Profile: John Woodrow Wilson (1922–2015)

John Woodrow Wilson 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.

Family and early life

Wilson, commonly referred to by his professional name John Woodrow Wilson, was born the second of five children in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1922.) Both of Wilson’s parents were immigrants from British Guiana, a British colony in South America that is known today as Guyana. They emigrated to America a few years before Wilson was born. British Guiana had a plantation-based economy with sugar being the main good produced.In the colony, Wilson’s parents came from a middle-class background. 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. 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. Wilson’s father stayed in British Guiana because he had been trained as a technician in the sugar industry. One of Wilson’s paternal great aunts died when his family was still living in British Guiana. The woman was very rich and left each of her nieces and nephews a portion of her wealth. Wilson recalls his father telling him this woman “was so wealthy, she left money to her cats.” His father used the money his aunt gave him to open up a variety store.

Wilson was very aware of the racial inequalities that surrounded him, even at a very young age. 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.” 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.

Education and career

In Boston, Wilson took art classes at Roxbury Memorial High School and was the art editor of the school newspaper. He also took many classes at the Boys Club from teachers who were students at the school of the Museum of Fine Arts. 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. In 1947, Wilson graduated from Tufts University while teaching at Boris Mirski School of Modern Art.

Wilson lived in Paris through the MFA fellowship, and studied with the modern artist Fernand Leger. 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. 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.

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