Encore Presentation: Ellis Wilson—So Much To Paint

Episode #105 | First Aired: February 17, 2008

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A Kentucky Muse Encore Presentation

“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,” said Ellis Wilson in 1941. Wilson’s passion for painting took him from his hometown of Mayfield, Kentucky to New York City. And his colorful works capturing the everyday lives of African Americans helped pave the way for the acceptance and success of other African-American painters in the mid- to late 20th century.

The 2000 KET-produced documentary “Ellis Wilson—So Much To Paint” tells Wilson’s story from his childhood in Kentucky to his artistic legacy. Born in 1899, Wilson grew up in a time of segregation and prejudice. Though his artistic interest and ability were apparent from an early age, few opportunities existed for him in Mayfield. In 1919, he moved to Chicago to attend the Art Institute. In 1928, he arrived in Harlem, New York, where a “renaissance” of black creativity in the arts was under way. Over the next decade and a half, his work was featured in a variety of exhibits and he won several prizes, including a Guggenheim Fellowship.

In the mid-1940s, Wilson embarked on a trip that would change the course of his work, traveling to Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina to sketch and paint scenes from the daily lives of African Americans. Lumberjacks at work, a woman sweeping, women with their babies—Wilson painted them using bold shapes and vivid colors. Though he was adamant that there was no such thing as “black art”—only art made by black people—Wilson strived to capture African-American life with feeling and understanding throughout the remaining decades of his life. In the early 1950s, he took the first of four trips to “the poor man’s Africa,” Haiti. “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,” he said.

Though he never attained great fame or fortune while alive—in fact, when he died in 1977, he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave—Wilson attracted renewed attention beginning in the 1980s, when his painting “Funeral Procession” was featured in an episode of the television series The Cosby Show. In 2000, Murray State University hosted a major retrospective of his work.

In addition to providing a moving portrait of Wilson’s life, the documentary introduces the efforts of Albert Sperath, curator of the Murray show, to locate Wilson paintings lost over time. Though Sperath has since left Murray, he has continued this effort since the documentary aired and attributes the program and the KET web site on Wilson to contributing to the rediscovery of dozens of paintings.

Visit the program website: Ellis Wilson—So Much To Paint

Recently Found Works

Selected Works by Ellis Wilson

This gallery includes images of works by Ellis Wilson that have come to light in recent years. KET’s companion web site to the original documentary Ellis Wilson—So Much To Paint also includes a gallery with additional previously known works.

Murray State University’s exhibit of Ellis Wilson’s work in 2000, and KET’s subsequent documentary and accompanying web site, brought new attention to this Mayfield, KY-born artist. For Albert Sperath, then curator at Murray and currently director of the University Museum and historic houses at the University of Mississippi, it was the beginning of a fascinating treasure hunt to find works by Wilson.

For the 2000 exhibit, “We had about maybe 100 to 150 pieces to choose from,” Sperath noted. “Many of them were minor pieces like drawings and watercolors and things so we didn’t consider those. We kept it to oil paintings.” Even many paintings that Sperath learned about couldn’t be found.

As The Art of Ellis Wilson, the book that accompanied the exhibit, and KET’s documentary Ellis Wilson—So Much To Paint began to be seen around the United States, interest in Wilson and his work increased, Sperath noted. The KET web site specifically directed those with Wilson paintings to contact Sperath. Since Ellis Wilson—So Much To Paint first aired, Sperath said, he has been contacted about once a month by someone who thinks they may have a painting by Wilson. As a result, some 70 works have been located.

Old Friends and New Fans

Some of the newfound works are owned by descendants of those who actually knew Wilson. For example, the owner of the workHaitian Park said, “My mother and father lived on 10th Street in Greenwich Village, New York in the 1940s. My father painted as a hobby and both parents were into the art scene in New York. I believe they knew Ellis since the 1940s. They gave me the painting about 20 years ago and I have enjoyed it very much.”

Mark Pinzur said his uncle, Samuel Pinzur, who was a librarian at Queens College, met Wilson in Greenwich Village. “My uncle loved his work at once, but could not afford the $100 price. When Mr. Wilson asked my uncle how much he could afford to pay, my uncle answered ‘$50,’ and he was given the painting for that amount. They became friendly and my uncle bought other pieces as his finances allowed.” Now the paintings are treasured by Pinzur’s nieces and nephews.

Other works are in university or corporate collections. For example, Murray State University, which had one Wilson painting in 2000 (The Fisherman or End of the Day), has since acquired another (Chinese Kites).

Some of the newfound Wilsons were bought by their owners at flea markets—decades ago as well as more recently. “My mother purchased this in the late 1960s at a barn sale and has had it hanging in her kitchen ever since,” said the daughter of the owner of an untitled painting of six girls holding hands in a circle around a tree. “It wasn’t until last year that she noticed it was signed, decided to Google the name, and was so surprised at what she found on Ellis Wilson!”

At least one piece of pottery made by Wilson has come to light. So has an unusually large work—nearly 10 feet long. A portrait of Wilson by an unknown artist who signed the work “Jackson” was also uncovered. Some of the paintings that have been found were works that Sperath knew existed but had not been able to locate in time for the Murray exhibit, including his favorite, a painting showing a woman standing on a beach holding a fish in her hands (not included in this gallery). “It was exciting to find that one,” Sperath said. “Others that have turned up have been very similar—he would do a lot of things and he would repaint the same scene over and over again with different patterns on the clothing or a little different background.”

What’s Still “Out There”?

While some Wilson works may truly be lost forever—“His materials were not always stable; I’ve seen paintings that were almost indecipherable because you couldn’t read them anymore, two-thirds of the paint was gone”—Sperath believes that perhaps half of the 400 to 500 paintings that Wilson did in his lifetime are still out there, hanging in kitchens or tucked amid the wares at flea markets. “He was a very prolific painter,” Sperath said.

When they go up for sale at auctions and galleries, the value of Wilson paintings has increased greatly in recent years, Sperath noted. But “They also turn up at yard sales and garage sales all the time.”

New Yorker Will Cottes, an art aficionado and former college art major, was making his regular Sunday-morning stop at a flea market stall when a work with bold paint strokes and a confident signature caught his eye. He’d never heard of Ellis Wilson, but went back to his apartment and did a search on the name. “One of the listings was the KET program,” Cottes said. “It just catapulted me out of my seat.” He went back to the flea market and bought Haitian Drummer for $35. He later sold the work to an auction house in New Orleans. “I wanted to sell it—I have so much stuff—but I have to admit, I miss it.”

Sperath continues to look for Wilson works “all the time. If I was in Western Kentucky or New York City and found a little yard sale or street sale, I would look through.”

The fact that he consistently signed his work—his signature is more of a printed signature than a signed signature—is one clue to identifying a work by Wilson, Sperath said. Next, look at the style of the piece. “He had several styles; you can tell the pieces that have sort of a Caribbean feel to them were done during his Haiti era, and figures that have no faces were done later in life.” But always, Wilson’s interest in people is reflected in his artwork. “He was an outgoing person, a gentle man, and I think that his love of people is reflected in his artwork and his subject matter. He has always painted people either in a personal one-on-one situation, like in a portrait, or there are always people in the background, and they are always done lovingly, always pictured in a favorable light.”