Artist of Boston, 1922-2015

Wilson was a prominent painter, sculptor, and creative from Boston. His artwork showcased the lives of everyday people within the city, and often featured overt political themes.

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Wilson was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1922. His parents immigrated from British Guiana (now Guyana) to America in the 1910s, and Wilson was born shortly after their arrival in the States. Wilson was the second of five siblings. Having experienced the injustices of British colonialism firsthand, Wilson's parents raised him with a sharp awareness of the racial inequalities existent in the world: "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” (Marquad).

Wilson's love for art was lifelong, from childhood until his passing. When, in an interview with Karl Fortress, Wilson was asked when his interest in art began, he reflected: "As early as I can remember! I don’t remember ever not trying somehow to create some kind of odd product" (A Very Special Reality). While attending Roxbury Memorial High School, Wilson served as the school newspaper's art editor. At Roxbury Memorial, Wilson took art classes and nurtured his interest in art. He also frequented the Roxbury Boys and Girls Club's evening art classes, which were taught by graduate students studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA). Wilson's student teachers at the Boys and Girls Club noticed his incredible ability, and personally delivered a portfolio of his work to the SMFA's director and faculty. They were deeply impressed, and offered Wilson a full scholarship to attend the School of the Museum of Fine Arts for college.

Wilson graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1945 with highest honors (Marquad). He then went on to earn a bachelor's degree in education from Tufts University in 1947.

After graduation, Wilson traveled to and live in Paris, Mexico City, and New York. Wilson became involved in the civil rights movement in Boston. He used his studio as a meeting place for both artists and political activists (Smithsonian).

For a period in Boston and New York he was involved with socialism. He became acquainted with Paul Robeson, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, and Bob Blackburn (Smithsonian). While in New York, Wilson met Julie Kowitch, a teacher, fellow socialist, and recent graduate of Brooklyn College. Kowitch and Wilson married in 1950 (Marquad). During this time, legalized discrimination and segregation were rampant. As an interracial couple in a climate where their pairing was met with violence and disgust, Wilson and Kowitch had to be extra vigilant. The two often had to be careful when traveling together for fear of repercussions. 

Wilson led a successful career not only as an artist, but also as a teacher. He spent time “teaching anatomy at the Pratt Institute…Teaching art at a junior high school in the Bronx, and his gaining respect of students through special projects" (Oral History). Wilson began teaching at Boston University in the 1960s, and continued to teach for over 20 years. There, he worked as Professor of Drawing at Boston University, and later became Professor Emeritus of Art (For Roxbury). 

Wilson passed away in his Brookline home in 2015. He was 92 years old.

"Coming from a black family, the atmosphere in which we grew up in in that period (this was during the Depression)...there was literally very little hope or chance that a black young man could, in that period, go to college and get any kind of real success in any professional area."

Growing Up as a Young Black Artist

John Wilson credited his parents as a large reason why he accepted the SMFA's scholarship and continued on to become an artist. He cited their support for him as a young artist as significant, especially given the political climate they were living in, and his identity as a young black man:

"Coming from a black family, the atmosphere in which we grew up in in that period (this was during the Depression)...there was literally very little hope or chance that a black young man could, in that period, go to college and get any kind of real success in any professional area. And my parents encouraged me to all along to do the most effective thing I could in whatever I attempted to do. They were always encouraging me to develop in whatever area I could."
(A Very Special Reality)

In the following excerpt from a 1969 interview, Wilson elaborates on the aforementioned political climate. He touches upon how race, racial problems, and the effects of systemic racism were often ignored in favor of "colorblindness." Specifically, Wilson comments on the lack of discussion about the walls in place preventing black people from achieving the same level of upward mobility as whites at the time:

"This was during the Depression, or at the tail end of the Depression, before this organized militant civil rights movement..And the attitude in those days was that (of course), was that you didn’t [talk about race]. There was no race problem as such—'we were all individuals.' It’s just that 90% of black people became dishwashers and broom pushers, etc. and of course this was indicative of the individual's ability to strive…The fact that there were any special problems preventing him [the individual] from doing this was really not recognized…There was a kind of 'sweeping under the rug' of any kind of special problems that black people have."
(A Very Special Reality)

Wilson recognized that, unfortunately, his existence as a young black male artist in Boston was a anomaly as opposed to the norm. This awareness of how people from his racial and socioeconomic background were often cut out of certain circles (such as elite art spheres) shaped his artwork and his outlook.


Self-portrait, oil on canvas

Artistic Career

While at the SMFA, Wilson studied under and was influenced by instructors Ture Bengtz and Karl Zerbe (Oral History).

Wilson traveled to Paris and Mexico City for his studies, where he was influenced by a variety of different talented artists. "In 1946 Wilson received a prestigious John William Paige Traveling Fellowship from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts for 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," (Mary Ryan Gallery). While in Mexico, Wilson was deeply affected by the work of muralists such as Diego Rivera, David Alfaros Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco.

