Open main menu

John Woodrow Wilson (1922–2015) was an American lithographer, sculptor, painter, muralist, and art teacher whose art was driven by the political climate of his time. Wilson was best known for his works portraying themes of social justice and equality.

John Woodrow WIlson
John Woodrow Wilson.jpg
Wilson in 1986
DiedJan 22, 2015[1]
EducationTufts University


Family and early lifeEdit

Wilson, commonly referred to by his professional name John Woodrow Wilson, was born the second of five children in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1922.[2]) Both of Wilson's parents were immigrants from British Guiana, a British colony in South America that is known today as Guyana.[3] They emigrated to America a few years before Wilson was born.[3] British Guiana had a plantation-based economy with sugar being the main good produced.[3] In the colony, Wilson's parents came from a middle-class background.[3] Wilson's maternal grandfather managed a refining plant in British Guiana and the sugar produced at his plant was so pure that the owners of the plantation, who lived in Great Britain, received national prizes almost annually.[3] Wilson's maternal grandfather was transferred to Jamaica, so all of his children except for Wilson's mother, who at that point was married and already had their first daughter, relocated there.[3] Wilson's father stayed in British Guiana because he had been trained as a technician in the sugar industry.[3] One of Wilson's paternal great aunts died when his family was still living in British Guiana.[3] The woman was very rich and left each of her nieces and nephews a portion of her wealth.[3] Wilson recalls his father telling him this woman "was so wealthy, she left money to her cats."[3] His father used the money his aunt gave him to open up a variety store.[3]

Wilson was very aware of the racial inequalities that surrounded him, even at a very young age.[4] In a 2012 interview, Wilson talked about remembering the newspapers his father would read, like The Amsterdam News, which had images of lynchings in "every other issue."[1] A mix of his political views and his intense interest in art led him create the important political statement pieces that he makes through the later years in his life.[4]

Education and careerEdit

In Boston, Wilson took art classes at Roxbury Memorial High School and was the art editor of the school newspaper.[2] He also took many classes at the Boys Club from teachers who were students at the school of the Museum of Fine Arts.[2] After getting his work shown to faculty at the school via his teachers from the Boys Club, he received a full scholarship to the Museum of Fine Arts School, eventually graduating there with high honors in 1945.[4] In 1947, Wilson graduated from Tufts University while teaching at Boris Mirski School of Modern Art.[4]

Wilson lived in Paris through the MFA fellowship, and studied with the modern artist Fernand Leger.[3] Shortly after returning to United States and marrying Julie Kowtich, he lived in Mexico for five years on a John Hay Whitney fellowship. In his time in Mexico, he was drawn to mural paintings due to their accessibility to anyone regardless of one's means to get into museums or collections.[3] When he returned to the United States from Mexico in 1956, he made artwork for labor unions in Chicago and taught for a bit in New York City before returning to Massachusetts in 1964 to teach at Boston University.[1]


Wilson married Julie Kowitch, a teacher who graduated from Brooklyn College, in 1950.[1] The two lived in Mexico while through the John Hay Whitney Fellowship.[1] Wilson and Kowitch were an interracial couple and were forced to drive in separate cars when they traveled in the Southern United States.[1]

Julie Kowitch says that her husband, "felt that his main objective as an artist was to deliver a message to people about black dignity, about racial justice, about poor people trying to get a better deal in life."[1] Wilson's daughter, Erica, attests that he drew wherever he went and whatever he could find. For example, when driving to New York City with Erica and her son, Wilson drew a series of sketches of his infant grandson.[1]

Wilson looked up to the work of Mexican painter Jose Clemente Orozco.[1] Orozco's work focused primarily on political murals that inspired Wilson. When Wilson and his wife traveled to Mexico, Orozco had already passed away.[1]

