Sculpting a Legacy: The Art and Impact of John Wilson

Through his famous bust of Martin Luther King Jr. and beyond, the artist and Tufts alumnus celebrated the dignity and humanity of Black Americans

A thousand people gathered in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on January 16, 1986 for the unveiling—more than 200 years after our country’s founding—of the first work of art in the Capitol building to honor a Black American.

Days earlier, the nation had celebrated its first annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day; now, it was witnessing the unveiling of a bust of the slain civil rights leader. Through the windows, the crowd could see down the National Mall toward the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington more than two decades earlier in 1963. 

“When you see an act of peaceful protest anywhere in the world today, then you see his monument,” said Maryland Senator Charles Mathias. “And when you see any act of justice done or any act of injustice thwarted, then you see his monument.” With that, a curtain was pulled aside to reveal a six-foot pedestal of black Belgian marble, topped by a three-foot-tall bronze bust of King, looking down with a pensive and determined expression. Almost immediately, some critics complained about the image, calling it too downcast and humble a representation for the fiery prophet who had paved the way for the Civil Rights Act in 1964. 

The artist who had created the image, John Wilson, SMFA45, A47, defended his work: “Humility had absolutely nothing to do with my piece. King’s head is tilted forward—not bowed—so that someone standing below will have a kind of eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with him,” he told the Associated Press. “I wanted to show that kind of brooding, contemplative, inner-directed person that’s the essence of the man, his eloquence in communicating ideas and his compassion for people.”

For many viewers, the effect was profoundly moving. “This is an extraordinary work in both the psychological as well as the artistic sense,” said Edmund Barry Gaither, director of the National Center for Afro-American Artists (NCAAA). “It represents not just one action—the King of the March on Washington, the letter from the Birmingham jail, or the Nobel Peace Prize—but the King of all time, the King of deep thought and reflection and contemplation.” 

For Wilson, the artwork was the culmination of a virtuosic career as an artist and teacher who influenced a generation of artists in Boston. The bust epitomizes Wilson’s work, which captures the experience of Black Americans in drawings, prints, paintings, and sculptures, with a deep passion and expressiveness.

While not shying away from the realities of racial conflict and division, Wilson’s works confront the viewer with a depth of emotion that compels them with subtle, but powerful emotional intensity. As his wife Julie Kowitch said upon Wilson’s death in 2015 at age 92, “Essentially, he 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.”

Bust of Martin Luther King Jr., U.S. Capitol. Photo: Alamy Stock PhotoBust of Martin Luther King Jr., U.S. Capitol. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

It was a message that Wilson had lived himself. John Woodrow Wilson was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1922 to immigrant parents who had been middle-class in Guyana and now ran a neighborhood variety store. In visits to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) as a teenager, Wilson looked in vain for representations of African Americans on the walls.

“None of these people looked like me, and just by omission, the implication was that black people were not capable of being beautiful and true and precious,” he later told The Boston Globe. “The subject matter of those works seemed to reflect the attitude of the official world around me at that time: namely, that black people and their special experience were irrelevant and unimportant.”

Despite that lack of representation, Wilson persisted in capturing the beauty and importance of the world he saw all around him, from sketching family members to taking drawing classes at the Roxbury Boys Club with instructors from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA). “There were very few Black professional artists in those days,” he later remembered.

On recommendation from those teachers, however, he received a full scholarship to study at the school (which has been formally a part of Tufts since 2016), graduating with highest honors in 1945. A year later, his first work entered the MFA collection—a print lithograph called Streetcar Scene, which depicts a Black man on his way to work on a streetcar surrounded by white women, but seemingly apart from them. Wilson described the drawing as an allegorical depiction of his struggles to find work as a Black artist. 

The image is characteristic of Wilson’s early drawings, with a complex composition and intense emotionality. “Something that was underscored pretty early on was the incredibly powerful expressiveness of his work,” says Edward Saywell, the MFA’s chair of prints and drawings. “His draftsmanship is quite brilliant in its power to convey the human figure and the emotions of particular individuals.” In an effort to secure steady work, Wilson came to Tufts to study education, earning a bachelor of science in 1947.

