Sometimes you choose the book, sometimes it chooses you.
And sometimes the weight of history makes a project impossible to ignore, when a historical injustice needs to be corrected.
That’s what happened when I saw the works of Gilbert Wilson — once an acclaimed Midwestern artist who attended the School of the Art Institute in 1928.
In the 1950s, movie director John Huston called Wilson “a brilliant artist and one of America’s foremost painters,” yet, Wilson died in obscurity and poverty.
I was visiting the Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana, three years ago when a retrospective of Wilson’s Moby-Dick paintings were being displayed. Wilson, once an assistant to artist Rockwell Kent and an admirer of Diego Rivera, liked things big — large canvases, huge ideas and towering, broad-bodied men. He believed Herman Melville’s novel “Moby-Dick” could be seen as a warning against mankind’s obsessive quest to harness the power of the atom.
When I saw these massive, awe-inspiring works, I asked, “Why isn’t this a book?”
Whenever I ask a question like that, I spend three to five years answering it. In this case, with publisher Hat & Beard, we published “Moby-Dick: Illustrated by Gilbert Wilson” in celebration of the lost artist’s work and Melville’s 200th birthday.
The project was full of surprises. Namely, once I put up a website, people came out of the woodwork with Wilson paintings they’d found at an estate sale or thrift store (two featured in the book). Wilson was famous for giving away his work, and were it not for a scholar named Elizabeth Schultz, most of his work might have been eaten by mice in a Kentucky barn where it had been stored for decades. Just before Wilson’s death, she helped place most of his known work at the Swope. Still, many of his paintings remain unknown, uncatalogued and out in the wild.
Yet another surprise — Indiana State University professor Edward Spann wrote a full-length biography of Wilson but died before it could be published. It remained the “Great Lost Book of Indiana” for more than a decade.
Now, his family entrusted me to edit and publish it. What started as one book became two, and another correction of an historical injustice. That book, “Unfinished and Unbroken: The Life of Artist Gilbert Wilson,” was released this winter with Wilson’s illustrated “Moby-Dick.”
While editing the books, the publisher and I overcame obstacles. We needed to raise money to digitize the images and, sadly, Wilson’s last living relative died during the production of the book. I found myself in the position of championing Wilson’s work after most everyone who’d admired and loved him had passed on.
During his lifetime he had a lot of close calls but never universal acclaim. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote about him in her newspaper column. Pearl S. Buck sponsored an exhibition of his work in New York. Yet, fame never found Wilson. He was defiant, brilliant with a streak of independence that could be mistaken for arrogance. He was also gay and a communist during a time when both labels were dangerous.
Now, however, a new generation of artists are praising him. Artists Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller (collectively known as FAILE) put it succinctly:
“The sword of history can cast a sweeping shadow over art. Some are born to be a legend in their time. For others, politics, cultural forces and chance eclipse their greatness for another generation to discover. Gilbert Wilson is finally emerging from that missing part of the landscape as one of the great American artists of his generation.”
My family and I have lived in Oak Park for 12 years, a community that champions artists, writers, poets and filmmakers. I feel lucky to be counted among its citizens and spend time in its libraries. (It’s a particular thrill when I visit the Maze Library, where I can see a book I co-authored, “Hidden Hemingway,” on the shelf in the main room). It’s that kind of civic pride and engagement that inspired me to help resurrect the art of a true Midwestern master.
“Moby-Dick: Illustrated by Gilbert Wilson” is available at the Book Table, 1045 Lake St. and Jake’s Place on 142 Harrison St, Oak Park. More: gilbertwilsonmobydick.com.