Mayfield honors memory of Harlem Renaissance painter who called town home
A far western Kentucky city honored the memory of a Black artist who called the town home over the weekend with a guest author sharing their recent children's book about his life.
Mayfield Mayor Kathy O’Nan proclaimed this past Saturday “Ellis Wilson Day” to honor the painter who went on to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship award for his skill and be associated with the Harlem Renaissance movement.
After finishing high school in Mayfield, Wilson spent two years at the Kentucky State College in Frankfort, the state’s oldest historically black college. Wilson left the university because it didn’t offer art degrees or classes. He would go on to attend the Art Institute of Chicago, where he stayed for five years to complete his artistic training.
In 1928, Wilson moved from Chicago to New York, where he assimilated himself into the local artistic and Black communities near his Harlem home. Wilson was then living at ground zero for the Harlem Renaissance.
After dedicating years to his art, Wilson finally would reach the highest achievement of his career – receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship award.
Jayne Moore Waldrop, a Paducah native author, recently penned a children’s book about Wilson’s life titled A Journey in Color: The Art of Ellis Wilson, with illustrations by Nashville-based artist Michael McBride. She said he was one of the first Black recipients of the prestigious honor.
“He used that money to travel to the coast of South Carolina and to Haiti, which gave him a different perspective,” Waldrop said. “His colors became more vibrant. And, he was able to portray different types of work in life. He focused a lot on the lives of fishermen since it was along the coast.”
Waldrop describes Wilson’s style as being both vibrant and simple in its depiction of Black life at the time.
“I think that's what's so important and groundbreaking about his work is that he portrayed black Americans in their work life, their home life, their religious life. And, that is really important documentation of that time period.”
The writer said she became fascinated with Wilson after seeing a KET documentary on the artist.
“I found his story inspiring because he knew, from the time he was a young child, that he wanted to be an artist,” Waldrop said. “This was during an era of Jim Crow and mandated segregation. There were few art schools that would accept a black student at that time, at least none in Kentucky. But, he knew he wanted to be an artist.”
Wilson continued to paint until his death in 1977 at the age of 77. His legacy, though, lives on not only as an exceptional artist but a pioneer for African Americans coming out of a pre-civil rights era. Wilson even earned some pop culture fame when his work Funeral Procession appeared on an episode of The Bill Cosby Show. The painting would continue to be a set piece throughout the show’s run.
Waldrop said Black History Month is the perfect time to celebrate the artist and teach young people his story.
“I think it's important to celebrate Ellis Wilson as an important Kentuckian, and an important artist, and an American artist. This is the ideal time to teach this history. I think we all need to know our histories, know our stories,” Waldrop said. “I wanted to write his story as a children's book, because … I feel like other children could perhaps benefit from knowing that he followed his dream and made a life for himself true to that dream and true to his talents.”
Waldrop’s book, which features illustrations by Nashville-based artist Michael McBride, is available now.