Back Home Again
Throughout his career, Ellis Wilson had made frequent trips back to his hometown to visit family and friends. In 1947, he finally got to exhibit his work at the Mayfield Public Library. Ellis later told an interviewer that this was the first art exhibit ever held in Mayfield. Hundreds of citizens attended, and the artist himself considered it one of the high points of his life. The Mayfield News-Graphic reported: “About 30 years ago a little Negro boy used to deliver packages for the old S.T. Day Ready-to-Wear Store. Now that little boy is back in his home town with an exhibit of his paintings. He is Ellis Wilson, one of the country’s leading Negro Artists today.”
Other people were beginning to take notice, too: Justus Bier, art critic for the Louisville Courier-Journal, wrote several articles following Ellis’ career, noting his exhibitions and accomplishments. In Bier’s opinion, Kentucky had no other artist who came close to Wilson’s achievements.
A year later, in 1948, the J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville held a solo exhibit of Wilson’s work. In 1951, his paintings Melons and Chinese Kites were accepted in the museum’s annual Kentucky and Southern Indiana Exhibition of Art. It was the first time the show had admitted work by a black artist.
In 1950, Murray State College (now University) purchased End of the Day. (Years later, after Ellis had fallen back into obscurity, newly hired curator Albert Sperath would come across this painting in the collection and resolve to find out more about the man who had painted it. When he did, he was amazed to learn that the artist had been born 25 miles from the Murray campus.) Then in 1952, before the institution even accepted African Americans as students, the college hosted an exhibit of his work.
Ellis’ continued interest in sharing his accomplishments and artwork with his hometown and home state reflected his strong connection to his community and family roots. He once told an interviewer that his only real regret was that his father, who had inspired his love of art in the first place, did not live to see his son’s success. Likewise, the warm and supportive response shown by Mayfield and the state of Kentucky during his lifetime and career echoed their pride in their native son. That pride was once again demonstrated in the Ellis Wilson celebration of which KET’s documentary is a part. More than 100 years after his birth, Ellis was celebrated with a major retrospective exhibit and an accompanying catalogue. Organized by Sperath, who spent several years tracking down works that were often undated and sometimes referred to by several different titles, the exhibit was first mounted at Murray State’s Clara M. Eagle Gallery, then traveled to the University of Kentucky in the summer of 2000. A smaller show went on display at the Mayfield/Graves County Art Guild. The catalogue/monograph, The Art of Ellis Wilson, is available from University Press of Kentucky.
In his own time, though, Ellis never quite managed to make a living at painting; no black artist of his time did. When he died in 1977 in New York, he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Its location is unknown.
Eva F. King is a member of the Graves County Art Guild.
In addition to named sources, quotes in this biography were drawn from The History of African American Artists. Harry Henderson interviewed Ellis Wilson for the first edition of that book in the mid-1970s.
Mayfield to Chicago
Chicago to New York
New York to Points South
South to Haiti
Ellis Wilson: Back Home Again