John Wilson, at 92; artist spurred by social realities
In the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., stands a 3-foot-tall bronze bust of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that is surely the most viewed creation of John Wilson, an artist who grew up in Roxbury and painted, sculpted, and made prints out of his home studio in Brookline for decades.
Like much of his most important work, the bust brings viewers to the intersection of art and politics, of pure creativity and the desire to examine social injustice. Mr. Wilson, who was 92 when he died Thursday evening in his Brookline home, pursued that path since he was a boy on Roxbury’s streets, learning to sketch and honing a burgeoning talent that eventually would place his paintings and sculptures in the Museum of Fine Arts and far beyond.
“To me the eloquence of the piece is not only in the face, but in the rhythms of the gesture,” Mr. Wilson told the Globe in 1986, just before the bust was unveiled in the Rotunda on what would have been King’s 57th birthday. “The head is tilted forward, as if to communicate with the viewer. I hope the sculpture will stimulate people to learn more about King, to perpetuate his struggle.”
Mr. Wilson’s own journey to prominence was fueled in part by his reaction to art he saw as a teenager during visits to the MFA.
“None of these people looked like me and just by omission the implication was that black people were not capable of being beautiful and true and precious,” he told the Globe in 1995 when “Dialogue: John Wilson/Joseph Norman,” opened at the MFA and his own sculptures and sketches shared museum space with the work that drew his criticism years before.
Of that show, Globe art critic Christine Temin wrote that Mr. Wilson “emerges as a powerful artist, too little known for someone who has produced stellar work for half a century.”
Writing about “Eternal Presence,” a career survey of Mr. Wilson’s work that opened in 2012 in Danforth Art, Globe art critic Sebastian Smee called him “one of Boston’s most esteemed and accomplished artists” and wrote that from Mr. Wilson’s early sketches to his more recent large-scale charcoal drawings, “the impulse has remained the same: It is an impulse toward clarity, toward truth.”
“I think he will gain in importance as time goes on,” said Katherine French, director emerita of Danforth Art, where several of Mr. Wilson’s works remain on display through May 17.
“He will be recognized as a major artist of the 20th century. I really have no doubt about that,” added French, who has finished curating “John Wilson: Boston’s Native Son,” a show that opens in the St. Botolph Club Feb. 18.
The second of five siblings, Mr. Wilson was born in 1922 in Roxbury, where his parents settled after emigrating from British Guiana and found little work once the Great Depression hit. Mr. Wilson always was aware of racial inequities. His father regularly read African-American newspapers such as The Amsterdam News, which seemed to have images of lynchings in “practically every other issue,” Mr. Wilson said in a 2012 interview with French, who wrote an essay about the artist that Danforth Art will soon publish.
Drawn to art classes at Roxbury Memorial High School, Mr. Wilson was art editor of the school newspaper and took classes at the Boys Club from teachers who were students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. They showed his work to faculty at the Museum school, which awarded a full scholarship to Mr. Wilson. There, he counted among his teachers Karl Zerbe, a Boston Expressionist born in Germany. Years later, critics would see early evidence of Mr. Wilson’s talent in “Boy with Bow Tie,” drawn in his mid-teens.
In 1945, Mr. Wilson graduated from the Museum school with highest honors, and one of his works was included in “The Negro Artist Comes of Age,” an Albany Institute of History and Art exhibition. He taught at Boris Mirski modern art school in Boston and graduated in 1947 with a bachelor’s degree in education from Tufts University. Among his key works during those years was a print depicting Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel “Native Son.” Mr. Wilson also developed an admiration for Mexican muralists, particularly Jose Clemente Orozco.
Awarded a traveling fellowship from the MFA, Mr. Wilson moved to Paris and studied with the modern artist Fernand Leger. After returning home, Mr. Wilson visited the Lower East Side in New York City, where he met Julie Kowitch, a teacher who had graduated from Brooklyn College. They married in 1950 and went to Mexico on a John Hay Whitney Fellowship. As an interracial couple, they traveled by necessity in separate cars while passing through the segregated South.
Though Orozco died a few months before he arrived in Mexico, Mr. Wilson was drawn to mural making — art that could be viewed by those who, like him, had grown up in the streets with neither the money for museums nor social access to private collections. A lasting work from this period was “The Trial,” a lithograph depicting three judges, their faces hidden behind white theatrical masks, looming vulture-like over a young black boy who stands awaiting judgment.
Back in the United States, Mr. Wilson produced lithographs for unions in Chicago and taught in New York City before returning to Massachusetts in 1964 to teach at Boston University. Over the years, his work was included in exhibits at museums and galleries including the Museum of Fine Arts and Martha Richardson Fine Art on Newbury Street. Mr. Wilson also worked to create the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Roxbury.
“Essentially, he felt that his main objective as an artist was to deliver a message to people about black dignity, about racial justice, about poor people trying to get a better deal in life,” his wife said. But also, sketching constantly on index cards and any available scrap of paper, Mr. Wilson composed portraits of family members, friends, and life unfolding around him. During one car trip to New York City with his daughter and infant grandson, “he did a series of sketches of him over the backseat of the car,” said his daughter Erica of Brookline. “I have them framed in my hallway.”
A service will be announced for Mr. Wilson, who in addition to his wife and daughter leaves a son, Roy, of Watertown; two brothers, Frederick and James, both of Los Angeles; and four grandchildren. Another daughter, Rebecca Wilson-Sealy, died last year.
A perfectionist in everything he did, Mr. Wilson “was incredibly physical when he worked,” his son recalled. “He moved with tremendous energy. Each stroke seemed decisive.”
In 1986, Mr. Wilson wrapped the King sculpture in blankets and an old sleeping bag, tucked it into the back of his Mazda, and headed to the Capitol Rotunda. Before that trip, he had not stepped inside the Capitol building.
“Somehow it seemed like the epitome of the seat of power, and it alienated me,” he told the Globe in 1986. “I never felt part of it. But when I delivered the sculpture, that changed. I felt, ‘A piece of me is in that building.’ ”