, but along the way, I took some education classes ‘just in case.’”
“In college, I had an instructor who had gone to the Chicago Institute of Art. I took my first figure-drawing classes from him – he was excellent. He influenced me most. Because of him, I fell in love with drawing figures; I also took a sculpture class from him. We did plaster casts and a soapstone figure that I still have – I’m using it as a door stop now,” she said with a chuckle. For a time, she entertained the idea of becoming a commercial artist as well as a fine artist, but that didn’t work out. She minored in English Literature, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in art.
She wound up teaching art in the town of Clinton, Mo., population 10,000, on the western side of the state, in farm country.
“I was hired to teach two high school classes and be a supervisor over five elementary schools. ‘What?’ I said. I didn’t know anything about being a supervisor. One of the schools had a Black teacher and Black students – this was in the mid 1950s, before integration in schools took place – and those Black kids were the best behaved and the most polite of all those students. I enjoyed being there. It was a great experience.”
Williams taught in Clinton for two years, but then her father passed away.
“By then, my mother and father had moved to a suburb of St. Charles. Mom was by herself and didn’t drive. I resigned from the Clinton school to be with my mom and fortunately got a job teaching art in Ladue, a sort of exclusive suburb. One student was driven to school by her chauffeur!”
One summer, a colleague who had been to Boulder suggested they both go there and take classes at the University of Colorado, for needed teaching credentials.
“You should go there; you’d love it,” my friend said. “I instantly said, ‘Okay.’ I took my first watercolor class there and had my first plein air experience, sketching in real mountains – we had the Ozarks in Missouri, but nothing like the Rockies. I was aiming to get my master’s in fine art, but I got distracted. I continued teaching in the St. Louis area but returned to Colorado thinking I’d like to teach there.”
Her timing was perfect, and, after interviewing in Jefferson County, was hired to teach at Arvada Junior High, long since torn down. After one year with seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders, that was enough. She taught at Columbia Heights Elementary, now the Jefferson County Resource Center at 32nd and Chase Street, then for six years at Slater Elementary followed by a time at Vivian Elementary, both in Lakewood.
In the meantime, she had married, inherited two stepchildren, ages 15 and 13, and ceased teaching.
“One of my co-teachers said she thought I was either brave or crazy. I told her I was maybe a little of both.”
When her husband passed away in 1983, and she discovered that schools weren’t hiring art teachers, she worked for Sears in the Westland Shopping Center, in the home decorating department, then at Lakeside’s Montgomery Wards for several years.
While on a cruise up the Alaskan Inland Passage, she became inspired by Inuit art.
“I loved the art and painted a design copied from a t-shirt onto a wood board.”
These days, she’s a member of the Wheat Ridge Art League (WRAL) and displays and sells her work at Pietra’s, 9045 W. 44th Ave.; Arvada Methodist Church, 6750 Carr St.; and Arvada DMV, 6510 Wadsworth Blvd. In addition to attending monthly WRAL meetings, Williams drives herself to participate in a weekly Thursday morning art group at Highlands Rec Center in north Denver. She lives in a tri-level home and still manages the multiple steps every day.
At 92, Williams says, “I’m fortunate to be able to do what I can.”