On the day of President Barack Obama's second inauguration, the President, Michelle Obama, and a group of prominent politicians stopped in front of the Bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. that stands under the dome of the U.S. Capitol Building. They admired the bronze sculpture and paid respect to the great civil rights leader. The bust is by John Wilson, the artist chosen from among 180 sculptors who entered the competition for the commission.
John Wilson is a nationally celebrated artist. His work is included in many major museums around the country; it has been widely exhibited and is avidly sought after by collectors. Ironically, he is less well known in his own hometown of Brookline where he lived and worked for 50 years.
John W. Wilson was born in Roxbury, MA in 1922 and died in Brookline in 2015. In a time when few thought it was possible for an African American to have a career as a professional artist, he persevered to interpret the world from his perspective, producing work that confronts injustice and is charged with emotion. And as he grew older, his art depicted moments of deep human connection, causing viewers to reflect on how we interact with each other. His drawings and sculpture of his children, his wife, and his neighbors capture a most moving portrait of a Brookline family.
John W. Wilson and his four siblings were born in Roxbury to parents who had recently emigrated from British Guiana (now Guyana). Racism prevented his father from gaining employment commensurate with his abilities, which caused him to turn to the beliefs of black nationalist Marcus Garvey. John, too, experienced disillusionment when, despite his superior talents, he failed to win a scholarship to Saturday classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. But his parents encouraged their son to pursue a career in art, even though it was commonly thought that a black person could never become a professional artist. With the assistance of white instructors at the Roxbury Boys Club, John was eventually able to enter the Museum School, graduating with highest honors in 1945. He also pursued a B.A. degree in education at Tufts.
At the Museum School, with the encouragement of avant-garde German artist Karl Zerbe who had fled the Nazis, he developed his skill as a draftsman and heightened his sensibilities about social injustice. He was strongly interested in the paintings he saw at the MFA, but was acutely aware of the complete absence of black figures. It was during this time that he became interested in the socially conscious themes of painters Thomas Hart Benton and George Grosz, but was especially moved by Richard Wright's novel Native Son. Wilson recalled, "What Richard Wright was doing was forcing you to get into the psyche of black people so that you would relive it...I wanted to create images that would be as powerful."
After graduating from Tufts in 1947, Wilson won a fellowship and hoped to travel to Mexico to learn to paint murals. The grant however could only be used for travel to Europe and he ended up in the studio of Cubist Fernand Leger. There he learned "the language of vision...using colors, shapes lines and volume to create a new insightful interpretation of the world," -- concentrating on the formal elements of composition to make a unified whole.
After two years in Paris, Wilson visited New York City where he met and married Julie Kowitch, a teacher. He soon received another grant that allowed Julie and him to go to Mexico, as he had long been fascinated by the work of muralists such as Jose Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera whose "public art functioned to engage people and was not stuck in a museum."
In Mexico Wilson created one of his most powerful works, The Incident, which combines the muralist's ability to engage viewers and Richard Wright's empathic representation of the view of a black person in society. It depicts a black family witnessing a lynching just outside their window. The mother shields her baby from the horrific sight and the father, despite holding a rifle, was not able to prevent the tragedy.
What is most important is the way the mural demands that the viewers witness the crime. It was an unusually violent theme for Wilson but he described the work as being able to exorcise the psychological impact that images of lynchings, which were widely distributed in the media at that time, had on him. "Even though I have lived a relatively benign life and have never experienced physical violence, and I am relatively easy going, nevertheless there has always been this subterranean conflict, this sense of apprehension and vulnerability that my life was as only as good as luck. When I was growing up, I didn't realize to what extent I was being traumatized."
The Wilsons loved life in Mexico, with its lack of discrimination against blacks and easy acceptance of their mixed race marriage. But after the birth of their first child they wanted to return to the United States where the civil rights movement was beginning to grow. They went to Chicago, New York, and in 1964 came to Boston. John joined the faculty of Boston University and served as Professor of Art from 1964 to 1986.
John and Julie bought a house on Harris Street, where his wife and daughter continue to reside, but had to purchase it surreptitiously with the help of a friend since the owners weren't willing to sell to an interracial couple.
While living in Brookline, Wilson's art began to evolve toward portraiture. "I want my work to be visually naturalistic, but to convey the feel of the person. The eternal energy and emotion shapes the outer form." His art delved into the deep human connections, not only with portraits of the members of his family but also with anonymous, universal figures.
Wilson's art had always exhibited a sculptural quality but he had never received formal training in sculpture or bronze casting. Inspired by the power of the Buddha sculptures he saw as a student in the Museum School, as well as by the giant Mesoamerican Olmec stone heads unearthed in south-central Mexico, Wilson was determined to create a colossal head for a public space. He envisioned a large, bronze head that was not only confrontational in its enormous size, but also universal in its presentation. As Barry Gaither, Director of the Museum of the National Center for Afro-American Artists, wrote, Wilson's desire to create monumental heads can also be found in "his response to Ralph Ellison's 1947 Invisible Man which echoed his own sense of the invisibility of African-Americans in American culture." Long before receiving commissions for monumental sculptures, Wilson began to work out his ideas in charcoal drawings and clay models.
His dream was fulfilled by two major commissions. The first was the 7-foot Eternal Presence (photo below left) that stands today in front of the National Center for AfroAmerican Artists in Roxbury, a museum he helped found. The second was the 8-foot bronze head of Martin Luther King, Jr. (photo below right) erected in the Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Buffalo, New York.
The terms of the Buffalo competition prescribed a full length figure. According to Wilson, "I really didn't want to do it, because I didn't want to do a kind of academic figure. There are thousands of these statues of important men in their conventional clothes standing in public places. Nobody sees them except the pigeons...They become part of the wallpaper of the environment." Wilson complained to a friend who then suggested that he make one of his "big symbolic heads." For Wilson, "a light bulb went off, and I said 'I don't care what they want' and I sat down and did some drawings and did a maquette [a study model] of a head...and sold them on this idea." Today, Wilson's 8-foot bronze head of Martin Luther King, Jr. stands majestically on top of a 6-foot stone wall, designed by the artist.