John Wilson produced a variety of artwork, in media ranging from oil paintings to lithographs, etchings, sketches, charcoal drawings, and sculpture. Perhaps his most acclaimed work, though, is his bronze bust of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “In 1985, Wilson was awarded a commission from the National Endowment for the Arts to create a bronze bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. for the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. It was to be the first representation of an African American in the Capitol Rotunda” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). Wilson had never visited the Capitol prior to the moment he delivered the bronze bust. Wilson famously commented: “‘Somehow it [the Capitol] seemed like the epitome of the seat of power, and it alienated me. I never felt part of it. But when I delivered the sculpture, that changed. I felt, ‘A piece of me is in that building’” (Marquad). 

Wilson's work can be found on display in collections including: the Danforth Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Indiana University Art Museum, "the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Museum of Modern Art, Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, Rose Art Museum, Smith Museum of Art, Tufts University, and University of Wisconsin" (Mary Ryan Gallery).

“None of these people [in the art in the MFA] looked like me and just by omission the implication was that black people were not capable of being beautiful and true and precious."

A Commitment to Representation

According to his wife, Wilson "'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,’” (Marquad). As a young man, Wilson was keenly aware of how limited the representation of black artists and black life was in the local art scene. He would visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and think: “‘None of these people [in the art in the MFA] looked like me and just by omission the implication was that black people were not capable of being beautiful and true and precious,’" (Marquad). Wilson understood the danger of this omission, and the subsequent vital nature of representation in media. The absence of prominent black artists and artwork was an issue that Wilson wrestled with and sought to change throughout his career.

John Wilson's commitment to representation was clearly reflected in his artwork. Representation—specifically accurate and powerful representation—of black bodies and culture was deeply important to him. His "subsequent work featured powerful scenes of supportive black families as well as images of despair and fear of violence...[Wilson] ‘wanted to find ways to make marks on paper that forced people to see the world through the eyes of others if they were open to it,’" (Bergeron, 2012). Wilson once said that hoped his art would challenge viewers "'to understand the reality and not the dogmatic stereotypes...[and] let others see the world in a new way’” (Bergeron, 2012). Wilson understood how the visual images people see influence their understanding of the world around them. As an artist, he aimed to shape that understanding by broadening the range of realities depicted in fine art. Throughout his artistic career, Wilson "never abandoned his consuming passion to document the joys and struggles facing black Americans through mid-century America and into the civil rights era” (Bergeron, 2012). He remained devoted to creating art which alternately celebrated,  commented on, and/or critiqued the social reality black Americans lived in.

Wilson worked dilligently to foster growth and inclusion of black artistry in the Boston area art scene. He often participated in black art exhibitions. In the late 1960s-70s, Wilson joined with "the black arts entrepreneur, Elma Lewis, in setting up a visual arts program for the Boston black community" (Smithsonian). They selected "Edmund Barry Gaither, a young art historian...who eventually established a museum of African-American art" as the curator (Smithsonian). 

“Somehow it [the Capitol] seemed like the epitome of the seat of power, and it alienated me. I never felt part of it. But when I delivered the sculpture, that changed. I felt, ‘A piece of me is in that building.’”  

currently random quotes

 “Wilson developed a particular style you can recognize by combining clear-eyed realism with an interpretive sensitivity” (For Roxbury)
“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’” (Marquad)

Notable Works



Boston in Wilson’s work

  • “‘I was concerned with ordinary people and how their work affected them. I wanted to express those kinds of social realities,’ he said. ‘I like figurative art people can identify with. When I came back to Boston, I started some large drawings because I thought this city should be, not just an optical illusion, but something that exists’" (Bergeron, 2009)

Wilson often incorporated Boston's landscape and scenery into his artwork. Wilson's work tended to depict interactions between people and setting. He mixed abstract images with concrete depictions of the human form. Many of Wilson's pieces show images of everyday people, workers, children, etc.

Creating Socially Conscious Art

Much of Wilson's work is notable for its political themes and messaging. When asked if he considered himself a socially conscious artist, Wilson replied: "A lot of my imagery deals with imagery that is related directly to social problems social relationships," (A Very Special Reality). However, like a true artistic spirit, he ultimately concluded that he ultimately found labels immaterial!

“Wilson’s work absorbed the harsh lessons of prejudice and racism and reflected his interest in social progress and liberal politics” (John Wilson exhibit)

“A Very Special Kind of Reality”

The following is a selected transcription of a 1969 interview with John Wilson and Karl Fortress, a colleague from Boston University's College of Fine Arts. In the interview, Wilson shares his thoughts on the role of race and racism in the art world. He touches upon the unique perspective he brings to the proverbial table as a black artist. Wilson additionally stresses the importance of increasing representation and awareness of the reality black Americans live in.

Fortress: Did you find the same kind of acceptance in the art world after you left school? In other words, what I'm trying to find out is: the artist has a reputation as a liberal—Did you find prejudice when you finally got into the art world yourself as a painter?