Major worksEdit

Political piecesEdit

Wilson was championed for his ability to fuse his artistic creativity with his passion for politics and social justice. Wilson's most famous and viewed work is the bronze bust of Martin Luther King Jr. that stands three feet tall in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington D.C.. Wilson won the sculptural commission in 1985 as part of a national competition to create a memorial statue of the civil rights leader for the United States Capitol,[1] and the bust was revealed in the Rotunda on January 15, 1986, which would have been Martin Luther King Jr.'s fifty-seventh birthday.[1] Although both men have ties to Boston University, they never met. In the original etching, Wilson portrays King's physical presence as a haunting vulnerability coupled with unwavering strength, while symbolizing King's assassination through the crosshairs of vertical and horizontal lines that intersect at King's throat that effectively silence the voice of the prolifically outspoken equal rights activist.[1]

One of Wilson's most overtly politically charged works, a lithograph called Deliver Us From Evil, was created while he was a student of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1943.[4] In this piece, he comments on the paradoxical nature of World War II, critiquing the United States for fighting for democratic rights in Europe while simultaneously denying African-American citizens those same rights.[1] The left side of the image shows a concentration camp, Nazi soldiers, and Jewish victims, while the right side shows run-down tenement buildings, a lynch mob, and African-American victims.[1] However, despite his criticism of the American government, he did support the war in theory, as he was against fascism and anti-Semitism.[3][5]

Another critical work by Wilson is the lithograph Elevated Streetcar Scene, created in 1945.[1] In this scene, a lone black man sits on a streetcar, surrounded by white women.[1] While all of the other passengers seem to be absentmindedly looking away into different directions, the black man looks directly at the viewer.[1] This creates the effect of identification between the viewer and the subject, as it begs the viewer to "ponder the burdens and responsibilities of his wartime life."[1] With this work, Wilson is criticizing Franklin D. Roosevelt's integration of factories.[1] Wilson was quoted saying, "I resented the fact that almost everyone on my block was on welfare until they needed us in the shipyards and factories."[1] The subject of this lithograph is one of the Boston Navy Yard workers, wearing workman's coveralls, a cap, and holding a metal lunchbox, riding alongside fashionable women.[6] The rich color palette is made up of mostly reds, whites, and browns, evoking a feeling of warmth from the painting.[1]

Wilson experimented with other mediums in his earlier years, like in his 1946 ink drawing "Man with Cigarette."[1] The bold lines and shadows in this work in addition to the diagonal composition of the bust create a sense of urgency.[1] The man depicted also seems to share the same sensitive expression that is characteristic of Wilson's portraits, which is used to express Wilson's concerns regarding the African American experience in the United States at the time.[1] He described the country as "a world that promised freedom and opportunity for anyone who worked hard… but clearly if you are black you realize that these nice sounding phrases did not include you."

Wilson's method for creating profound art can be seen in the sketches he made in preparation for the bust of King.[1] The original drawing he made has been in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts since 1997.[1] When a request was made to display the drawing in another museum for an extended exhibition, Wilson decided to create a print of it rather than expose the original work to the intense lighting in the exhibition space. The result was a "sensitive" depiction of the civil rights hero, which "focuses on King's face, manipulating the rich lights and darks of the etching by scraping and burnishing the plate." He humanizes King by tilting his head and by giving the face "an almost weary expression" that "emphasizes King's profound humanity in his struggle for equality." Eventually, the Museum of Fine Arts purchased this print, along with the copper plate and the nineteen working proofs that Wilson made.[1] This group of works make it possible to understand Wilson's process for making art and are effective in teaching students about printmaking techniques. Wilson's raw and powerful depictions of Martin Luther King, Jr. convey his indirect involvement with the civil rights movement. Even though he did not actively participate in the movement, he did remark that King was "a very important symbol" in his life.[1]

Two of Wilson's illustrated books, Striped Ice Cream and Malcolm X, can be found at the Princeton University Library. Additionally, Wilson's drawing, Steel Worker, was used for the cover design of The Reporter on July 23, 1959, and is currently housed in the Princeton University Art Museum.[5]


