Sonoma artist Diana Willson: 1924-2018

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Sonoma artist Diana Vanderbilt Willson died in December at age 94, having left behind a vast body of work, perhaps as many as 200 canvases, according to her daughter Tiana Wells.

Willson, who died of an apparent heart attack Dec. 16 at her Sobre Vista home, was known for her grand sense of humor and her unique point of view, which was clearly observable in her work. She was original, irreverent and deeply optimistic, say loved ones, qualities that served her well over more than nine decades.

Willson was also fiercely independent, said Wells, and still in possession of a valid driver’s license on her last day.

Diana Willson had three children with her first husband, Frank Millard Wells: Bruce, Geoffrey and Tiana Wells. Frank Wells died in 1954 following a catastrophic fire on the USS Bennington that took the lives of 300 men when the fuel powering the carrier’s catapult ignited. After his death, Diana, who had lived in more than 80 locations as a military wife, moved with her three children from Rhode Island to California.

Soon after, Archibald Everest Willson, whom Diana had known casually while growing up, tracked Willson down and proposed. According to Tiana Wells, Archibald’s great-grandfather was legendary surveyor Sir George Everest – the Himalayan mountain bears his name – and Archibald had inherited a tidy sum of family money. Despite his small fortune, Archibald wanted to work, but didn’t know at what – so he and his new wife Diana consulted a Ouija board. The board directed the newlyweds to purchase a Virginia farm they called “Springfields,” where they welcomed another child, Mark Archibald Willson.

Eventually, the family moved back to California, settling in Woodside prior to the construction of Highway 280. But the freeway’s completion in the late 1950s was a deal breaker for the Willsons, and they set out in search of “mountains, meadows, and water.” The quest led them to a plot of land abutting Lake Josephine in Sonoma Valley, where they purchased six acres for $3,000 each.

“They could have bought 60, but my dad thought it was too expensive,” laughed Tiana Wells.

Finally rooted in the Sonoma Valley, Willson began making art, dabbling in acrylics, multi-media and clay. She started painting canvases of historical figures, all cheekily rendered with a satirical bent: Michelangelo at the Sistine Chapel in a painters smock marked “Mike,” cans of Dutch Boy paint crowded around; Napoleon, looking entitled and smug, posed next to a globe stamped “Sold.”

But it was Willson’s animal art that really opened doors. She made dozens of clever paintings of cheerful, anthropomorphic pigs. Willson’s pigs played tennis and golf, they sunbathed and picnicked at the beach.

One in this series featured pigs on the New York Stock Exchange, the ticker scrolling past a company named “Peril, Pinch, Fierce, Bummer and Jones.” In the foreground, two pigs hold court at their desks, coercing elderly sows to buy or sell. One sports a nameplate that reads “Mr. Takum,” the other is identified as “Mr. Churn.” For a woman whose middle name was Vanderbilt, Willson seemed to have a heart for the little guy.

But it was Willson’s close friendship with actress Barbara Hale – who played Perry Mason’s secretary Della Street for nine years – that allowed her access to a new breed of customer: celebrity clients.

Bing Crosby, Allen Funt, Penny Marshall and Denzel Washington all commissioned Willson originals. The pigs had long been her artistic angle, but with celebrity clients she went further still, creating piggy avatars for each individually and placing them in settings appropriate to each.

She even rendered former President Bill Clinton as a razorback pig (twice!) and received hand-written thank-you notes from POTUS 42 in return. Though she leaned politically right, Diana was pleased. She kept those presidential letters framed and proudly posted on the walls of the house in Sobre Vista where she lived until the last night of her life.

That night, Willson’s breathing became labored, and her daughter tried desperately to help. “She did not want to go to the hospital,” Wells said. “I just couldn’t get her into the car.”

So 94-year-old Diana Vanderbilt Willson died at home in her daughter’s arms, having lived a long, colorful, productive life. “Really,” Wells said sadly, “can you think of a better way to go?”

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.

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