Collection of the Fayette Art Museum
Curated and Sponsored by The Birmingham Public Library
January 6 to February 21, 2014
Lois Wilson Biography
Fayette Art Museum
I must have had talent—surely I had aspirations.
Lois Wilson always felt like an outsider. Born in Fayette, Alabama in 1905, Wilson attended public schools and a classmate remembered her years later as “peculiar.” She was intelligent but shy. Wilson remained an outsider when she briefly studied architecture at Auburn University in 1924 and 1925. Attending on a scholarship, Wilson was academically unprepared for college. Because her family was too poor to provide her with spending money, Wilson gathered discarded soap from the dormitory showers so that she could bathe.
Wilson left college after one year and boarded a train out of her native South. She seldom returned. Wilson studied art at the Child-Walker School of Design in Boston and visited Europe in 1930 with a girlfriend who paid Wilson’s fare. In 1935, she moved to New York and rented small apartments in Greenwich Village. Wilson enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II and studied at the Art Students League after the war. Forced out of Greenwich Village by rising rent, she relocated to Yonkers.
Wilson worked odd jobs throughout her life—as a draftsman for an architect, a bookstore clerk, a laborer in a factory, an art gallery attendant and a sales girl—to earn enough income to afford apartments in dilapidated buildings where she could spend time painting. Wilson cared little for life’s extravagances. She bought her clothes at thrift stores and her apartments were sometimes, by her own admission, filthy and littered with dirty dishes.
Following the suicide of a close friend, Wilson sought the advice of psychics and spiritualists and embraced new age religion. She came to believe that she could communicate with the dead, including deceased relatives. “We get along better than in life,” she wrote. Her unorthodox beliefs, and her efforts to convert other people to those beliefs, alienated her few friends and acquaintances. Her Yonkers neighbors considered her “crazy.”
As her health declined Wilson spent long periods in nursing homes, which she described as “a polite term for jail.” Lois Wilson died of emphysema in New York in 1980 and her ashes are buried beside her parents in Fayette, Alabama.
I’m a disposable artist, living in a disposable city, surrounded by disposable things.
As a child, Lois Wilson did her first paintings on discarded pieces of metal that she found in her father’s blacksmith shop, using shoe polish for paint. As an adult she spent many years creating watercolor scenes, ink drawings and other art that followed the conventions of her art school training. But late in life, after retiring in 1963 and while living on a $100 per month Social Security check, the classically trained Wilson returned to the “found art” of her childhood. As art historian Laquita Thomson has written, “The works done by Wilson when she was old, sick, poor and crotchety are vividly imaginative, visionary, and original.” This exhibit focuses on Wilson’s art from that late period.
Using wood that she scavenged from demolition sites, parts of furniture that she disassembled, old brushes, ironing boards, toilet seats and left over food for coloring, Wilson took the trash that other people discarded and created art. “Every day when I have the strength I go junking,” she wrote. “I find lots of treasures in that rubble. I can’t walk along the street even without searching for wood, any shape or size.” Nothing was wasted. A chain-smoker, Wilson soaked her old cigarette butts in glasses of water and then used the yellow liquid to make ordinary paper look like parchment. Her landlord worried that her apartment was a fire trap, with piles of discarded wood in the bathtub and only narrow paths to walk between stacks of paintings.
Wilson sometimes stayed up until dawn, listening to the
radio and painting or preparing pieces of wood to paint. “I spend half the night
cleaning and sand papering,” she told a friend. “Can hardly wait until it’s
ready to make my drawing on it. I try to make things come alive and speak in
The pieces in this exhibit illustrate the issues that were important to Lois Wilson: environmentalism and conservation, racism, spiritualism, the needs of the aged and homeless, and the emptiness of modern American materialism. Describing her “American Icon” series, she wrote, “They’re like religious paintings of old Russia, but concern those things that only concern Americans.” The pieces exhibited here also show Wilson’s sense of humor and whimsy.
Wilson only sold a few of her paintings and traded a few to other artists. She wanted her body of work to remain intact and beginning in 1969, she donated more than 2,500 of her pieces to her hometown, where they are now housed at the Fayette Art Museum.
Lecture and tour: Laquita Thomson, Associate Professor of Fine Arts
at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tennessee will give a
lecture entitled "Alabama Mystic or Alabama Outsider: The Art of
Lois Wilson" at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, February 2, 2014 in the
Arrington Auditorium. A gallery tour will follow.