Opens at Martha Richardson Fine Art on May 4, 2017
By any measure, John Wilson was an exceptional draftsman. He is celebrated for his use of dark tones to create an intensely sculptural quality in his prints and drawings. Wilson’s formal training included the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (full scholarship) where he graduated with the highest honors in 1945, and continued in Paris under the renowned Fernand Léger (James William Paige Traveling Fellowship) from 1947-49. The artist then moved to Mexico (John Hay Whitney Fellowship) where he studied mural painting at the Esmeralda School of Art, the Instituto Politécnico and the Escuela de las Artes del Libro and created prints at the Taller de Gráfica Popular from 1950-56. Wilson did not receive formal training in sculpture or bronze casting, but he was moved by the power of the Buddha sculptures he saw as a student in the Museum of Fine Arts, as well as by the colossal Mesoamerican Olmec heads unearthed in south-central Mexico. Long before he received any of the major sculpture commissions awarded in the 1980’s, Wilson envisioned a large head, emerging from the ground, a monumental head that would speak powerfully to the Africa-American presence in the Boston area.
As Wilson began to think further about a large, symbolic head, he turned to his friend and fellow sculptor Lloyd Lilly for advice on what materials to purchase. He began small, with sculptures such as Father and Child, but soon moved to larger scale works and in 1976, he cast the Gabrielle on view with its 1975 study. And while the commission for Eternal Presence was not awarded until the 1980’s, Wilson continued to create studies with his daughter’s friend Roz as the model, and to work on the project in clay. Two drawings included in the exhibition, Roz No. 10 (study for “Eternal Presence” and Study for “Eternal Presence,” were done in 1972, a decade before Wilson received the commission The maquette for this bronze is also included in the show (the only other cast is in the collection of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln).
Wilson’s original intention was that this monumental head be placed in Franklin Park. In his discussion of the project, Wilson explained:
“I had used these drawings of Roz. And so I had the plaster cast made and I put them in this exhibit [for recipients of a grant from the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities] along with some drawings-sort of site drawings, because I visualized this piece as going in some environment that was a natural environment. And I dreamed up this idea of them sitting in Franklin Park, which is a kind of wooded which when I was a kid was a very wonderful sort of place to go to escape the concrete jungle of the city.”
However, when the National Center for Afro-American Artists opened in Roxbury, Wilson realized that this would be the perfect location for his monumental head. Wilson continues “And so I asked Barry [Barry Gaither, director of the museum] and Barry immediately got the idea. And I then took the plaster model that I had and made photographs, got my daughter to stand on the site of the museum lawn where this would go, took photographs of her on a sunny day, and then superimposed the photographs I had taken of my statue… Because I wanted to show the scale. And I painted in a cast shadow of the statue so that it seemed to belong in the environment and rephotographed it. And then Barry used these photographs of the finished thing-so to speak-as part of his presentation to get an institutional grant to do it.”
The colossal Eternal Presence was unveiled in 1987 in front of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Roxbury. Wilson’s intent was that it be evocative and confrontational and that it proudly mark the 350th anniversary of black presence in Boston.
While working on Eternal Presence, Wilson received commission for another large-scale sculpture from the city of Buffalo. It was to be a full sized standing portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr.. After winning this competition, the artist convinced the committee that a colossal head would be a more powerful work of art and today, the 8-foot bronze stands in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Park in Buffalo. Both the maquette and preliminary study are included in the exhibition, together with a design for the poster announcing its unveiling, a study for the plaque beneath the sculpture and a rendering of it in situ.
The exhibition is open through June, 2017. Other bronzes and studies included are Father and Child Reading, Standing Nude and Erica (the artist’s daughter).
(all quotes are taken from the August 16, 1994 interview of John Wilson, Archives of American Art)