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|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|The following, submitted October 2005, is from Albert Sperath, curator
of the March 2000 Wilson exhibition at Murray State University and
biographer of the artist: The Art of Ellis Wilson, University Press of Kentucky.|
A once-acclaimed Kentucky-born artist who captured the black culture in
the Southeast and Haiti of his time, Ellis Wilson is little-known in
his home state
today. To remedy this neglect and to celebrate the centennial of his
birth, he became the subject of a February through March 2000
exhibition premiered at Murray State University in the Clara M. Eagle
Art Gallery, 25 miles southeast of Mayfield, birthplace of the artist. The exhibition, organized by Albert Sperath,
Director of the Eagle Gallery, featured forty-five paintings that were
borrowed from private collectors, art dealers, and museums.
this exhibit, art critic David Minton wrote that Ellis Wilson "painted
a vivid but realistic portrait of black culture beginning in the 1920s.
Wilson doesn't paint his subjects in mythical proportions. He
simply shows them as they were: a fisherman with his catch slung over
his back, his shoulders illuminated by the sunlight, his figure
completely surrounded by a luminous sea. Or factory workers and
farmhands, full of life and dignity. The same concept applies to
his images of Harlem cabaret dancers, people engaged in ritual
religious ceremonies and sitters for straight portraits. Wilson gained
prominence in the art world during the 1930s and 40s. But that
doesn't mean he was ever widely known or was even able to make a living
Wilson was born in Mayfield, Kentucky and attended
Kentucky State University in Frankfort for two years. However,
because he could only study agriculture or education, he left at age 19
to study at the Art Institute of Chicago. He stayed in Chicago
for five years trying to make it as a commercial artist, but in 1928
moved to New York.
As a new art school graduate, Wilson was
active in the New Negro Art Movement of the 1920s and '30s in New York,
where he lived until his death. He was employed by the Works Progress
Administration from 1935 to 1940.
On the basis of paintings done from sketches of fellow workers at
an airplane factory, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1944,
which was renewed in 1945.
Wilson used his fellowship to travel
across the South, where he painted black people at work. He was noted
as a colorist with a deft touch for simplification.
In 1947 he had
an exhibition in his hometown; it was reportedly the first art show
ever held in Mayfield. A year later, Louisville's J.B. Speed Art
Museum had a solo exhibition of Wilson's figural images, and in 1953
Murray also gave Wilson an exhibition.
In 1952 he won a $3,000
prize in a Miami show, which he used to make a trip to Haiti to paint.
In the meantime, Wilson continued to work at manual labor jobs in New
York and paint on the side until his death in 1977.
One of Wilson's paintings, Funeral Procession, was part of the set on Bill Cosby's TV series in the 1980s.
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