A profile in The Tuftonian magazine noted that he was already making waves in the art world, winning national competitions and publishing work in magazines such as Life. The article remarked upon his gentle demeanor, calling him a “charming, jovial, and superficially untroubled person” even as it recognized his burgeoning talent. “We predict even stronger original devleopment and, in the not-too-distant future, the emergence of a truly dynamic American artist.” 

After graduation, Wilson traveled to Paris on a fellowship to study with cubist master Fernand Léger, becoming enthralled with the African and Mexican sculptures at the Musée de l'Homme (Museum of Humanity), just as Matisse and Picasso had done.

By 1950, he was appearing in a show dedicated to young American artists at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, before winning a prestigious grant from the John Hay Whitney Foundation to study at Mexico City’s national art school, La Esmeralda. Inspired by the social realism of Mexican muralists such as José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfara Siqueiros, Wilson’s work became more overtly political. 

“The Incident,” John Woodrow Wilson, 1952. Image: ©2022 Estate of John Wilson / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY“The Incident,” John Woodrow Wilson, 1952. Image: ©2022 Estate of John Wilson / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
He was haunted by images of lynchings he had seen as a child in the African American newspapers to which his father subscribed. To “exorcise” those images, he created a huge mural on the side of the school called The Incident, which depicted a lynching by white-hooded figures, as witnessed by a Black family. As a mother clutches her child in fear, a father stares resolutely out the window, holding the end of a shotgun in his hand.

Another work, a lithograph called The Trial, now at the Brooklyn Musuem, shows three white judges leering down at a Black boy from an impossibly high bench. In Mexico, Wilson increasingly experimented with print-making as a way to disseminate his art outside of museums. “Prints are one of the most democratic of media,” Saywell says, “which I think aligns with Wilson’s own focus on political and social struggles.” 

After stints teaching in New York and Chicago, Wilson came back to Boston to teach at Boston University, where King himself had earned his divinity degree. There, Wilson taught a generation of students for two decades, from 1964 to 1986. Wilson was an incredibly kind and generous teacher, says artist and former student George Ganges.

“He never tried to impose his manner of working on what they were trying to accomplish,” he says. “What he was trying to teach us was what he called the ‘laws of spatial logic’—that is essentially how to see, and to give you ways to interpret what was before you.” One of his favorite assignments was to have students draw a white egg against a white background, rendering the object in three dimensions through subtle evocations of tone and atmosphere. “He said it was easy to see the big tonal changes, but that didn’t make a good drawing,” says another student, Bob Freeman. “He wanted us to see the small changes in tone and capture the accuracy of what we saw.”

One day, Ganges says, Wilson came to him during a break in which students were drawing a model in the round. Though Wilson had been facing the front of the model, he told Ganges that his sketch of the model’s backside was wrong and began to quickly sketch his own. “When the model came back and sat down, it was exactly like that,” says Ganges. “He saw the world three-dimensionally. I thought he was like a wizard.” As much as the accuracy of external form, Wilson also taught his students the importance of capturing internal emotion. 

“The first thing he wanted you to do was to make things alive and not what he called ‘wooden.’ Even things made of wood, he encouraged you to bring life to them,” Ganges says. “John’s intent was to make something compelling enough that a person standing in front of one of his works would want to know more.” The combination of his gentle approach and his passion for excellence made him the best teacher Ganges ever had.

“I’ve had many teachers who were excellent artists, but not great teachers,” Ganges says. “John is a great artist, but he was a masterful teacher.” For Black artists like Ganges and Freeman, he was also something more. “His work on racial themes was hugely impressive to a young student like me,” says Freeman, now an advisor to the MFA. “The few of us who were African American at the school had this sense that we could stay and we could endure—he taught us that by being a model of it.”

In addition to his more political works, Wilson increasingly made drawings and paintings of ordinary people—workers, children, parents—often in the opaque watercolor medium of gouache. In 1967, Tufts staged its own show of Wilson’s work, acquiring the print Father and Child, which now hangs in the Africana Center. The image is a tender depiction of a father cradling a child, while nuzzling its head with his face. A Boston Globe review of one of Wilson’s shows in 1967 praised his “honest, direct, powerful style,” his “control of light and shade, volume and line” that gave a “sculptural quality to many of these drawings that is nothing short of monumental.”

