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Ellis Wilson—So Much to Paint

“My project or plan doesn’t take much telling. I want to paint! … There is so much to paint and so little time.”
—Ellis Wilson, 1941

The KET documentary Ellis Wilson—So Much To Paint salutes the life and art of a neglected Kentucky-born painter whose work paved the way for later African-American artists and established the everyday lives of black people as a legitimate subject for art. Since premiering in 2000, the program and web site have helped to bring new attention to Wilson’s story of talent, passion, and persistence—and to uncover many more examples of his vibrant and ground-breaking work. The encore presentation of Ellis Wilson as part of the Kentucky Muse series includes an update on the story.

Ellis Wilson—So Much to Paint

Follows the career of Kentucky native Ellis Wilson (1899-1977), an African-American artist whose passion for painting took him from his hometown of Mayfield to a successful career in New York. His work captured the daily lives of African Americans and helped open doors for many younger black artists.

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The Art of Ellis Wilson

Ellis Wilson left very little documentation of his own works, and no one knows how many paintings he completed. The most comprehensive survey to date was undertaken in the late 1990s by Albert Sperath of Murray State University in Murray, KY, who was preparing a major retrospective exhibit on Wilson.

Sperath located archived references to more than 270 works—some of which may be alternate names for the same painting—but was able to locate only 86 paintings. Even among those, several had been known by more than one title at various times. Many are also undated, so a strict chronology is impossible. This gallery includes some of those works, plus other examples of Ellis Wilson paintings that have been “discovered” since the Murray exhibit thanks to the KET television documentary and web site. The titles used here are those preferred by the current owners.

Curator's Essay

In Search of … the Lost Ellis Wilson

by Albert Sperath
Project Director and Curator of the Ellis Wilson Retrospective, 2000

The essay below was written in 2000, at the time the KET documentary Ellis Wilson—So Much To Paint and this companion web site were launched. Since then, many more works by Ellis Wilson have been located—including Sperath’s “Most Wanted” painting, Fisherwoman.


My goal is to eventually find every Ellis Wilson painting and other artwork in existence. To date, I have located about 100. The number is not exact because I have not seen some of the art and only know of its existence through reliable sources. Some collectors are reluctant to share their holdings, for various reasons, and I respect that wish. I do continue the search, however, and through this web site, I hope to find and document more.

For instance, there is the matter of the Terry Art Collection in Miami, FL. In 1952, Ellis Wilson won a significant award for Fisherwoman (pictured at right in a reproduction from a 1940s edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal), and the painting became part of the Terry collection. It is one of my favorites, but I have had no luck in trying to locate it. What happened to the Terry Art Collection? Is it still intact, or did it get broken up?

fisherwoman

A second instance of knowing the location of a piece of art at a specific time but being unable to trace its present whereabouts is the collection of the Henry McIntyre family (interestingly, the Terry and McIntyre collections may be linked). The August 1962 issue of House and Garden featured the McIntyres’ San Francisco house, both on the cover and in an article. I can identify one Wilson painting from the magazine cover, of seven African-American women carrying umbrellas. The second one is less sure. In figure 9, page 75, at the back of the room is what is likely the Fisherwoman painting—perhaps the same one as in the Terry collection. I can’t be sure, though, because I discovered that Wilson would often paint the same scene with minor changes and title it differently. I discovered this article/collection during my primary research but was unable to pursue it further because the rest of the project had to get done.

Other little discoveries have also come to light. After my visit to the Schomburg collection, a sculpture of a small girl’s or woman’s head was found sitting on a shelf in storage by Tammi Lawson. Wilson’s signature on that piece is easily identified. And as recently as February 2000, another small head sculpture was given to the Schomburg by a Manhattan donor. I hope that these small discoveries continue to happen—and that they lead to big discoveries, like the whereabouts of Fisherwoman.

Additional roles this web site can fulfill are also important. This past summer, a Wilson still life was stolen from a collector in New Mexico. It is one of three versions I know of depicting gourds in a bowl. It is a small painting, just recently conserved. If it turns up, please let me know and I will tell the proper owner. Please note that one of the other two known versions is on the market now; it is not to be confused with the stolen one.

