“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,” offered John Woodrow Wilson, in an interview with the Boston Globe upon the 1995 opening of his exhibit, “Dialogue: John Wilson/Joseph Norman” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This critique by the multitalented sculptor, painter, and printmaker was aimed, not only at the prestigious museum that now celebrated him, but at the longstanding discriminatory practices of elite art institutions across the country.
That said, for Wilson, the inequitable traditions of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston hit closest to home. The son of immigrants from British Guiana, Wilson was born in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston in 1922 and began drawing and painting at an early age. As a teen visiting the Boston-based museum, he was ever aware of the stark absence of any significant art or sculptures that looked like him. This recognition—coupled with his father’s regular reading of The Amsterdam News which commonly reported on the lynchings of the day—fueled Wilson’s lifelong incorporation of social issues and racial themes in his art.
In 1939, both ironically and intentionally, Wilson enrolled in the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on a full scholarship. Later, he attended and graduated from Tufts University before receiving fellowships to study abroad in Paris and Mexico City. Along the way, Wilson became a socialist; networked with the likes of Elizabeth Catlett, Paul Robeson, and Charles White; and, in 1950, married fellow socialist Julie Kowitch. When heading to Mexico to study mural making, the interracial couple was forced to drive in separate cars when travelling through the southern United States. After living in Mexico for six years, Wilson returned to the states to teach in New York before going home to teach drawing at Boston University for over two decades.
In 1986, upon winning a nationwide competition, Wilson drove to Washington D.C. and entered the Capitol building for the first time, bearing a sculpture wrapped in blankets and an old sleeping bag. The three-foot tall bronze bust of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. remains in the Capitol Rotunda to this day.
“Somehow it seemed like the epitome of the seat of power, and it alienated me,” Wilson told the Boston Globe, in 1986, about the Capitol building. “I never felt part of it.”
“But when I delivered the sculpture, that changed. I felt, ‘A piece of me is in that building.”
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BAIA BITS: John Woodrow Wilson
Little Moments Where Knowledge Meets Art
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