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Thu, 04.20.1899

Ellis Wilson, Artist born

Ellis Wilson

The birth of Ellis Wilson in 1899 is marked on this date. He was a Black artist.

He was born in a segregated neighborhood known as "The Bottom" in Mayfield, KY. he was one of six children of Frank and Minnie Wilson.  His father, a barber, was also an amateur painter.  Wilson said that he got his artistic talent from his father and the desire for education from his mother.  The family cherished two paintings, in particular of the elder Wilson's. "If they would be around today, they would be considered primitives," the younger Wilson said.  His father gave up painting after he married, a luxury he could not afford as he tried to support a growing family.

While still very young, Wilson started taking odd jobs to help out with the family. He once drew a portrait in cleaning soap on the store's window, which attracted the attention of passersby. The delighted store owner encouraged him to make weekly drawings.  Wilson's formal education began in The Bottom at the Mayfield Colored Grade School.  He attended the all-Black Kentucky Normal and Industrial Institute in Frankfort (which has since evolved into Kentucky State University) for two years but could study only agriculture and education.  Ellis wanted to study art, so, at 19, he left Kentucky for Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).

He won national acclaim in the art world during the 1930s and 1940s. Wilson painted through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in New York in the 1930s and won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1944.  In the 1950s, he traveled to Haiti.

His major exhibitions include a Retrospective Exhibition at Fisk University, Nashville, in 1971. His work can be found in the collections of many museums, including the Smithsonian's National Gallery of Art, and his painting "Funeral Procession" received national exposure on the set of Bill Cosby's 1980's television show.  Yet Kentucky-born artist Ellis Wilson remained relatively unknown in his hometown of Mayfield and his home state. Ellis Wilson died in 1977.

To be an Artist



Visual Artists and Galleries Association Inc. (VAGA)
350 Fifth Avenue, Suite 6305,
New York, NY 10118,
V: 212-736-6666,
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A History of African American Artist from 1792 to present
by Romare Bearden & Harry Henderson
Copyright 1993 by Romare Bearden & Harry Henderson
Pantheon Books, NY
ISBN 0-394-57016-2

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