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John Wilson

John Woodrow Wilson (b. 1922, Boston, MA – d. 2015, Brookline, MA) was a sculptor, painter, and printmaker, best known for his powerful portraits of Black men, with a distinct interest in both politically and socially conscious art. He joined other prominent Black artists who lived and trained in Mexico, such as Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White. Born out of socially conscious American graphic art and Mexican muralist art, Wilson experiments with sculptural figuration and bold abstraction in his practice.

Wilson was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and began drawing and painting at an early age.  He received his earliest training from art teachers at the Roxbury Boys Club where he studied with the Russian émigré, Alexandre Iacovleff.  In 1939, he enrolled in the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on a full scholarship. He graduated from Tufts University in 1947 and later studied in Mexico City and Paris.

Wilson’s interest in socially relevant themes arose in part from his exposure to the Social Realism that dominated American art during the Depression of the 1930s and continued through the early 1940s. The artist was further motivated by strained racial relations within the United States, and Wilson’s vulnerable social position as a black artist in the twentieth century is often reflected in his work. One of the most profound influence on Wilson’s construction of his own artistic vision was the work of Mexican muralists David Alfaros Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco, and printmaker Francisco Dosamantes.  In 1946, Wilson received the prestigious John William Paige Traveling Fellowship from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts to study abroad in Europe. His pursuit of technical training led him to the studio of Fernand Léger. Shortly after Wilson’s return to the United States in 1950, he received a John Hay Whitney Foundation Opportunity Fellowship for travel, and lived in Mexico for five years, which influenced his style of bold, sculptural graphic compositions of the Mexican Muralists and robust primary color, space, and stylized form that he had learned to admire in the work of Léger. After returning from Mexico in 1956, Wilson resided in Chicago and then in New York before returning to Boston in 1964 to take a teaching position at Boston University. He served as a professor of art at BU until 1986.

His deep involvement in the American Civil Rights movement resulted in consciously political images in his prints. His studio was often a meeting place for artists and left-leaning political activists. Wilson used lithography to portray scenes of domestic life within the African American community, and aimed to convey strong messages about racial justice, black dignity and income disparity.

Wilson introduced sculpture into his practice during the 1960s, reaching a height in the 1980s when he created two nationally recognized monumental busts of Martin Luther King, Jr: one an 8-foot tall commission for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park (1982) in Buffalo, New York and the other on permanent display in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building, Washington, DC. Wilson was selected during national competitions to create both portraits. In 1982, Wilson’s monumental anonymous “head” project was commissioned for the grounds of the Museum of the National Center of African-American Artists (NCAAA), later installed in 1987 and titled “Eternal Presence.”

Wilson has been included in solo and group exhibitions at the University of Arizona Museum of Art (2005), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (2014), Philadelphia Museum of Art (2015), Newark Museum (1993), Metropolitan Museum of Art (2003), Yale University Art Gallery (2011) and the Amon Carter Museum of Art (2009).

Wilson’s work is in numerous prominent museum collections, including the Cleveland Art Museum, OH; deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Washington D.C.; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Museum of Fine Arts Boston, MA; Museum of Modern Art, NY; Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, Washington D.C.; National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.; Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA; Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, MA; Smith College Museum of Art, MA; Tufts University Art Galleries, MA; University of Arizona Museum of Art, AZ and the University of Wisconsin’s collection, WI.
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