Wilson, Ellis 1899–1977
Ellis Wilson 1899–1977
Ellis Wilson’s name was not synonymous with other twentieth century artists like Alain Locke or Romare Bearden. To date, many people—even those from his home state of Kentucky—do not recognize his work. His moving paintings exhibited his signature styles of angularity and elongation, but never won him wealth or much acclaim. Still, his legacy is one of an unsung talent whose passion for capturing the honesty and integrity of everyday life, bursts through the simple stories preserved on the canvas of his paintings.
Ellis Wilson was born on April 30, 1899, to Frank and Minnie Wilson in Mayfield, Kentucky. Raised in a poor, African-American neighborhood known as The Bottom, Ellis was one of six (some reports say eight) children. Mayfield, a small town, was not known for much more than its tobacco trade. But it was the town’s tobacco fields that dictated that children, including Wilson and his siblings, would be educated six months out of the year and work in the fields to help their families during the other six months.
As a boy Wilson discovered his fervor for art—especially in creating it. It seems he inherited his artistic talent from his father who was not only a barber and a cabinetmaker, but also an amateur painter. Wilson, who held odd jobs to help sustain his family’s income, found a creative way to blend his talent with the responsibilities of one of his jobs. While a teenager, he worked as a janitor and delivery person at Day’s Ready-to-Wear Dress Shop. One of his duties was to wash the shop’s window. Once he drew a portrait on the window using cleansing soap as his paint. When people noticed the portrait and liked it, the shop owner decided to add weekly window portraits to Wilson’s duties.
After completing grammar school, Wilson, whose mother inspired him to get an education, headed off to college. He attended Kentucky Normal and Industrial Institute in Frankfort (now Kentucky State University) for two years, but after realizing the school only provided farming and teaching degrees, he decided to pursue his love of art. Since African Americans were not allowed to attend school at Kentucky colleges that offered art degrees, Wilson made a decision that placed him in the crux of the Great Migration. At age 19 Wilson convinced his father to allow him to transfer to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he arrived as a race riot ensued, but stayed to study El Greco art. Wilson paid for his courses by holding a job during the summers and getting financial assistance from his father. His artistic talent was recognized when he won both the George E. Hoe and Charles S. Peterson prizes. Wilson’s educational experience allowed him to meet William McKnight Farrow, the Art Institute’s first African-American instructor. Farrow introduced Wilson to numerous African-American artists including sculptor Richmond Barthé.
Wilson graduated from the Art Institute in 1923. He stayed in Chicago for several years, working as a commercial artist. Striving to make a mark as a respected
At a Glance…
Born Ellis Wilson on April 30, 1899 in Mayfield, KY; died on January 1, 1977. Education: Kentucky Normal and Industrial Institute, Frankfort, KY, 1916-18; Art Institute of Chicago, 1919-23.
Career: Painter, 1923-77; Works Progress Administration (WPA), artist, 1935-39; New York, aircraft engine factory worker, 1940-44; Riverside Museum, guide and guard, 1961-63.
Memberships: Chicago Art League; Harlem Artists Guild.
Awards: George E. Hoe Prize; Charles S. Peterson Prize; Guggenheimer Memorial Foundation Fellowship, 1944; second prize, Terry Art Institute National Competition, 1953.
painter, Wilson joined the Chicago Art League. His mentor, Farrow, and Charles C. Dawson founded the league with a mission to destroy the ideology that African Americans were not respectable, talented artists. Membership with the Chicago Art League created an honorable opportunity to display Wilson’s art alongside prominent African-American artists like Henry Ossawa Tanner. In A History of African American Artists from 1792 to the Present, Wilson reflected on his membership with the Art League, saying, “It was just great to be numbered among them—for me anyway.”
In 1928 Wilson moved to Harlem, New York. His transition to New York was rather arduous, in that he had difficulty finding a job. He eventually became a messenger on weekdays and studied portraiture and anatomy on weekends. A year after his move, Wilson painted the cover illustration for the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, and was also affiliated with the Harlem Artists Guild. As the stock market crashed and the Depression began, Wilson found an additional hurdle in the fact that the New York public was not much different than Chicago’s public regarding African-American art. Thus, a segregated society mandated that Wilson and his peers were prohibited from exhibiting at many mainstream galleries. A zealous Wilson defied racism by showing his art in alternative venues like the New York Public Library, “colored” branches of the YMCA, and even sidewalk art shows. As part of the New Negro Art Movement, which sought to give African-American artists exposure, Wilson gained additional opportunities to share his work with the public. In 1933 he won honorable mention in the Harmon Foundation exhibit—an exhibit founded by William E. Harmon, a Caucasian philanthropist who took interest in the Harlem Renaissance.
In 1935 Wilson gained employment with the U.S. Works Progress Administration (WPA) and worked on a project to map New York City’s boroughs. His affiliation with the WPA allowed him to befriend artists like Joseph Delaney and Palmer Hayden. “It was beautiful. We made very little money, but things at that time—food and clothes—cost very little. Rent was very cheap. I was paying 18 dollars a month for a cold-water place. It was a joy!” Wilson said in A History of African American Artists from 1792 to the Present. He credited his camaraderie with other African-American artists as a segue to finding his own niche in art. It was during this time that he began utilizing elongation effects to accentuate and exaggerate the long limbs of his African-American subjects. Wilson had also begun experimenting with the coloristic genre, using bold hues to accent his paintings.