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Biography

The Biography and Travels of Ellis Wilson

Celebrating Ellis Wilson

by Eva F. King

Mayfield to Chicago

He won national acclaim in the art world during the 1930s and ’40s. His work can be found in the collections of many museums, including the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art, and his painting Funeral Procession received national exposure on the set of Bill Cosby’s 1980s television show. Yet Mayfield, Kentucky-born artist Ellis Wilson remains relatively unknown in his hometown and home state.

Wilson, an African American, was born in 1899 in a black neighborhood known as the Bottom in Mayfield, one of six children of Frank and Minnie Wilson. His father, a barber, was also an amateur painter. In a 1975 interview, Ellis acknowledged that he got his artistic talent from his father. The family in particular cherished two paintings of Frank’s—“If they would be around today, they would be considered primitives,” Ellis recalled—but the elder Wilson gave up painting after his marriage. It was a luxury unaffordable to a man trying to support a growing family.

While still very young, Ellis started taking odd jobs to help out with the family finances. Among the many jobs he had while growing up in Mayfield was as a janitor for a dress shop. He once drew a portrait in cleaning soap on the store’s window, which attracted the attention of passersby. The delighted store owner encouraged weekly drawings.

Ellis Wilson’s formal education began in the Bottom at the Mayfield Colored Grade School. He attended the all-black Kentucky Normal and Industrial Institute in Frankfort (which has since evolved into Kentucky State University) for two years, but could study only agriculture and education. Ellis wanted to study art; so, at 19, he left Kentucky for Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute.

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Chicago to New York

Ellis Wilson’s introduction to Chicago was almost literally a baptism by fire. Shortly after he arrived, a race riot that would eventually claim dozens of lives broke out downtown. “I couldn’t go downtown to the Art Institute,” Ellis later recalled. “They were shooting and carrying on.”

But despite that rough start, Chicago proved to be a wonderful new world for the young man from Kentucky. The city gave him what really mattered most: the chance to learn and talk about art. He threw himself into his classes, working various jobs in the summers to help pay his $150-per-year tuition. He discovered an affinity for city life and worked to suppress his own “country” accent. And, most important, he got involved with the Chicago Art League, where he met others like him who shared his passion for painting.

Shy and reserved, Ellis didn’t make close friends in the league. (In fact, he would remain a loner all his life.) But he found the company of his fellow young artists liberating and inspiring.

“Oh, they were good times,” he later recalled. “I had never been in a group of artists—you know, creative black people. I thought, ‘Gee, the Negroes are white.’ It was just great to be numbered among them—for me, anyway.”

After completing his Art Institute studies in 1923, Ellis stayed in Chicago for five years trying to make a living as a commercial artist. In 1928, he moved on to New York.

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New York to Points South

In 1928, Ellis Wilson arrived in Harlem—and found himself in the middle of a vital African-American community that was fairly bursting at the seams with artistic and cultural creativity. We now celebrate that period as the Harlem Renaissance. Later moving to Greenwich Village, Ellis would live and paint in New York until his death in 1977, with his work eventually seen in several prestigious galleries.

At the time he arrived, though, black artists were still barred from most mainstream galleries. The New Negro Art Movement of the 1920s and ’30s was a cooperative effort to promote and exhibit the work of African-American artists. Ellis participated in many of the exhibitions and events associated with the movement, including those sponsored by the Harmon Foundation.

From 1935 to 1940, Ellis was employed by the government’s Works Progress Administration Federal Arts Project. Through the WPA, he befriended other black artists. He found the environment very stimulating; even though he made little money, it was a joy to be working with other artists.

“I had moved down on East 18th Street, and they all lived down on Greene Street and that area, in lofts,” he remembered. “They were all painting and visiting and talking and drinking wine. But it was really stimulating. It really got me to painting on my own. It was beautiful….

“We made very little money, but things at that time—food and clothes—cost very little. Rent was very cheap. I was paying $18 a month for a cold-water place. It was a joy!”

