South to Haiti
As World War II drew to its end, Ellis Wilson was awarded Guggenheim Fellowships for two years to support his project of traveling and painting ordinary African Americans in family and work settings. Throughout 1944 and 1945, he produced a series of paintings capturing both the vitality and the quiet dignity of Southern black people. In Georgia, he painted men making turpentine; in South Carolina, workers cutting trees and planing lumber. During a visit back home to Mayfield, he painted farm hands in a tobacco field, workers in clay mines, and the famous Wooldridge Monuments in the town cemetery—which, he later told an interviewer, had “scared the britches off of me” as a child.
In Charleston, SC, Ellis developed colorful paintings of people at the open markets. He immersed himself in the African-American culture of the sea islands off the Carolinas, spending time particularly on Daufuskie sketching and painting fishing activities. “Coming from an inland town, I was drawn more to the fishermen and their way of living,” he said. “I often went on fishing trips with them, thereby getting to know them quite well. I was attracted by their poise and simple dignity.”
One striking painting from this period, End of the Day, shows the solitary figure of a man carrying home a prize catch, both sharply contrasted against the vivid blue of the sea. Another of these paintings, of a black woman holding a large fish while balancing another on her head, won him a $3,000 prize in the national Terry Art Exhibition in Miami in 1952. Unfortunately, this painting, like much of Ellis“ work, cannot be located. (The search goes on, though—see Albert Sperath’s curator’s note for more details.)
Ellis, who had already dealt with one kind of prejudice in the art world—he once complained to an interviewer that some art dealers wanted all black painters to be “primitives”—encountered “the other kind of day-to-day prejudice” during his Guggenheim travels.
“White people stared at me when I started to sketch,” he remembered. “Some drove me off farms and were mean and dumb all the time. But I met some who were decent.
“A white woman who bought pictures from me invited me to her home in North Carolina. I told inquisitive people that I did painting for her in New York. They thought I was a house painter, I guess.
“[But] I noticed such great hopes among the people in the South: hopes that they could soon vote, and hopes that education would become free and open. My own hope is that I capture their hopes in my work.”
Using the Terry Award, Ellis traveled on to Haiti. He ended up making several trips to that island nation, and it was another liberating time for him. It was his first experience of a country where blacks were the ruling majority. “And although they were black, I couldn’t understand them—they all spoke Creole and French. All that excited me,” he recalled. “And then it was tropical.... I’d never seen a tropical place before. And with the music, the drumming, the dancing, they were very artistic.”
The body of work he produced based on observations of Haitian peasants also marked a shift in his style. Moving away from his earlier, more representational style, Ellis portrayed the Haitian figures as black silhouettes with no facial features, their clothing as geometric shapes with no folds or details. One painting captured silhouetted figures bending and swaying in celebration of a ceremony of Voodoo, with a dark background of tall trees strung with lights providing an eerie effect.
Ellis was now at the peak of his creative powers. And back home, he was starting to be recognized for his art.
Mayfield to Chicago
Chicago to New York
New York to Points South
Ellis Wilson: South to Haiti
NEXT: Back Home Again