In Memoriam | Visual Arts

Long Live the Groucho Marxist: Sam Wilson (1943 – 2023)

Photo by Zoe and Robert Rodriguez, shot in 2018 as part of Artists of Utah’s Utah’s 15.

A prominent figure in the Utah art world and a dedicated faculty member at the University of Utah College of Fine Arts, Sam Wilson leaves behind a rich legacy characterized by his unique blend of passion, innovation, and commitment to authenticity in art. He passed away Monday, Nov. 27, at the age of 80.

He was born Roger Dale Wilson in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1943. “Sam” was a nickname his father gave him five years later. His family moved west to California where he graduated from high school in Long Beach in 1961. His studies at Long Beach State College were interrupted by a tour or duty in Vietnam. In 1978 he came to Utah as a visiting artist and never left.

Known for his distinctive style and relentless work ethic, Wilson’s approach to art was deeply personal and reflective. Working seven days a week, even into his 70s, his dedication was evident in his striking self-portraits, characterized by his shaved head and piercing blue eyes. Wilson’s work often featured the “Groucho Marxist,” a whimsical self-representation that underscored his light-hearted view of the art world and life. His paintings, brimming with diverse and often unexpected elements, were a testament to his imaginative and humorous approach.

An example of Sam Wilson’s work, from an exhibit at 15th Street Gallery in May, 2013.

Known for beginning his paintings without a predetermined plan, Wilson allowed his subconscious to guide his hand. This spontaneous process, coupled with his meticulous use of various mediums, highlighted his unique approach to creating art that was both realistic and abstract. Wilson’s art was a melting pot of influences, ranging from Renaissance masterpieces to mid-20th-century pop culture. This eclectic mix not only showcased his wide-ranging interests but also his ability to juxtapose disparate elements to create something truly original.

As Geoff Wichert expressed it in the profile he wrote of Wilson for Artists of Utah’s Utah’s 15 publication, Wilson’s tenure at the University of Utah College of Fine Arts was not just a job but a calling. He joined a vibrant community of artists, fostering an environment that valued diverse artistic expressions and the pursuit of quality in art. His role as an educator was as much a part of his legacy as his creations, influencing generations of aspiring artists.

His notable works, including The Stations of the Cross at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, displayed his ability to blend historical reverence with a modern artistic touch. His annual travels to Italy further connected him to the rich tapestry of art history that he so admired. Wilson’s views on contemporary art and its societal interactions were marked by a preference for substance over style. He advocated for art that balanced conceptual depth with tangible craftsmanship, challenging the prevailing trends in the art world.

Wilson’s home studio in Salt Lake City remained a mirror to his eclectic mind even after he retired from the University of Utah. Packed with a myriad of objects from plaster busts of historical figures to quirky items like a mannequin in a Foreign Legion hat, his studio was a testament to his diverse inspirations and playful approach to art. It expressed a notion he repeated on more than one occasion: “It’s far better to make art than to ‘be an artist.'”

In October, 2010, Sam Wilson was the subject of our first video Artist Profile.

Categories: In Memoriam | Visual Arts

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  1. It’s often been said that an immigrant can see his new country more clearly than a native might. Sam Wilson exemplified that thought with his Stations of the Cross, which did something no one else had managed: universalized the story of the Passion of Jesus by relocating it to the desert Southwest. Further, placing this achievement in a Catholic cathedral was an ecumenical gesture. Great work has been done in preserving the art of those who settled and built Utah, and it would be a wonderful thing if similar efforts were to result in preserving the moment in time when Utahans turned to turn outward, to look beyond their own story and begin to reconnect with the wider world.
    Sam liked to quip that he owned the largest collection in existence of the Art of Sam Wilson. It’s a resource presumably waiting now to find a home. And there’s a lot of it, surely enough to go around, if every relevant institution would take the opportunity to do as the Springville Museum did when they acquired one of his inimitable self-portraits.

  2. Many memories of Sam from my days as a U of U arts foundation program freshman circa 1996. He was equal parts dry humor, gruff, and beautifully encouraging. Continuous line drawing assignments in class where he made sure you didn’t look down at your paper, but instead stared awkwardly at your fellow classmate. Or when he wheeled in a contraption of a “live model” which consisted of a plastic skeleton wearing a leather and lamb-skin vest with a cranial brace screwed into the temples of the skull. And also, his roosters. RIP, Sir. And thank you.

  3. Sam gave me the best advice on how to paint. Paint the spots, and keep painting the different colored spots until the image in the painting pops.

    I always loved the long and interesting names he came up with for his paintings. He will be missed!

  4. He often told the story about another artist (colleague or friend?) who told him – “Sam, just because you have all the crayons in the crayon box doesn’t mean you should use all the crayons in the crayon box”. But of course he did. 😉 I loved how extraordinary and unusual Sam’s artwork was – I felt like I was looking at a painting, a drawing, a comic, a journal entry, a casual state of unusual psychosis, and another layer of meta-verse all at once.
    I’m grateful that I was able to learn from Sam and see so much if his artwork frequently and in person.

  5. Sam’s irreverent devotion to authenticity frightened any dogma within a 10 mile radius. He was a true Riverboat Gambler and Card Shark.
    I miss You Sam. You made teaching at the U. Of U. FUN.

  6. Sam used to say “buy art materials, use them up, buy more” . He was a huge inspiration. I was lucky to have him as my advisor for a self directed class. I will miss him. What a great guy.

  7. Thank you for reposting this interview with Sam. It is like sitting in his studio with him again listening to him joke about aesthetics.
    When I started teaching drawing at East High, I asked for his counsel. As he demonstrated the basic lay-in of a bust, he said “Drawing is just a continual process of correcting
    and finding the right line.” That advise has helped many of my students get past their fear and be more patient with the process, and has helped me to be a better drawing teacher.
    Bless you Sam wherever you are now, perhaps Reno?

  8. The best conversation in art school I ever had were with you. My new regret in life is being too busy/distracted by life to not have come back and had more with you. RIP Sam!

  9. I interviewed Sam for The Trib in his U studio long ago. Bet I still have that story somewhere because it was a fine one — due to his observations, not my own. And to what was on his easel. It was, of course, more like he interviewed me and I got my head on straight for once in my life. If only briefly. RIP, Sam. You mattered to so many.

  10. Professor Sam Wilson was one-of-a-kind. He gave me the best advice which was “Always, ALWAYS document your work,” and “you should go by Michaela Rae— it just sounds better,” which I now do. Thank you Sam, for all you did for me and numerous other creative souls. You are dearly missed.

  11. It’s wonderful to swap stories about departed friends, and everyone here has made an invaluable contribution. We should never forget, though, that within every comedian beats a tragic heart. Sam, a Catholic, was invited here for a moment, not knowing he would end up staying in a place where he would forever be an incomer. His vision was never adopted and loved the way his peers’ and colleagues’ works are embraced. A local hero, he was never at home. As may be inevitable, he went on being himself while becoming increasingly anachronistic. It wasn’t just Utah, of course: he would have fallen out with the latest thing no matter where he worked. But his consuming focus on art-making and art-teaching was his way of staying in touch with a whole world he saw more clearly than it wanted to be seen, and reflected more accurately than it wished to be shown.

  12. While working on our MA projects at CSULB Sam generously taught me more about art with his gentle critiques and twisted comments than I learned in any class. Whatever the subject, Sam’s perspective reframed and awed. He could make a straight line a dazzling philosophical adventure with an unpredictable punch line. Sam Wilson’s existence enriched my life.

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