Ellis also remembered the WPA years as the time when he broke away from the academic style of painting he had learned in Chicago. “I just cut out completely from anything that looked like a portrait,” he said. “It was freer. I was astounded. I just hit upon something.”

Still, the WPA assignment of painting detailed cityscapes as a guide to New York’s boroughs wasn’t really the kind of art he longed to do. And it left him only the weekends to pursue his own projects. So in 1939, he began annually applying for a Guggenheim Fellowship, hoping to be able to travel and paint. He had conceived a project of traveling throughout the South and painting black people at work. His successive Guggenheim applications demonstrate his increasing determination to achieve his vision:

1939: “Practically all of my life I have been painting under difficult conditions. Lack of money and time, especially time, have prevented me from painting as much and as often as I have wanted to…. Withal, I have made steady progress, until now my work has reached a mature stage, and I feel that with a grant such as the Guggenheim, giving the opportunity and encouragement to wholly concentrate on painting, I could express my self to the fullest degree and accomplish worthwhile work…. In short, I want to paint all the time—everything of interest and beauty.

“I am most interested in painting the Negro. Unfortunately, this type of painting hasn’t a large following at present. 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….”

1940: “I am striving with each new canvas to paint the Negro with greater feeling and understanding….

“I want to continue to paint the Negro! There is such a wide, rich field of unexplored material to work from. Although I have been painting the Negro for a number of years, I feel I have only begun to go beneath the surface….”

1941: “My project or plan doesn’t take much telling. 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.”

In 1944, his passion and persistence finally paid off, and Ellis was awarded a Guggenheim.

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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.

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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.

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A Portrait of Mayfield

Mayfield, where Ellis Wilson was born in 1899, is a town of just under 10,000 people and the county seat of Graves County, Kentucky. Settled in about 1819, it is located in the heart of Western Kentucky’s most productive tobacco-growing region. In the early 20th century, it was also a center of clothing manufacturing; even the minor-league baseball team was known as the Clothiers.

Another famous Mayfield native is writer Bobbie Ann Mason. Much of the movie adaptation of her novel In Country was filmed in and around Mayfield.

The following portrait of life in the town at the time of Ellis Wilson’s childhood was written by Steven H. Jones and Eva F. King for The Art of Ellis Wilson, the catalogue accompanying a 2000 exhibition of Wilson’s work organized by Murray State University. It is used by permission of the authors and the University Press of Kentucky.

Ellis Wilson’s early experiences in the small western Kentucky town of Mayfield were to have lasting influence on his evolution as an artist. The community in which he spent his childhood shaped his early personality and value system. Throughout his career he would paint scenes of the everyday life of black people, and his portrayals would reflect black cultural themes of family, work, and religion—institutions that had been so important to his family, and consequently to Wilson, in Mayfield. Wilson’s artistic interpretations were filtered through the lens of his early experiences in his hometown.

Although no formal history on the topic of race relations in Mayfield exists, valuable oral history has been collected. At the beginning of the twentieth century, shortly after Ellis Wilson was born, Mayfield, like most places in the southern United States, was racially segregated, and blacks had restricted access—in some cases no access at all—to public institutions. The forced isolation of the black communities in the early 1900s made possible the development of distinct institutions such as the black church and the black family, which differed from their mainstream or white counterparts.

In the early 1900s, the African American community in Mayfield was smaller and more spatially confined than the white community. The black neighborhoods had specific names—Out-Cross-the-Ditch, Boxtown, Pee Wee Ridge, Out-in-the-Field, and the Bottom, which was the largest section. These areas had a rural flavor. Some people owned horses and wagons, and many raised pigs and chickens. Some Out-Cross-the-Ditch residents had barns located on their property, even though they lived within the city limits. Ellis Wilson lived in the Bottom community with his extended family; in a 1975 interview he described his family as “country,” referring more to their way of life than to their physical locality. This rural lifestyle was more common in the black sections of Mayfield than in the white neighborhoods in the early 1900s. This background would later enable Wilson to understand and identify with rural blacks in the southern United States and in Haiti and to produce colorful bodies of work depicting rural society.

