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Charles Banks Wilson: The Artist as Historian

The art of Charles Banks Wilson, the man artist Thomas Hart Benton claimed is "America's finest artist historian," is being featured during a two-month-long exhibition that opened in mid-October at The Ashby-Hodge Gallery of American Art at Central Methodist College in Fayette.

"We feel without qualification that the works of no artist of this or any age excel those of Charles Banks Wilson," stated Oklahoma Today magazine in its Winter 1968-69 issue which carried an article about Wilson's well-known portraits of the famous Indian Sequoyah, humorist Will Rogers, Oklahoma politician Robert S. Kerr and legendary athlete Jim Thorpe.

Titled "The Artist as Historian," the exhibition opened on Oct. 18 at the Ashby-Hodge Gallery and will run through Dec. 10. Charles Banks Wilson was present for the Fifth Annual Gala Celebration of Art on Oct. 17 at Central Methodist College and at a special reception in his honor the opening day of the exhibition. More than 70 of Wilson’s works are being shown. Gallery hours during the exhibition are from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Sundays except for Thanksgiving week.

Wilson was born in 1918 in Springdale, Ark. He was only six months old when his family moved to Miami, Oklahoma, an area at the time referred to as "Indian Territory," even though Oklahoma had gained statehood eleven years earlier. Wilson displayed an early interest in art and pursued drawing and painting as a pastime, occasionally painting posters for the local theater. Following graduation from high school in 1936, Wilson entered the Art Institute of Chicago. When fellow students learned he was from "the Indian Territory," they wanted to know all about the tribes living in Oklahoma. This inspired Wilson to draw Indians and western subjects from memory at the Institute and later from real life when he returned home during summer breaks from art school.

Although the American Regionalist movement predated Wilson by a few years, he notes that it played an important role in his decision to return to his childhood hometown of Miami, Oklahoma, in 1939 to work as an artist. In the years since, Wilson has become Oklahoma's most famous artist, and his life's work is closely associated with the cultural history of the state.

Painter, printmaker, magazine and book illustrator, teacher, lecturer and historian, Wilson's work has been shown in more than 200 exhibitions in the United States and throughout the world. Works of his hang in prestigious institutions such as New York's Metropolitan Museum, and the Corcoran Gallery, Library of Congress and Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. His drawings have been used to illustrate Oklahoma school textbooks.

Writers on art have said the paintings by Wilson "breathe the spirit of the Southwest." His mural "The Trapper's Bride" in Jackson Lake Lodge, Wyoming, commissioned by the late John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1955, has been ranked among the finest records of the far West's fur trade.

Wilson also painted the life portrait of Thomas Gilcrease, who established Tulsa's famed Gilcrease Museum, where 55 of Wilson's works are now part of the permanent collection. Other famous subjects painted by Wilson include artist Thomas Hart Benton, who was a close personal friend, and former U.S. Speaker of the House, Carl Albert, whose portrait was the first to hang in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and later in the U.S. Capitol's Speakers' Gallery.

Wilson is perhaps best known for his pictures of contemporary Indian life, a project that has engaged him since the early 1930s. It includes the "The Little Indians" portfolio and a body of 148 works in a series titled "Last of the Purebloods." The latter project took him more than 40 years and was motivated by Wilson's desire to document native peoples who were rapidly being changed physically in their looks and socially through the mixing of bloodlines and other societal pressures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Says Wilson of this four-decade effort, "Sometimes Indians came to my studio, but more often I went to them, drawing wherever they could be found: in their homes, in hospitals, bars, back porches, tents, along rivers, in jails or churches, or during [Indian] ceremonies."

Honored by the U.S. State Department as well as the International Institute of Arts and Letters in Geneva, Switzerland, Wilson received the first Governor's Art Award and the D.S.C. from the University of Oklahoma. He is a member of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame and recipient of the Western Heritage Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame. Wilson currently lives in Fayetteville, Ark., where he continues his work as an artist.