Starting in the 1970s, he delved into sculpture himself. In 1990, he created the 7-foot-tall Father and Child Reading as an homage to his own experiences as a child reading with his parents. The piece is installed at Roxbury Community College, just a few blocks from where Wilson grew up.

That same year, he submitted his vision for the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. to a design competition by the National Endowment for the Arts for a statue to join the ranks of Washington, Lincoln, and other great Americans in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. Chaired by Gaither, the panel of judges chose Wilson’s entry from 180 applications, paying him $50,000 to produce the work. While he never met King himself, Wilson studied dozens of photographs of the civil rights leader, striving to capture “King’s quiet strength and ‘the eloquence that got masses of people to follow him,’” according to The New York Times.

In his own unassuming way, Wilson drove the bust himself to Washington, wrapping it in blankets and an old sleeping bag and packing it into his Mazda’s trunk. For someone who had never seen himself in the artworks of his hometown museum, driving to install his depiction of a great African American leader in the heart of American democracy was an emotional journey. “I never felt part of it,” Wilson said of the Capitol building. “But when I delivered the sculpture, that changed. I felt, ‘A piece of me is in that building.’” 

As important to Wilson as his sculpture of the civil rights leader was a sculpture he made the following year to install in the courtyard of the NCAAA. Called Eternal Presence, it depicts the idealized head of a Black child, based on a close friend of Wilson’s daughter, rising out of the earth with a quiet grace and dignity. “With this statue, I wanted to pay homage to ordinary Black people (male or female) and make them undeniably visible,” he later told Ebony magazine. “I wanted to design and shape it so that all viewers, of any race or culture, would identify with the sense of universal humanity contained in this monumental head of a Black person.”

That combination of celebrating Black pride along with the universality of human emotion continues to resonate in more recent exhibitions of Wilson’s work. In 2012, the Danforth Museum in Framingham, Massachusetts sponsored a retrospective of his work, which inspired Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Sebastian Smee to call him “one of Boston’s most esteemed and accomplished artists.” In 2019, Yale sponsored a traveling exhibition of studies for his mural The Incident, which became even more urgent after the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests in the spring of 2020.

In describing the work, Yale Associate Professor of African American Studies and History Crystal Feimster noted that despite the violence of the incident, Wilson instead foregrounds the Black family at the center of the mural, both the protective mother and the defiant father who commands the viewer’s gaze. “This is about putting a powerful symbol of Black manhood at the center,” Feimster said. “It’s a way of humanizing Black people in their communities.”

In a new exhibit at the MFA, Black Histories, Black Futures, Boston-area high school students chose art and wrote wall text for works that were meaningful to them—literally putting themselves onto the walls of the museum where Wilson failed to see himself decades ago. Hirlary Peña, a junior at Boston Latin Academy, chose Gabrielle, a portrait by Wilson of a young girl with tangled braids and light dancing on her dark skin as she stands pouting, with arms crossed.

“The drawing tells and entire story without color or words,” writes Peña. “I am that young Black girl whose hair cannot be tamed, always on high alert in a world where it’s held against me.” Another student chose a powerful image of Martin Luther King Jr. that Wilson made as a preparatory drawing for his bust in 1985. 

A print of that image also appeared at the Danforth retrospective in 2012, where director of Tufts Africana Center Katrina Moore first saw it. At the time, she was planning Tufts’ own celebration for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and was looking for a powerful image of King as a focus for the event. Moore reached out to Wilson to ask if Tufts could borrow a copy of the King lithograph for its celebration.

Meeting Wilson at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts, Moore was struck by how genuine the artist was as he invited her in for tea. As she presented him with paperwork to formalize the loan, he waved it away. “He was, like, ‘No, you don’t need that—just take it,’” Moore remembered. (She insisted they fill it out anyway.) “I was struck by how humble he was for someone who had accomplished so much. It was a moving experience for me.”

The lithograph brought a new focus to the celebratory event, while also providing a direct connection to Tufts. “[Wilson’s] a Tufts alum, and look at the legacy he has left,” said Moore. “We try and instill his sense of legacy in students through the many examples of Black alums who have left Tufts and done extraordinary things.” These days, Moore goes out of her way to direct students to Tufts’ print of Wilson’s Father and Child, on permanent display in the Africana Center, as an introduction to an artist who, through his work and teaching, has shown so many people that they belong in the halls of America.

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