Sue Parker “Rainbow” Williams (1934-2022)

Multidisciplinary artist, musician, and instrument maker Sue Parker “Rainbow” Williams died April 7, 2022, at the age of 88. Most of her feminist friends knew her as Rainbow, although in recent years she began to prefer Sue. She came of age well before the modern women’s movement, and it took her awhile to find lesbian feminism. Art was her lifelong calling from an early age. She grew up in Shreveport, LA, an only child who entertained herself by drawing. Her mother, a single parent, worked outside the home, so she was raised by an aunt with two daughters who were like sisters to her. She describes herself as having been “on a very conventional path, looking for the EXIT SIGN!” (1) She pursued her interest in art first at the Texas State College for Women, then transferred to the University of Arkansas, after reading about its new Fine Arts Center in a national magazine. There she met an architecture student, Chaz Williams. She says of Chaz, “Neither of us wanted to get married, but we wanted family (how gay is that?). We wanted to devote our lives to art, architecture, travel.” She graduated in 1955, with a Fine Arts major with honors, and married Chaz, who had a year to go on his five-year architecture degree. After several years in the Air Force (Chaz’s education was paid by ROTC), they wound up in Orlando, where they adopted first a daughter, Julie, later a son, Benson.

All along, she had been studying all kinds of art, getting a master’s degree in crafts in Mexico (together with Chaz), where they learned clay, weaving, batik, woodworking, printmaking, silversmithing, bronze forging, and more. She credits that study in Mexico with giving her the confidence to come out as a lesbian. Back in Orlando, in 1969 she started an alternative school called Stone Soup, working with a neighbor who was her first woman lover. The school lasted thirty years, and both of her children graduated from it. She also built a pottery shop in her carport and spent eight years making pots with messages stamped on them, then turned to woodworking, making dulcimers, a total of thirty-seven over the years. She taught herself to play the dulcimer and started a band, the Amazing Almost All Girl String Band, “two artists and two lesbians who could sing or play some outrageous feminist materials.” They were the house band for Pine Castle Center for the Arts in Orlando, where she taught. They played traditional string band songs like “Shady Grove” and “Cluck Old Hen,” as well as feminist songs like Malvina Reynolds’ “We Don’t Need the Men,” and Rainbow’s original songs, including “Amelia” and “I Am a Channel.” Rainbow still has videos of the band performing at the Pagoda, and her handmade band banner hangs in her house.

Caption: Banner hand made by a member of the Amazing Almost All Girl String Band
Credit: Courtesy of Rainbow Williams. Photo by Rose Norman

Sue/Rainbow had found lesbian feminist activism at her first women’s festival, the 1977 National Women’s Music Festival, which had started in 1974. That is where she found Lesbian Connection, Holly Near, and consciousness raising. She and other Orlando NOW volunteers published Changes for eight years (1977-85), first monthly, then quarterly. She learned how to put together a newsletter from the editors of Gainesville’s WomaNews, and soon was swapping subscriptions with feminist newsletters around the state and the country. “Newsletters Were My Feminist Education” she titles a story she wrote much later for Sinister Wisdom. (2) She and a friend also started a Lavender Bookmobile in Orlando, a lending library mostly featuring books by Rita Mae Brown. NOW and CR groups met at her house in Orlando. She called it The Wimmin’s House and also hosted monthly full moon gatherings in the backyard, as well as “witchy weekends” that included tarot readings.

In the 1983-84 winter holidays, she joined the Women’s Peace Walk from Gainesville to Key West, a 540-mile journey that began December 17, 1983, and ended January 30, 1984. (3) She writes: “Physically, spiritually, emotionally—it was the most powerful single thing I’ve ever done. It truly CHANGED MY LIFE! Part of our bonding was intense interaction day and night, CHANTING OUR WAY through blisters, breakups and makeups. This BAND OF POETS created every day a way of being.” (4)

Sue/Rainbow’s lifelong passion for making art of all kinds was a major expression of her lesbian-feminist activism. In her Orlando garage studio in 1980, she produced a local art show coordinated with the national Great American Lesbian Art Show (GALAS), held in the Women’s Building in Los Angeles. At the 1982 opening of the Orlando Women in Art House, one of her pieces was a three-mirror dresser with a female orchestra made of spool women playing instruments to a tape recording of Kay Gardner music. Many of her art works are collages or constructions made from found objects, such as cigar boxes, seashells, children’s blocks, or broken musical instruments. Amelia Earhart is a favorite feminist icon, and her name or photograph appears often in Rainbow’s work. She named her Pagoda cottage Amelia.

Caption: Posing, age 48, the piece she exhibited at the 1982 opening of the Orlando Women in Art House
Credit: Photo by Sarah Carawan

When she moved to St. Augustine in 1984, Sue/Rainbow enrolled in an architectural drafting class at a local vocational school (5) and for three years apprenticed with Dore Rotundo. Dore was a licensed architect and had sold her Pagoda cottage the year before Rainbow moved there. Dore’s studio was in Melrose, and Rainbow worked with her there on designing a beach front house next to the Pagoda. At the Pagoda winter solstice celebration that first year, she took the name Rainbow.

Rainbow was very active in the arts while at the Pagoda, producing art shows as well as concerts, performing with her band, and going with other Pagodans to help Lin Daniels and Myriam Fougère with the East Coast Lesbian Festival (ECLF). For the first ECLF, Rainbow created a twenty-foot mural on brown wrapping paper depicting Pagoda women in characteristic poses, Myriam with her video camera, Nancy Breeze hanging sheets on a clothesline, herself playing a dulcimer. She illustrated (for free) both volumes of Terry Woodrow’s Lesbian Bedtime Stories (1989, 1990). Rainbow’s art was used on the cover of the brochure for the National Lesbian Conference in Atlanta (1991), as well as the ECLF brochure. While she lived in her North Pagoda cottage, she treated it as a studio and gallery, as she did her Florida Ave. home right up until her death.

Caption: Rainbow with her dulcimer, from her 1990 Pagoda mural
Credit: Art by Rainbow. Photo by Rose Norman

Caption: A sign on the side of Rainbow’s Florida Ave. house reads “Museum, Open Daily, 8:00 to 5:00”
Photo by Rose Norman

Caption: Rainbow in 2013 with some of the art displayed at her home/gallery.
Credit: Photo by Rose Norman

Caption: Sue Williams in her youth.
Credit: Courtesy of Sue Williams.

Caption: Rainbow in March 2021 holding her youthful picture
Credit: Photo by Rose Norman

Obituary written by Rose Norman

(1) Interview November 9, 2013, at her home. Rainbow revised these notes for archiving.

(2) Special Issue, “Making Connections,” Sinister Wisdom 117 (Summer 2020): 125-26.

(3) On the origin of the peace walk, see Kathleen “Corky” Culver, “Into the Grueling Duelings of Consensus Dances Sweet Meditation,” Sinister Wisdom 93 (Summer 2014): 23-26. Culver writes about her experience of the peace walk itself in “I Get Dry With a Little Help From My Friends,” Sinister Wisdom 124 (April 2022).

(4) Revised interview notes, p. 7. The capitalization is a feature of her writing style.

(5) Rainbow says she enrolled in the drafting class, then asked Dore to help her with some “isometric drawings.” Dore offered her an unpaid job as an apprentice. Rainbow finished out her class but shifted her energies to the apprenticeship.

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