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Constance Alexander: Celebrating the life and work of 20th-century artist and Mayfield native Ellis Wilson

Famed twentieth Century African American artist, Ellis Wilson, claimed to be glad to have grown up in Mayfield “as long as I got out when I did,” he said.

In the Jim Crow South, Black families like the Wilsons were relegated to segregated communities. In Mayfield, the options were The Bottom, Out-Across-the-Ditch, Boxtown, and PeeWee Ridge. For Ellis and his family, their home was The Bottom, on Water Street. His church was on East Water, and his father’s barbershop was nearby.

Author Jayne Moore Waldrop and illustrator Michael McBride in front of Mayfield artist, Ellis Wilson’s “Chinese Kites” in celebration of Ellis Wilson Day at Graves County Public Library. (Photo provided)

Despite the restrictions, young Ellis’s life was rich with inspiration. It started when he was a child, watching his father draw and marveling at his skills. Ellis’s mother was the one who sparked his pursuit of education.

A picture in his father’s barbershop — Christ chasing the moneylenders from the Temple — made a strong impression on Wilson as a boy.

“There was a lot of stuff going on in that painting,” he recalled.

Wilson’s parents doubted that one could make a living as an artist, so Ellis enrolled at Kentucky State University. When he realized the degree options included only agriculture or education, he boarded the night train to Chicago.

“I thought I was in Paris,” Wilson said.

As a student at Chicago’s Art Institute, Wilson was in the midst of hundreds of white students, while only three or four were Black.

Wilson’s journey did not stop in Chicago but led to New York City at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. His 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.

For Black History Month, the proud city of Mayfield gathered to celebrate the art and work of their native son. A special presentation arranged through the Jackson Purchase Historical Society attracted close to one hundred people at the Graves County Public Library to celebrate Ellis Wilson Day. Mayfield Mayor Kathy O’Nan was on hand to present the official proclamation.

Three of Wilson’s paintings were on display as part of an exhibition organized by Nanc Gunn and Mayfield’s Icehouse Gallery

One highlight of the gathering was a talk by author Jayne Moore Waldrop, and illustrator Michael McBride about their new book for young people, “The Art of Ellis Wilson.”

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’s presentation featured historic photos of Mayfield in Wilson’s era, and images from some of the resources she used to fashion the narrative of the book. She explained that she used Wilson’s own words as much as possible, including quotes from his application for a Guggenheim Fellowship.

In addition, she spoke of her lifelong interest in art and art history and how surprised she was when she found out that Ellis Wilson was, like her, a native Kentuckian.

“He was not included in any of my art history textbooks,” she remarked.

Her interest in Wilson was further kindled by the KET documentary “So Much to Paint,” about the life and work of Ellis Wilson. The idea of writing a children’s book about Ellis seemed appropriate because of his lifelong passion for art and his persistence in pursuing his passion.

Illustrator Michael McBride has an impressive career with more than eighty books under his belt. In his talk about the book project, he revealed that he was eight years old when he reported to his parents that he was going to be an artist. Much like Ellis Wilson, he did not abandon his dream.

Like Waldrop, McBride described the role of extensive research in illustrating a book for children.

“I channeled my inner Ellis when I was creating certain images,” he said. “I knew he liked color and I wanted to show Ellis working on one of his paintings. I wanted children to see how a painter works.”

He concluded by saying, “This book was one of the most favorite that I’ve illustrated.”

Currently, he is working on illustrations for another book with Mayfield connections, about the artist Helen LaFrance.

A lively question and answer session followed the presentation, and Nanc Gunn, Executive Director of Ice House Gallery, announced that her organization hosted three exhibitions for African American History Month, in Mayfield and Paducah’s City Hall.

Afterward, the author and illustrator were on hand to sign copies of “A Journey in Color: The Art of Ellis Wilson.” Published by Shadelandhouse Modern Press.

Additional presentations about the book are scheduled, including a March 11 storytime read-aloud and craft events inspired by “A Journey of Color: The Art of Ellis Wilson.”

A University Press of Kentucky publication, “The Art of Ellis Wilson,” by Albert Sperath and Margaret R. is available at www.kentuckypress.com.

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