Wilson: On a personal level there obviously is not…No, you know, there’s nothing I can point to, per se, in terms of being left out of galleries as such. And I think that it’s obvious that the art world is always looking for any kind of really creative new expression, so I sincerely feel that anyone can produce a body of work that has the kind of power to move people. It would be very difficult for it not to be recognized no matter who was doing it.

Fortress: In other words, you find that most artists are in that interior sense, colorblind, if you want to use that word?

Wilson: No! Because I don’t think it is as simple as that. Because I think that it’s much more subtle in that the institutions…we live in a racist society. The statistics show that this racism is costing black people dearly in terms of fantastic statistics of deprivation. Statistics of real deprivation and maladjustment in many areas. And if this is true in society as a whole in terms of job opportunities, in terms of just the physical illnesses—there’s more TB, we die at an earlier age. I mean there are very concrete evidences of what this racism does to black people. Now this is not a question of individuals—individuals, they might be very much a part of this or they might be completely against this as individuals. But it’s part of the institutions, official and unofficial, of our society. It’s true of the economic institutions. It is obvious in the schools. They’re just beginning now to pass laws about it. During my day when they didn’t have the laws about it it was existing. Now if it’s true of all of the fundamental institutions of our society it has to be true of the art and culture institutions as well.

Fortress: [interjects] In a more subtle way.

Wilson: It might be more subtle but the point is the statistical effects are the same, in that, where are the significant black artists? It can’t be because they are intrinsically incapable of art. When I was a kid I was thoroughly convinced that black men couldn’t play big league baseball. I remember becoming aware of this when Jackie Robinson suddenly became a big league baseball player. And my general feeling was, and I think there is a kind of empirical evidence in which you assume that because it doesn’t happen that it’s because it is intrinsically right. I felt, and I think most white people felt, that somehow black people just weren’t capable of playing baseball. It seems so absolutely ludicrous and ridiculous…well I think that that same attitude is true of every area of American life. And when you think of the cultural areas of which black people are frozen out, I think you’ll find that it must deal with the fact that somehow racism is operating to prevent the flowering of black people and the participation of black people in these areas.

Fortress: I wanna get off the subject of black for a while and get back to you as a painter.

Wilson: I think that it’s important to interpret what you know, what you really have discovered about something. Since the things that were bugging me to interpret, the things that were important to me, if I had to sit down to paint the thing that I felt was most intensely important to me, it invariably had to do with the fact that I was in on a very special kind of reality in America: this reality of being black. And all of the kinds of relationships and feelings and sensitivities that this evokes, which I think the average white person is not aware of—and is not aware of in order to function. I think white society has had to ignore or attempt to deny some of these realities. I think this is one of the sicknesses in American society—

Fortress: [interrupts] I wanna still get back to your painting.

Wilson: [adamantly] I know, but I think this is very much a part of it though!!

Works Cited and Consulted

Apel, Dora. Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women, and the Mob. Rutgers University Press, 2004.

Bergeron, Chris. "For Roxbury Artist John Wilson, Seeing Is Creating." MetroWest Daily News. MetroWest Daily News, 22 Feb. 2009. Accessed 28 Oct. 2016.

Bergeron, Chris. "John Wilson Exhibit at the Danforth Is Powerful and Honest." MetroWest Daily News. MetroWest Daily News, 02 Dec. 2012. Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.

Brochure. The Afro-American Organization presents: 12 Black Artists from Boston, Rose Art Museum, Waltham, MA.

"Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 02 Nov. 2016. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016.

“The First Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.” America Today. C-SPAN, Washington. 15 Jan. 1986.

"John Wilson." Mary Ryan Gallery. Mary Ryan Gallery. Accessed 19 Nov. 2016.

"John Wilson: Martin Luther King Series." Danforth Art. Danforth Art Museum. Accessed 21 Nov. 2016.

"John Woodrow Wilson." Indiana University Art Museum. IU Art Museum Publications, 2006. Accessed 20 Nov. 2016.

Marquad, Bryan. "John Wilson, at 92; Artist Spurred by Social Realities." The Boston Globe, 26 Jan. 2015. Accessed 26 Oct. 2016.

"Oral History Interview with John Wilson, 1993 March 11-1994 August 16." Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Accessed 28 Nov. 2016.

Wilson, John. “A Very Special Reality: An interview with John Wilson.” Interview by Karl Fortress. Boston University College of Fine Arts, Boston University. Accessed 29 Nov. 2016.

Wilson, John. Deliver Us from Evil. 1943, lithographic. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Wilson, John. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 1985, black and white pastel on cream Japanese paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Wilson, John. Madison Park, Boston. 1941, drypoint. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Wilson, John. Martin Luther King, Jr. 2002, etching and aquatint on chine coll. Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington.

Wilson, John. Richard Wright Suite. 2001, portfolio of six color etchings with aquatint. The     Danforth Art Museum, Framingham.

Wilson, John. The Trial. 1951, lithograph on cream-colored wove paper. The Brooklyn Museum.