Fred R. Wilson, 2001. Face pot, unnamed (or name unknown). Fired clay, Raku process, 13" h. Inscribed on bottom: "F. Wilson / 01 / [monogram] MW NM" for Muddy Wheel (Gallery), New Mexico.
About the Artist.
Fred Robert Wilson (1932-2012) was an important African American artist and art instructor who taught sculpture at Golden Oak Adult School in the 1960s and guided community arts organizations in Val Verde and Newhall before relocating in 1975 to Albuquerque where he founded the New Mexico African American Artists' Guild and won the state Governor's Award in 2007.
Born March 16, 1932, in Chicago, Wilson came to California as a young teenager with his mother, Jennie Moore, and started throwing pottery at age 14. A 1951 graduate of Victor Valley High School in Victorville, he initially intended to pursue the priesthood but decided he could reach more people through his art. He earned his associate degree from Mount San Antonio Junior College in 1953 and studied art and athletics at the University of La Verne (then La Verne College). Drafted into the Army in 1956, he returned to complete his bachelor's degree at La Verne in 1958. "The Army gave me life experience, but I feel that a great deal of life inspiration came from growing up in the Depression in Chicago," he later wrote in an autobiographical career profile.*
From the early 1950s to the early 1960s, Wilson's artwork would claim more than two dozen top prizes at fairs and festivals across California.
Working toward a master's degree in sculpture, Wilson finished two years of graduate studies at Fresno State College and two years at Cal State Los Angeles before moving to Val Verde in 1964 with his poet-wife Jessie and their first three (of five) children (The Signal, December 10, 1964). Living and working at the Hilltop Studio, founded in 1947 by Val Verdean Alice Gafford (ibid., June 24, 1965), Wilson wasted no time in exhibiting his work and teaching classes in ceramics and textile painting.
Fred and Jessie also took in a half-dozen underprivileged girls ages 9-12 from inner-city Los Angeles every summer to teach them home economics, music and art. Fred Wilson had worked with similar children for nine years at a YMCA in L.A. (ibid., November 11, 1965).
Now his work began to reach a wider audience, with pieces included in exhibitions in Los Angeles, New York and Europe. One of his woodcuts appeared in the 1965 book, "Prints by American Negro Artists." Meanwhile at home, he chaired the annual Val Verde Hobby Show.
Also in 1965, Wilson and local art instructor Hal Rasmussen were commissioned by The Newhall Land and Farming Company for one of several promotional events the company staged to link its planned community of Valencia to the "other" Valencia in Spain. Believed to date to the Middle Ages, the original Falles de València celebration is held each March to honor Saint Joseph. It involves fireworks and the burning of allegorical monuments in huge bonfires. For the California version, Wilson and Rasmussen created large papier-mache figures representing aspects of SCV history: a giant farmer, a miner panning gold, an oil well, and an old-time locomotive. While the mayor of the Spanish city looked on, "the traditional fires were lighted, and as rockets burst overhead, [the figures] went up in flames" (ibid., October 21, 1965). The festival was intended as an annual event, but evidently it was not repeated. Perhaps the local fire marshal weighed in.
Wilson started teaching sculpture in spring 1966 at the "Golden Oak School of Adult Education," as it was called. With no permanent home, classes were held at Hart District campuses across the valley. Wilson taught at Hart High. Students made clay heads from their life model — the aging historian A.B. "Art" Perkins, whose chiseled face was described as "a challenge" (ibid., March 17, 1966).
Wilson helped get the Golden Oak Art Association off the ground in Newhall in 1966. When his landlord decided to sell his Val Verde studio property (ibid., November 11, 1965), Wilson relocated his family within the Santa Clarita Valley and opened a new studio, the Muddy Wheel Gallery, in Van Nuys in 1968.
"My greatest inspirations come from dreams and from observing people and animals in my daily environment," he would write. He reinterpreted "cultural, symbolic and mythical stories" into large-scale sculptures, masks and pots, often with stylized faces, as well as two-dimensional wall murals made of rolled-out clay that he cut into tiles, fired and framed. He frequently incorporated wood, stained glass, feathers, shells and beads into his one-of-a-kind creations.*
The 1970s would bring major change. In 1975, Wilson relocated his gallery to Albuquerque, which he termed "a land for dreamers" (Albuquerque Tribune, 1990). In 1978 he was commissioned to produce fountains and murals for homes and businesses in New Mexico but suffered a stroke that left him with Bell's palsy. He was back in action in 1979.
Despite — or perhaps because of — his personal philosophy that "there is no such thing as Black art, there are only Black artists" (Albuquerque Journal, February 14, 1988), he co-founded the New Mexico African American Artists' Guild as part of his effort to heighten awareness in a state known primarily for its Anglo, Latino and Indigenous populations.
In the 1980s, Wilson met Kristen Chandler, a jeweler who would become his new wife. She created her "wearable art" in the studio they now shared — the Wild Strawberry/Muddy Wheel Gallery — and added three more children to his family.
By the late 1990s, Wilson was exhibiting in 13 juried shows every year across the Southwest. He had served on numerous selection panels, won countless awards, hosted apprenticeships and tutored more than 8,000 people in pottery making.*
He also opened his studio to 40 school tours each year through his "Touch/Feel" program. "These are not merely tours and demonstrations; each child is allowed to create two pieces of pottery, one hand-built and one thrown on the wheel," a nominator explained when Wilson won the 2007 New Mexico Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts as a "Major Contributor to the Arts."
In 2011, Wilson publicly announced he was suffering from dementia (Facebook, July 4, 2011). He died April 23, 2012, at his home studio in Albuquerque.
Wilson highlights his philosophy in his 1996 book of art and poetry, "Soul Reflections / Heart Expressions:"
"You gotta look up and not down to the ground / You gotta reach out and feel all around / And touch, smell, feel and see / All the good things in life to be found."
*Undated grant application by Fred R. Wilson, circa late 1990s.
LW3792: Download individual images here. Artwork purchased 2021 by Leon Worden.