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Constance Alexander: Children’s book offers look at colorful life of artist, Mayfield native Ellis Wilson

As Mayfield rebuilds and reshapes its vision of the future after last December’s deadly tornado, the community can glean inspiration from the story of Ellis Wilson. The celebrated artist left his hometown in the early 1900s with a dream he never abandoned, despite many obstacles.

It was “a time when most folks saw the world as black or white,” according to Jayne Moore Waldrop’s book, “The Art of Ellis Wilson: A Journey in Color.” Illustrated by Michael McBride and published by Shadelandhouse Modern Press, the colorful children’s book is due for release on December 6.

Ellis Wilson (1899-1977) was Black, born under the oppressive wing of Jim Crow laws. Instead of seeing the harsh limitations of the world he lived in, he recognized the magic of art as he watched colors dance across canvas whenever his father picked up a paintbrush.

When young Ellis confessed his ambition, “I want to paint all the time,” he declared.

His father’s terse response was the practical one. “Son, a man can’t make a living like this,” the elder Wilson said. “Let’s go to work.”

In the illustration that accompanies the father-son chat, illustrator McBride renders the scene in vibrant color and elegant detail. Viewers can almost smell the mix of paint and turpentine and feel the rough cloth the father used to wipe off his hands as he prepared for his “real” work as a barber in Mayfield’s so-called Bottom.

Wilson’s dreams eventually led him from home to Chicago, “a city full of lights, crowds, smokestacks, and noise.”

He’d been accepted at art school where he perfected his existing skills and learned new ones. Just as he hoped, “colors began to dance across his canvas.”

His journey did not stop in Chicago but led to New York City at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Wilson’s new neighborhood was home to a creative Black community that celebrated “painters, sculptors, musicians, poets, and dancers.”

“There is so much to paint and so little time,” he wrote to his family.

He also enclosed newspaper clippings about his work, including one that proclaimed, “Ellis Wilson Wins Fine Art Prize.”

The popularity of his artworks faded after he died, and the most money he ever made for a canvas was $300. And then one of his paintings — “Funeral Procession” – captured the public’s imagination in 1986, when it was featured on the TV series, The Cosby Show.

In the episode “The Auction,” Mrs. Huxtable bid on the painting at an art auction and paid $11,000 for it. She said the artist was her “great-uncle Ellis” and the evocative scene took a place of honor over the Huxtable mantlepiece where it stayed for the rest of the eight seasons of the series.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Waldrop, a Paducah native, did not learn about Wilson’s work until 2000, when she came across a KET broadcast of a documentary, “Ellis Wilson – So Much to Paint.”

She learned more about the artist through Albert Sperath, former director of the Clara M. Eagle Gallery at Murray State University. When he realized the gallery’s permanent collection housed two Wilson paintings — and that the artist was a Mayfield native — Sperath organized a retrospective of Wilson’s work at the gallery in 2000. Working with Margaret R. Vendryes, Steven H. Jones, and Eva King, the foursome wrote a book to complement the exhibition, published by University Press of Kentucky.

“Growing up in Paducah, twenty miles from Ellis Wilson’s home, I was surprised to finally learn about his art in adulthood. His name never came up in our (art history) textbooks,” Waldrop explained.

Wilson’s persistence in pursuing a goal that was considered fruitless for anyone, especially a Black man from far western Kentucky, inspired her.

Like Wilson’s, her dream was considered idealistic. A practicing attorney with impressive credentials, she wanted to write. Thus, she applied skills she had developed as a lawyer to conduct in-depth research and learn everything she could about Wilson and his work.

She was surprised by the level of detailed documentation he had amassed throughout his lifetime. Reviewing that material at the Smithsonian, Waldrop could see what he valued, “what mattered to him,” is the way she put it.

She was able to use is words in writing the book, including quotes from his Guggenheim grant application.

Working with illustrator Michael McBride was enlightening to Waldrop. Writer and illustrator connected early on, and both were already avid fans of Wilson.

“It’s his eightieth children’s book,” Waldrop said, mentioning that this was her first book for children.

“You don’t get many words,” she admitted. “You have to distill your choices.”

Using many of Wilson’s own words, however, gave the “voice” of the book the legitimacy she sought.

The whole project took years, but Waldrop did not give up because she believes in the importance of telling Wilson’s story. “I felt even more strongly after the tornado in December,” she explained.

“The tangible side of Mayfield’s history no longer exists, but it is important to reclaim local history and give Wilson his rightful place.”

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