Recollections of childhood frequently appear in the early work of Haywood “Bill” Rivers. As they are recalled from memory some years later, these are often colorful and layered with little concern for the depiction of three dimensions–but rendered as though from above. As a child, Rivers would observe his mother and grandmother quilting, their designs passed down from generations before them. The artist would draw the quilt patterns, later he would paint the scenes of these memories; later still, when he had turned to abstraction, he explained, "Everything I've ever done comes from the quilts.” 

Rivers was born in Morven, North Carolina, a small town located south and east of Charlotte near the South Carolina border. Although named after a Highland town in Scotland, its population has been largely African American throughout its history. As a teenager, Rivers left Morven and set out for Baltimore, Maryland, where he found work as a barber and occasionally as a street painter. One day, a white man admired his work and asked if would want to study art at the Baltimore Institute of Art, where his son was currently enrolled. Intrigued, Rivers agreed. When the president of the institute was presented with Rivers, however, he balked. Although Baltimore allowed more options for the black community, it still maintained an air of segregation. Rivers was offered a job as a model as consolation, which he accepted. The NAACP took up Rivers' case and, although they lost the first court battle, a scholarship was eventually settled on for the young artist: the state would pay for any school that would have him so long as it wasn't in Maryland. Subsequently he moved to New York City and took classes at the Art Students League between 1946 and 1948, where he was mentored by Morris Kantor. He maintained a meager income by accepting ill-paying gallery or art supply jobs or daylighting as a barber. Rivers was presented the Gretchen H. Hutzler Award, the Baltimore Museum of Art Annual Prize in 1948.

The Rosenwald Foundation, established by Julius Rosenwald “for the well-being of mankind” not only established 5,000 schools for black children, but gave numerous grants to black artists and writers. The foundation awarded Rivers a fellowship in 1948, the last year grants were made. Rivers used the funds to travel to Paris and there he studied at the École du Musée du Louvre from 1949–1952. He met fellow artist Romare Bearden and writer James Baldwin, and his eventual wife, Betty Jo. In 1950 he was instrumental in founding Galerie Huit, a cooperative gallery he managed for American artists in Paris located at 8, rue St. Julien le Pauvre, hence its name. Several noted artists were associated with the gallery, including Sam Francis, Jules Olitski, and Al Held. The following year, he and Betty Jo married—traveling to England in order to circumvent the laws that prevented interracial marriage.

Rivers’ early paintings display the influence of French modernism, which complemented his childlike subject matter. They tend to be quasi-flat compositions with simplified forms. Some critics have compared this work to that of Jacob Lawrence and Horace Pippin. In 1952 Rivers received a Jay Hay Whitney fellowship, and shortly afterward he transitioned to abstraction. In these easel-sized paintings he retained his penchant for thickly applied paint and a colorful palette. In 1953 the Riverses moved to Brooklyn. This marked a period of financial difficulty, putting strain on the marriage. Eventually his wife left with their children and moved west to California, where Rivers visited them sporadically. In 1971, he began teaching art at Manhattan Community College. Also, that year he, along with Benny Andrews, James Denmark, and others, he participated in Rebuttal to the Whitney Museum Exhibition: Black Artists in Rebuttal, which was organized by members of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition at Acts of Art. The original exhibition was mounted in response to the Whitney Museum’s refusal to appoint a black curator for their survey Contemporary Black Artists in America. Rivers continued painting, albeit slowly, and showing his work. In 1996, he was awarded his largest grant, $18,000 from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Although he was diagnosed the following year with Parkison’s disease, he continued to paint and draw.