Murray, KY – In 1899, Ellis Wilson was born to Frank and Minnie Wilson, a barber and a cleaning lady living in a black Mayfield community called "The Bottom." Raised in the midst of poverty and racism, young Wilson encountered a life in Western Kentucky that would later provide him with subject matter for his future artistic career. In his later years, he reflected upon it with a nostalgia others might not have understood.
"Once he was asked how did blacks and whites get along in Mayfield in that period, and he said they got along well.
Steve Jones contributed to a book chronicling the painter's life called, "The Art of Ellis Wilson"
"When you look at the history, you find out, for example, there was a quote unquote reporting of a race war between blacks and whites in 1898. In 1906, an African American was lynched."
Jones says Wilson first discovered his talent while working as a teenage janitor for Day's Ready-to-Wear in Mayfield. The boy began sketching soap portraits on the store windows before he washed them. The admiring owner soon added the artwork to Wilson's list of weekly chores. With this encouragement, he enrolled in the Chicago Institute of Art in 1918. In a KET documentary featuring Wilson, he discusses his initial awe of the school.
"The art institute and the museum were all in one. The classes were down and you could go through the galleries at will, you know what I'm saying? I thought I was in Paris."
Wilson graduated in 1923 and later moved to New York during the Great Depression. There he found an art scene brimming with activity despite the nation's meager economy. Jones says the young man eventually settled in Greenwich Village, where he found other artists with whom he could commune. University of Mississippi Museum Director and author Albert Sperath says Wilson's work, for the most part was all figurative.
"It has to do with people doing things. So, he was always interested in how people lived their lives and what they did in their lifetimes. So, that was his subject matter whether it was working in a factory or selling fruit on a roadside stand. It was always an image of everyday life."
With bright colors and simplified figures, Wilson painted the African American experience as he saw it - without sensationalizing his subjects for effect. Although he exclusively painted black life, he simply considered himself a painter.
"To me it was just art done by Negroes, what do you mean, "Negro art"? It's just a Negro doing Negroes. It's not Negro art, per say, like African Art. It really isn't."
Eventually, his pieces caught some attention and in 1944, he won the Guggenheim Fellowship. The grant allowed him to study black life outside New York's city blocks. Steve Jones
"He proposed to go to the South to places like Georgia, and Kentucky by the way. In fact, he came to Western Kentucky, he came back home, if you will. A number of his more famous paintings like the Adesto Family' came out of that series."
Once he completed his tour of the South, Jones says the painter wanted to extend his artistic observation, believing one couldn't fully observe the African American without observing the African. After winning $3,000 in the Terry Art Exhibition in 1952, he decided it was time to travel again.
"He wanted to paint something that had to do with what one noted African American art critic called the ancestral arts. He wanted to paint something that related to Africa, and that African-derived culture was more on display and more easily seen in Haiti than it was in some areas in the United States."
Such travel and work made Wilson intriguing to his niece, Alice, who says she saw him every once in a while when he came back to Mayfield to visit. She can still recall his stories.
"There was a lot of energy around him. He was a person that you wanted to talk to - that you wanted to hear about all his experiences."
As Wilson aged and as he traveled, his work began to change. Albert Sperath says as the artist's work relaxed toward the later years of his life.
"The work he was doing in the 30s and 40s was very vibrant. And, as he grew older, you might use the phrase, he became more of a romantic, because he showed children playing and flying kites, people selling flowers in the street markets, and it became a little less in-your-face and more easy to look at."
Sperath also says, like many other artists before him, Wilson's work never became famous during his lifetime. He lived a very poor life and was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave in 1977. In the 1980s, however, his painting Funeral Procession' received widespread exposure when it became a Hollywood set piece.
"It was actually featured on Bill Cosby's show. The storyline was that his wife had discovered this painting by her uncle in an auction, and they were trying to decide whether or not they should buy it because it was pretty expensive. And, the outcome was that she eventually did buy it, and they hung it over the mantelpiece of the set of his house."
In recent years, the demand for Wilson's work has increased. Sperath says Bill Cosby personally owns a few paintings and Alice Wilson says Warner Brothers, Inc. recently requested a piece to use on the set of Night in Rodanthe.' Although he has yet to achieve world-wide fame, the nation seems to be coming aware of the boy from Mayfield and his observation of African American culture.