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 Jack (John) Wilkinson  (1913 - 1974)

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Lived/Active: Oregon/Louisiana/California      Known for: lithography, painting, teaching, murals

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Jack Wilkinson
An example of work by John "Jack" Wilkinson
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Biography from Mark Humpal Fine Art:
Jack Wilkinson was born in Berkeley, California in 1913, and raised in Hawaii, the son of a construction company owner.  He received his undergraduate education at the University of Oregon from 1932 to 1935, initially pursuing a degree in jounalism but then entering the art program in order to learn how to illustrate an article he had written for the school newspaper.  He then moved back to San Francisco to further his studies in art at the California School of Fine Arts from 1935 to 1937, studying principally with Maurice Sterne, eventually becoming an assistant and apprentice of Sterne along with fellow classmates Nell Sinton and Charles Voorhies.

In 1937 he was awarded the J.D. Phelan Travelling Scholarship, which would allow him to travel extensively in Europe and view works in major art institutions overseas.   At the same time, however, his mentor Maurice Sterne had asked him to be an assistant in his studio for a mural project for the Department of Justice.   Consequently he was granted a postponement of travel in order to work with Sterne as well as improve his French prior to departure.  Travelling to Chicago, New York, and then on the Europe in 1938, Wilkinson established a studio in Paris, which would become his base of operation when he subsequently journeyed to Italy, Germany, Holland and England.  While in Paris, a romance blossomed between Wilkinson and fellow painter Una McCann, who also had a studio in Paris.  With Europe on the verge of war, the two painters would return to San Francisco in late 1939.  Wilkinson and McCann would marry the following year in California.  Perhaps most notable of Wilkinson’s time in Paris was his conversion to the theories and approach to painting of Cezanne and to a lesser extent, Pissarro.

Upon his return to San Francisco, Wilkinson entered and won a Treasury department competition for a Post Office mural to be installed in Burns, Oregon.  His wife assisted him in completing the mural in the summer of 1941.  Upon arrival in Burns to install the finished mural, they discovered that the dimensions they had been given were inaccurate, resulting in considerable on site rework.  The mural currently hangs in the main court room in the Harney County Courthouse in Burns.  Wilkinson and his wife then drove from Burns to Eugene, Oregon to visit friends.  Upon their arrival in Eugene, they found that Lance Wood Hart, an assistant art professor at the university, had died suddenly of a heart attack, and so they stayed in Eugene for the funeral.  Wilkinson was then asked if he would be willing to cover Hart’s classes for the term.  This would be the start of Wilkinson’s 37 year tenure with the school.  His classes became legendary among his students.  He established one of the earliest basic design classes in the United States and his intergration of philosophy, psychology, and mathematics into his classes offered his students an intriguing, broad and intellectual approach to art.

While Wilkinson is perhaps best known as a teacher, he was quite talented as a painter, remaining quite active with his own art throughout his life.  His earlier canvasses show an affinity for the human figure.  Through the 1930s and 1940s, his work was expressionistic and compatible with predominant art concerns of the time.  Toward the late 1940s onward, a more highly stylized and abstracted approach appeared, with canvasses executed with spontaneous, energetic and broad brushwork.  Later works reveal an increasing interest in landscape painting. 

Throughout his career, he remained fascinated with mural painting as a venue to explore more complex and complicated themes.  He would often paint over previous works many times as the act of painting seemed to hold a primacy above the final result, as well as a place to try out evolving concepts, no matter how successful or unsuccessful.  For Wilkinson, painting above all seemed to be a journey of investigation and confirmation of the ideas that he was constantly visualizing and revising.  Over the years, he continued to exhibit his work internationally as well as regionally.

In 1962, Wilkinson became chair of the art department at University of Oregon.  For a variety of reasons, many beyond his control, Wilkinson’s additional duties as the prime administrator for the department proved to be an increasingly untenable burden for him as the 1960s progressed culminating in his resignation from his position in Eugene and subsequent move to Louisianna State University to head up the art department there in 1968.  While at LSU, he developed and artist-in-residence program and started an MFA program.  Additionally, his teaching had an even more substantial impact upon art students from the more conservative South.  He remained in his position at LSU until his death in 1974.  A comprehensive retrospective of Wilkinson’s work was exhibited at the University of Oregon in 1990.

Kenneth R. O'Connell, An Exhibition of the Works of Jack Wilkinson: Artist-Philosopher 1913-1974, Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Oregon, 1990.  

Courtesy, Mark Humpal  

Biography from Crocker Art Museum Store:
Lithographer, painter. Born in Berkeley, CA on July 2, 1913.

Wilkinson studied at the University of Oregon, CSFA under Maurice Sterne, and in Paris. During the 1930s he was a resident of San Francisco, and after 1941 taught at the University of Oregon and Lousiana State University.

He died in East Hampton, NY in 1974. Exh: SFAA, 1937 (prize); CSFA, 1939 (solo); Portland Museum, 1945 (solo).

In: SFMA; Burns (OR) Post Office. WWAA 1940-53; SS.
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

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