The Bottom neighborhood included several churches, one of which was the Second Christian Church, which had been founded by Ellis Wilson’s mother, Minnie. Friends and family members remember the Wilson children spending a good deal of their time at the church, which was located a block from the Wilson home on the same street. Ellis Wilson’s nephew James Wilson said, “Uncle Ellis called the church ‘Mrs. Minnie’s Church,’” a familiar term of reference for the church. Next to the church was a large grocery store and a family restaurant called Streets. Other black-owned businesses in the Bottom were a barbershop owned by Ellis Wilson’s grandfather and later his father, Frank Wilson; a funeral home; and a movie theater. A black physician, Dr. Taylor, resided in the Bottom and, according to Ellis Wilson, provided a place for young people to go on Sundays to dance and play piano.

The system of legalized segregation barred African Americans from access to goods and services, so they developed their own resources such as the businesses mentioned above. This situation made it possible for business owners such as Frank Wilson to generate income and leisure time that afforded them opportunities not available to black common laborers. For example, Frank Wilson used revenues from his barbershop not only to support a wife and children, but he also took painting lessons from an itinerant teacher of art and produced some paintings that family members remember to this day. Ellis’s memories of his father studying with the white teacher inspired him to become an artist himself. In an interview in 1975, he said “I guess I got what little talent I have from him.”

In the early 1900s, all blacks who attended school in Mayfield, including Ellis Wilson, went to the Colored Graded School located in the Bottom. The school, by many measures the most important community institution in the Bottom, had an all-black staff and was relatively independent from the city school system. This nurturing environment allowed blacks to develop significant measures of dignity and confidence in their skills. Wilson exhibited these qualities in his determination to acquire an education and in his belief that he could become an artist.

Most black citizens in Mayfield at the time were considered impoverished by whites using the standards of the day; however, the black community was viewed by blacks as economically stable and socially cohesive. Blacks and whites encountered each other in the economic sphere. Wilson’s family had a strong work ethic, which was the social norm in the community at that time. His mother and sister worked as maids for a white family. Ellis Wilson mowed lawns and worked in tobacco, and his male siblings likely had similar jobs in and around the community. At one time Ellis Wilson worked as a janitor of Day’s Ready-to-Wear Dress Shop. (His portraits drawn in cleaning wax on the store window attracted the attention of passersby and delighted the white store owner, who encouraged the weekly drawings.) Wilson developed a respect for manual labor and self-sufficiency.

Graves County Courthouse, early 1900s (photo courtesy Kentucky Historical Society)

Graves County Courthouse, early 1900s
(photo courtesy Kentucky Historical Society)

taking tobacco to the Mayfield market (photo courtesy Kentucky Historical Society)

taking tobacco to the Mayfield market
(photo courtesy Kentucky Historical Society)

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Timeline

 

In the Life of Ellis Wilson  In African-American Culture and the World

 

1899 Ellis Wilson born on April 20 in Mayfield, KY. Night riders terrorize blacks in Western Kentucky.
1906 Begins school, attending six months a year. 10,000 turn out to see a black man hanged in Mayfield.
1910 Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes (forerunner of the National Urban League) formed in New York, reflecting the first great population shift of African Americans from rural South to urban North.
1912-1915 Ellis’ drawings on the windows of the dress shop where he works attract attention from passersby. World War I begins.
1916 Attends Kentucky State College. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation
1918 World War I ends.
1919 Moves to Chicago to attend Art Institute. 38 killed in Chicago race riots.
1920-23 While attending the Art Institute, Ellis works in a YMCA cafeteria, tries to lose his Southern accent, and meets sculptor Richmond Barté.
1925 Alain Locke publishes The New Negro.
1927 Participates in The Negro in Art Week exhibit; meets poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Louis Armstrong brings New Orleans jazz to Chicago.

Lindbergh flies across the Atlantic.

