A prominent contributor to the New Negro Art Movement in Harlem, Ellis Wilson is best known for his paintings of black culture in his native South and in Haiti. Wilson, who in his own words, sought “to create paintings which [would] be a credit to [his] Race,” presented his subjects with objectivity and dignity, devoid of idealization or mythical attributes. Recognized as a colorist with a preference for simplified modern compositions, Wilson faithfully captured the disappearing rural lifestyle of Southern African Americans.
Wilson credited his father, an amateur painter who worked in what Wilson described as a primitive style, as his source of artistic talent. Although his father was forced to set aside his brush to support his large family, Ellis managed to continue painting throughout his life, even as he worked for various commercial enterprises. As a youth in Mayfield, Kentucky, Wilson necessarily held a variety of odd jobs, constantly looking for creative outlets in the midst of the mundane. While serving as the janitor for a local dress shop, for example, Wilson drew pictures on the store window using cleaning soap, an exercise that was subsequently encouraged by the shop owner as a promotional ploy. In 1916, Wilson enrolled in Frankfurt’s all-black Kentucky Normal and Industrial Institute. Frustrated that his studies here were limited to either agriculture or education, he embarked on a decade-long sojourn in Chicago. There, Wilson earned a degree from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1923 and participated in the Chicago Art League. The typically shy and reserved youth blossomed during these years. It was a time of inspiration for Wilson, who was interacting with other creatively minded African Americans.
After briefly working as a commercial artist in Chicago, Wilson moved to New York. There, he became involved with the Harmon Foundation, exhibiting his work in the 1933 and 1935 annuals. From 1935 to 1940, Wilson found employment, as so many artists at this time did, with the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Project. Once again, Wilson’s engagement with other similarly employed African American artists, including Joseph Delaney, proved fruitful. Undoubtedly inspired by the early work of Abstract Expressionist painters then also working for the WPA, Wilson’s academic style gradually became more abstract. A series of works of airplane factory laborers created during these years won him a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1944 and, again, in 1945. Wilson used these funds to travel throughout the South and capture the “vitality and simple dignity” of African Americans at work. He painted men making turpentine in Georgia, laborers hewing lumber in South Carolina, and field hands harvesting tobacco in Kentucky.
With prize monies won at the 1952 National Terry Art Exhibition, Wilson took the first of several trips to Haiti. Inspired and invigorated by this foreign black culture, Wilson abandoned his representational style in favor of an almost fauvist abstraction executed in heightened color. His subjects appear as black silhouetted forms devoid of facial features and clothed in basic geometric shapes absent of folds and other details.
Although Wilson continued to paint until his death in 1977, his work fell into relative obscurity after the 1950s. Interest in his work was renewed, however, in 1985 when his painting Funeral Procession (circa 1950) became part of the set for the popular television series, The Cosby Show. His paintings have since been featured in numerous national exhibitions and, in 2000, Kentucky Educational Television produced a documentary titled Ellis Wilson: So Much to Paint. Today, Wilson’s work can be found in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, North Carolina Museum of Art, and Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, among others.