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.
Shore Leave by Ellis Wilson
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.