Sam Wilson was the first Utah artist whose work caught my attention, and he remains foremost for me among the many fine painters, sculptors, printers, assemblers, media mixers, and raconteurs I’ve been privileged to meet in the years since. Sam never put as much effort into spreading his work around as he did into making it, which he did seven days a week with astonishing energy and discipline. When he did show, it was likely to be at the U of U or Art Access, both places where he had taught and where he could simultaneously demonstrate his art making and talk about it. His own neighborhood venue, meanwhile, was the durable and classy 15th Street Gallery, and it was here that his friends assembled Saturday evening for a one-night only celebration, surrounded by at least 50 of his works, among them examples from all his genres, and among the celebrants his former colleagues, students, admirers, along with some of the opening night foods and wines that were so much a feature of his lifestyle.
For an artist whose work owed so much to the Italian Renaissance, and who visited Italy year after year, Sam Wilson spent remarkably little time in Rome. The way he explained it was that he often felt he should travel to more of the country, but each time he set out to do so, he’d soon feel the irresistible draw of Florence, and so return to the place where his art, as it turned out, had made its debut appearance.
He did tell a story about Rome, a tale that speaks volumes about the way he chose to paint. The scene his words conjured up was the Sistine Chapel, its floor covered in wall-to-wall tourists, hundreds of them, all of them gazing up at the most famous ceiling in the world. At this point, he would demonstrate by tilting his head back to stare straight up.
All but one, he added, and here Sam began to mime himself in that crowd, repeatedly craning his neck and tilting his head to show how he would turn to study not the ceiling, but the walls that supported it. These were already painted when Michelangelo arrived, by the generation of masters from whom he learned his craft: Perugino, Botticelli, and Ghirlandaio among them. These were Humanists, the first artists in centuries to take an interest in the mortal life around them, and whose figures they painted, in character and costume, sometimes singly but more often in groups as they witnessed the building and governing of their new city-states, all the while conversing about religion, the newly re-discovered Classical culture, philosophy, and current events.
So Sam Wilson pored over the art that Michelangelo had studied when it was the latest sensation, adding to it the innovations of his own age. For the truth is that while he increasingly saw himself, as honest artists usually do, as an anachronism, he never stopped paying attention to the innovations of his contemporaries, like mixed media and appropriation, often commenting on them with a revealing glance from a self-portrait, or simply by stealing them for his own use. Anyone who thought he was stuck in the Renaissance, however, should compare backgrounds. The works he enjoyed copying from were marked by elaborate scenery, designed to demonstrate a growing mastery of perspective. Sam got along quite well with a modernist’s approach: taking the setting for granted, and placing his figures — often nothing more than expressive heads — in a modern space that is appropriately empty and indeterminate. Nor was he shy about including his self-portrait among his many other characters, knowing as he did what today’s viewer knows: that everyone an artist impersonates is, to some degree, an expression of their maker’s knowledge and experience.
There was, of course, a form of painting — more associated with Venice than Florence, which was the sort of history Sam reveled in — known as a “Sacred Conversation.” Converse among individuals is a major human activity, and so quite rightly a substantial subject of art. From literature to architecture, dialogue between individuals or their elements are said to bring the work to life, and into the viewer’s actual presence. The innumerable heads Sam painted pantomime such conversations, their features in their infinite variety expressing their thoughts and feelings without words. Meanwhile, “conversation” appears frequently among the quotations and remarks written on Sam’s canvases, an idiosyncrasy he carried to such an extent that on at least one occasion, this commentary occupied a second, separate canvas so the two hung like a diptych.
Most artists today, even in the mainstream — especially in the mainstream — are more like illustrators, manipulating the images of others: photographers, other artists, celebrities, fashion designs of the moment. Sam Wilson was old school, detailing stories of his struggles with the world. The way he narrated those stories of his encounters by writing on his canvases was a unique discovery, and he instinctively stuck by it even as it left him standing alone in his craft. The conversations, as he calls them repeatedly among the works at the 15th Street Galley, began with his personal argument with his subject matter. To take just one example among many, in “I Think I Recall …” he goes further to talk about his discovery of a title. A later conversation, among many levels of them, occurs too late for his commentary: that would be the conversation between the canvas and the viewer, whom he rarely meets and who normally wouldn’t meet him, either. But Sam loved being the artist, which is why so many of the anecdotes told in memory of him contain things he said about the life’s experience of the artist. “Old art teachers never die,” went one: “They’re just no longer archival.”
There was one sad element among the resigned and still joyful recollections of Sam Wilson on Saturday. Those who spoke of him, whether among themselves or in addressing the group, shared endless personal, often laugh-out-loud stories. I hesitate to mention names for fear of unfairly leaving anyone out. But among the names that were mentioned often, three were of those who knew him, who could not be physically present. Art historian Bob Olpin, printmaker Bob Kleinschmidt, and painter Doug Snow were among the well-known names that were mentioned again and again. They, along with some other contemporary colleagues and close friends, are already gone. Sam may have outlasted them, but it doesn’t mean he outlived his moment. Rather, he encapsulated it. The satire and social commentary that are such an indispensable part of the Sam Wilson universe were an element of their time, which is now passed and gone. Even as Sam felt he was falling behind a changing society, it was fast becoming inconceivable that anyone could set out to make the lighthearted, eloquent images that came so readily to him. It’s often said that artists must say something about the time they live in, but that idea has fallen into disrepute. Sam Wilson had a lot to say about his time, but he’d say it to you in person. His art was reserved for things that were bigger than the moment, even as he labored to style them for the present. Like the work he admired from the past, what is true in his art will be true forever.
Sam Wilson, 15th Street Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Jan. 25.
All images courtesy the author.