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Ellis Wilson: So Much To Paint
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Kentucky Muse

Ellis Wilson: Chicago to New York

Ellis Wilson’s introduction to Chicago was almost literally a baptism by fire. Shortly after he arrived, a race riot that would eventually claim dozens of lives broke out downtown. “I couldn’t go downtown to the Art Institute,” Ellis later recalled. “They were shooting and carrying on.”

But despite that rough start, Chicago proved to be a wonderful new world for the young man from Kentucky. The city gave him what really mattered most: the chance to learn and talk about art. He threw himself into his classes, working various jobs in the summers to help pay his $150-per-year tuition. He discovered an affinity for city life and worked to suppress his own “country” accent. And, most important, he got involved with the Chicago Art League, where he met others like him who shared his passion for painting.

Shy and reserved, Ellis didn’t make close friends in the league. (In fact, he would remain a loner all his life.) But he found the company of his fellow young artists liberating and inspiring.

“Oh, they were good times,” he later recalled. “I had never been in a group of artists—you know, creative black people. I thought, ‘Gee, the Negroes are white.’ It was just great to be numbered among them—for me, anyway.”

After completing his Art Institute studies in 1923, Ellis stayed in Chicago for five years trying to make a living as a commercial artist. In 1928, he moved on to New York.

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