Making a Difference:
About once a month I will get a lead, a telephone call, an e-mail saying, ‘By the way, I may have a Wilson.’
When KET premiered Ellis Wilson—So Much To Paint in 2000, only a handful of people still remembered the late Mayfield native. The documentary brought renewed attention to the artist, who died in obscurity in 1977, and put a name to a work seen by millions of Cosby Show fans each week. A print of Wilson’s Funeral Procession, owned by Tulane University, hung prominently above the Huxtables’ mantel for several seasons after it was the subject of an entire episode.
But even Bill Cosby couldn’t do what KET’s web site on Wilson has done—bring to light as many as 70 Wilson originals that experts feared were lost forever.
“About once a month I will get a lead, a telephone call, an e-mail saying, ‘By the way, I may have a Wilson,’” said Albert Sperath, museum director who curated an exhibition of Wilson works at Murray State University in March 2000.
KET’s documentary on Ellis Wilson grew out of that exhibition, which for the first time brought recognition to an artist whose style had been overshadowed by trends in the 1960s art world. A Guggenheim Fellowship recipient in 1944-5, Wilson traveled extensively in the American South and Haiti, where he painted the everyday lives of common people.
Sperath, who now works as a curator at Mississippi State University, credits the KET documentary and its companion web site with his success since at finding many Wilson treasures.
“Through the KET web site, we have developed a lot more knowledge about what is out there and who owns it,” he said. “The sales at auctions of his works have increased dramatically, and the value has increased dramatically—probably as a result of his being a good artist as well as getting the publicity that we were able to bring to him after his death.”
Wilson was never able to support himself as an artist, yet his talent and his influence are clear, says Guy Mendes, producer of Ellis Wilson—So Much To Paint.
“Wilson helped integrate the art world and paved the way for younger black artists,” Mendes said. “Artist Benny Williams points out that, prior to Ellis’ work, blacks were either painted as heroic or pathetic.
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“Wilson’s work deserves our attention because he used color, shape, and form to bring the everyday life of black people to light, elevating their struggles to the level of art.”
One of the Ellis Wilson works that has been found thanks to KET is Haitian Drummer, a truly inspiring “find” by New Yorker Will Cottes.
Cottes, an art aficionado and former college art major who frequents flea markets, was making his regular Sunday-morning stop at a stall operated by a couple who cleaned out apartments in Lower Manhattan. A work caught his eye—and while he’d never heard of the artist, he appreciated its bold paint strokes and confident signature. He memorized the name, Ellis Wilson, and jumped on the Internet as soon as he got back to his apartment.
“When I did the search, one of the listings was your program,” Cottes said. “It just catapulted me out of my seat.”
A cool saunter back to the flea market and Haitian Drummer was his for $35. He later sold the work to a New Orleans auction house. “I wanted to sell it—I have so much stuff,” he says. “But I have to admit, I miss it!”
“It has been really gratifying to find so many pieces that were unknown to me at the time when I organized the exhibition,” said Sperath. “It is possible to organize another retrospective or exhibition just from the new pieces that I have found as a result of the web site and the film.”
An updated version of Ellis Wilson—So Much To Paint, including an afterword spotlighting newly discovered works, aired as part of the Kentucky Muse series.