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Ellis Wilson: So Much To Paint
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New York to Points South

In 1928, Ellis Wilson arrived in Harlem—and found himself in the middle of a vital African-American community that was fairly bursting at the seams with artistic and cultural creativity. We now celebrate that period as the Harlem Renaissance. Later moving to Greenwich Village, Ellis would live and paint in New York until his death in 1977, with his work eventually seen in several prestigious galleries.

At the time he arrived, though, black artists were still barred from most mainstream galleries. The New Negro Art Movement of the 1920s and ’30s was a cooperative effort to promote and exhibit the work of African-American artists. Ellis participated in many of the exhibitions and events associated with the movement, including those sponsored by the Harmon Foundation.

From 1935 to 1940, Ellis was employed by the government’s Works Progress Administration Federal Arts Project. Through the WPA, he befriended other black artists. He found the environment very stimulating; even though he made little money, it was a joy to be working with other artists.

“I had moved down on East 18th Street, and they all lived down on Greene Street and that area, in lofts,” he remembered. “They were all painting and visiting and talking and drinking wine. But it was really stimulating. It really got me to painting on my own. 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 a month for a cold-water place. It was a joy!”

Ellis also remembered the WPA years as the time when he broke away from the academic style of painting he had learned in Chicago. “I just cut out completely from anything that looked like a portrait,” he said. “It was freer. I was astounded. I just hit upon something.”

Still, the WPA assignment of painting detailed cityscapes as a guide to New York’s boroughs wasn’t really the kind of art he longed to do. And it left him only the weekends to pursue his own projects. So in 1939, he began annually applying for a Guggenheim Fellowship, hoping to be able to travel and paint. He had conceived a project of traveling throughout the South and painting black people at work. His successive Guggenheim applications demonstrate his increasing determination to achieve his vision:

1939: “Practically all of my life I have been painting under difficult conditions. Lack of money and time, especially time, have prevented me from painting as much and as often as I have wanted to.... Withal, I have made steady progress, until now my work has reached a mature stage, and I feel that with a grant such as the Guggenheim, giving the opportunity and encouragement to wholly concentrate on painting, I could express my self to the fullest degree and accomplish worthwhile work.... In short, I want to paint all the time—everything of interest and beauty.

“I am most interested in painting the Negro. Unfortunately, this type of painting hasn’t a large following at present. I am desirous of both making a name for myself in the Art World and to create paintings which will be a credit to my Race and my time....”

1940: “I am striving with each new canvas to paint the Negro with greater feeling and understanding....

“I want to continue to paint the Negro! There is such a wide, rich field of unexplored material to work from. Although I have been painting the Negro for a number of years, I feel I have only begun to go beneath the surface....”

1941: “My project or plan doesn’t take much telling. I want to paint! My life is dedicated to painting, and what is more—to painting the Negro. There is so much to paint and so little time.”

In 1944, his passion and persistence finally paid off, and Ellis was awarded a Guggenheim.

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