While Wilson continued to capture the scenes of Harlem, World War II had begun. During much of the wartime, he was employed at an aircraft engine factory, where he created religious triptychs for U.S. Army and Navy chapels. During his stint at the factory, he sketched defense workers on their jobs. In 1944 he submitted his drawings in his application for a Guggenheimer fellowship, which he was awarded. As the war was ending, Wilson used the fellowship to fund his travels traveled through southern states including Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina where he sketched African Americans. “Whatever I found, I painted—and that loosened me up a lot, too,” he said in A History of African American Artists from 1792 to the Present .
His most influential experiences in his southern travels may have occurred in Charleston, South Carolina. It was there that Wilson found an open market resembling those of the West Indies. He wanted to portray its people doing everyday activities without interrupting them, so he observed them inconspicuously for days, and then sketched what he saw. One of his most important paintings arose from his observations in Charleston. He appropriately named it “The Open Market at Charleston.” The people of Charleston intrigued Wilson—especially the African Americans from the Sea Islands who walked proud like Africans and balanced baskets on their heads. Wilson befriended the people of the Sea Islands, took part in their activities like fishing, and painted the genuineness of their lifestyles.
While Wilson was gaining recognition for his paintings, he caught the attention of an art historian and critic for The Courier Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) by the name of Justus Bier. Bier realized how little known Wilson was to people in his hometown and state, so he coordinated an exhibition to display some of Wilson’s works in Mayfield. In 1949 Wilson’s works were displayed again—this time as a one-man show at the J.B. Speed Museum in Louisville. Bier’s coverage of Wilson eventually helped lead to the end of segregative practices by the Art Center Association of Louisville; in 1951 the association dropped bylaws that excluded African-American artists from their exhibitions. The following year Wilson won second prize—$3,000—in Miami’s Terry Art Institute National Contest for his painting titled “The Fisherwoman.” The money from the contest funded his travels through the South and Haiti.
It was Wilson’s work in Haiti that was perhaps his most rewarding and well recognized. He was drawn to the Haitians’ dark skin, small structure, dignified mannerism, and culture. Wilson commented in A History of African American Artists from 1792 to the Present, “It was a black republic which they [black people] were in charge of everything. I’d never been to a place like that. And although they were black, I couldn’t understand them—they spoke Creole and French. All that excited me. And then it was tropical I’d never seen a tropical place—and with the music, the drumming, the dancing they were very artistic.” In Haiti, Wilson painted many faceless, silhouetted figures titivated by vibrant colors. “To Market,” now housed at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, is just one work that exhibits this style. Wilson’s bold Haitian paintings earned him coverage in publications including Art News and Art Digest in 1954. Six years later his Haitian paintings were shown at New York’s Contemporary Arts Gallery.
After his travels through Haiti, he returned to his Manhattan studio apartment where he continued to paint in the spring and summer. Wilson died on January 1, 1977. According to a timeline on the Kentucky Educational Television website, he was buried in a “pauper’s” grave in an unknown location. Wilson had produced about 300 paintings during his career, but according to one report, the most money he ever got for a painting was about $300.
After his death, Wilson’s legacy began to regenerate. In 1985 Wilson’s “Funeral Procession” was featured in the story line of a Cosby Show episode. The painting became part of the show’s set. In the 1990s Wilson was featured in “Against All Odds,” a history of the Harmon Foundation. In 2000 Murray State University, which purchased his “End of the Day” portrait in 1950—the university’s first piece of art by an African-American artist, hosted a major retrospective on Wilson’s work. That same year, Murray State University representatives collaborated with Kentucky Educational Television (KET) to produce a documentary entitled Ellis Wilson: So Much to Paint His quietness and humility marked his existence in life, but his art continues to speak to the living. As professor and writer Margaret Vendreyes said on the University of Kentucky Art Museum’s website, “Wilson made art for the sheer job of recreating, in color applied with forever dancing brushstrokes, what he witnessed in other people’s lives. He was an insatiable recorder of the beauty that most take for granted.”
“Funeral Procession,” ca. 1950s.
“The Open Market at Charleston,” ca. 1940s or 1950s.
“The Fisherwoman,” ca. 1940s or 1950s.
“End of the Day,” ca. 1945.
“To Market,” ca. 1954.
Bearden, Romare and Harry Henderson, “Ellis Wilson,” in A History of African-American Artists from 1792 to the Present, Pantheon Books, New York, 1993, pp. 337-344.
“A True Painter,” Kentucky Humanities Council, www.kyhumanities.org/magazine/painter.htm (February 26, 2002).
“Ellis Wilson (1899-1977),” University of Kentucky Art Museum, www.tfaoi.com/aa/laa488.htm (February 26, 2002).
“Ellis Wilson Timeline,” Kentucky Educational Television, www.ket.org/content/elliswilson/timeline.htm(February 26, 2002).
—Shellie M. Saunders
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