1928 Moves to Harlem, NY; meets Aaron Douglas. Duke Ellington’s “The Mooche”; Paul Robeson in Show Boat
1929 Paints cover illustration for the NAACP’s The Crisis. Becomes affiliated with the Harlem Artists Guild; meets Alain Locke. Works at a brokerage house. Stock market crashes.
1932 Langston Hughes’ The Dream Keeper
1933 Wins honorable mention in Harmon Foundation exhibit; moves to Greenwich Village. Studies at Mechanic Institute, where he wins the Hoe Prize. Bessie Smith’s “Gimme a Pigfoot” and “Do Your Duty”
1934 Exhibits in Augusta Savage’s Salon of Contemporary Negro Art; has first solo show at Vendome Gallery. Studies with painter Xavier Barille. Bessie Smith in the revue Hot from Harlem
1935 Works for the WPA on a project to map New York City’s boroughs; meets painters Joe and Beauford Delaney and Palmer Hayden. Porgy & Bess premieres on Broadway.
1937 Exhibits at Vendome Gallery. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
1939 Has two paintings in the American Negro Exposition in Chicago; applies for Guggenheim Fellowship. Augusta Savage creates The Harp for New York World’s Fair.

World War II begins in Europe.

1940 Work featured in Chicago’s American Negro Exposition. Richard Wright’s Native Son
1941-44 Works in an aircraft engine factory. Commissioned to do triptychs for U.S. Army and Navy chaplains. Wins Guggenheim Fellowship. The lure of wartime jobs brings another wave of rural Southerners, black and white, north to the cities.

Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration” series

1945 Travels to Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina to sketch and paint blacks at work; takes part in an exhibit sponsored by the CIO labor union. Atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; war ends.

Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie collaborate on KoKo.

1946 Wins prize at Atlanta University for his portrait Allen; exhibits at galleries in New York and Washington, DC and at a one-man show mounted by the Southside Community Art Center in Chicago.
1947 Mayfield Public Library shows Wilson’s paintings—his first exhibit in his hometown. Jackie Robinson breaks major league baseball’s color barrier.
1948-49 Exhibits at the J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville; the Louisville Courier-Journal reproduces some of the paintings in color. Exhibits at the Contemporary Arts Gallery in New York. Paul Robeson is called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to answer charges of Communism.
1951 The Speed Museum changes the bylaws of its annual Kentucky-Southern Indiana show, allowing submissions by black artists for the first time, in order to include a Wilson painting.
1952 Wins $3,000 in Miami’s Terry Art Competition for The Fisherwoman. Murray State University in Kentucky, though not yet admitting black students, exhibits Wilson’s work. Ellis travels to Haiti in what will become the first of four extended tours. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
1953 James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain
1954 Shows Haitian paintings in New York and is reviewed in Art News and Art Digest. Supreme Court declares “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
1960 Exhibits a second series of Haitian paintings at New York’s Contemporary Arts Gallery. Supreme Court declares segregation in interstate travel unconstitutional.
1961-63 Works as a guide and guard at Riverside Museum. CORE organizes Freedom Rides and lunch counter sit-ins.
1963 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gives his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.

President John F. Kennedy is assassinated.

1964 Congress passes the Civil Rights Act.
1966 Kentucky General Assembly passes a state Civil Rights Act banning racial discrimination in employment and most public services.
1967-68 The Black Panther movement emerges. King is assassinated, sparking riots in Washington, Los Angeles, and other cities.
1971 Exhibits with sculptor William Artis at Fisk University in Nashville and as part of the North Carolina Museum of Art’s “Three Negro Artists” show.
1974-75 Ellis is interviewed by Camille Billops for Artist and Influence and by Harry Henderson for History of Afro-American Artists. Facing impeachment over the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon resigns the presidency.

America ends its involvement in the Vietnam War; Saigon falls to the Communist North Vietnamese forces.

1977 Ellis Wilson dies on January 1 or 2 and is buried in a pauper’s grave. The exact date of his death and the location of his grave are unknown. Alex Haley’s Roots becomes a television phenomenon.
1985 Wilson’s Funeral Procession is the subject of an episode of TV’s The Cosby Show.
1990-93 Wilson is featured in Against All Odds, a history of the Harmon Foundation, and in Bearden and Henderson’s History of African-American Artists.
2000 Murray State University hosts a major retrospective of Wilson’s work; University Press of Kentucky publishes the accompanying catalogue, The Art of Ellis Wilson.

 

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