In 1952, Wilson made the lithograph "The Trial" depicting a young black man awaiting a pronouncement from three looming white judges.[4] This lithograph is now in the Brooklyn Museum. Wilson was very interested by murals and was influenced by the painted Jose Clemente Orozco. He saw murals as a way to reach a wider, more diverse audience who did not have the means to visit art museums.[4]

Many artists of the Harlem Renaissance intended their art to make people happy and proud.[1] But Wilson, coming a generation later and living through the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, wanted his art to convey a message and make people think.[1] In an interview with the Boston Globe in 1986, Wilson explained why he sculpted the bust of King in the way that he did.[1] He said "the head is tilted forward, as if to communicate with the viewer. I hope the sculpture will stimulate people to learn more about King, to perpetuate his struggle."[1] When Wilson described the bust, he went beyond the physical markings of the head, saying "to [him] the eloquence of the piece is not only in the face, but in the rhythms of the gesture."[1]

In 1995, Wilson had an exhibit of his own work at the Museum of Fine Arts called Dialogue: John Wilson/Joseph Norman.[1] The exhibit consisted of many of Wilson's sculptures and sketches.[1]

Praise and legacyEdit

Wilson died on Thursday, January 22, 2015 at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts. He was ninety-two years old.[2] Though Wilson is no longer alive, his art continues to make an impact.[1] In Wilson's career survey "Eternal Presence" of 2012, Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee said that Wilson is one of "Boston's most esteemed and accomplished artists."[1] Following Wilson's intent to spark political discussion, Smee stated that Wilson's sketches and charcoal drawings are "an impulse toward clarity, toward truth."[1] Wilson helped found a museum called the National Center of Afro-American Artists (NCAAA) in Roxbury, where he was born.[7] In this museum, there is an exhibit honoring the life and work of Wilson, which is called John Wilson Remembered 1923–2015.[7] This temporary exhibit included many of his sculptures and graphic art[7]

Wilson is represented by Martha Richardson. He had his work featured around Boston throughout his life, including pieces of art in the Museum of Fine Arts and at Martha Richardson Fine Art on Newbury Street.[1]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an Marquard, Bryan (January 26, 2015). "John Wilson, at 92; Artist Spurred by Social Realities". The Boston Globe. Retrieved September 28, 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d "John Woodrow Wilson". Brezniak Rodman Funeral Directors. Retrieved 2017-01-28.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n "Oral History Interview with John Wilson, 1993 March 11-1994 August 16". Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Retrieved September 28, 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g LeFalle-Collins, Lizzetta (1997). Wilson, John. Detroit: St. James Press. pp. 581–584. ISBN 1-55862-220-9.
  5. ^ a b Mellby, Julie (May 3, 2015). "John Wilson 1922–2015". Graphic Arts. Retrieved 2017-01-28.
  6. ^ a b "John Woodrow Wilson | Streetcar Scene | The Met". The Metropolitan Museum of Art, i.e. The Met Museum. Retrieved 2017-01-28.
  7. ^ a b c "Welcome to the Museum". The Museum of the NCAAA. Archived from the original on August 7, 2016. Retrieved November 2, 2016.
  8. ^ a b "John Woodrow Wilson". Indiana University Art Museum. 2006.
  9. ^ "John Woodrow Wilson | Deliver Us from Evil". The Met. Retrieved February 1, 2017.
  10. ^ "Wilson/Cortor". Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. November 5, 2016 – August 6, 2017.
  11. ^ "Martin Luther King, Jr., John Woodrow Wilson; Publisher: Center Street Studio, Milton Village, Mass". MIA. Retrieved February 1, 2017.
  12. ^ "John Wilson 1922–2015". Graphic Arts Collection: Rare Books and Special Collections, Firestone Library, Princeton University. May 3, 2015. Retrieved February 1, 2017.
  13. ^ "Martin Luther King, Jr., (Etching on chine collé)". Curators at Work V. Muscarelle Museum of Art. 2015. Missing or empty |url= (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)