Terre Haute Murals: Gilbert Brown Wilson

Gilbert Wilson Home has  Fallen on Hard Times, 1201 N. 4th Str. Terre Haute, IN, 2014, photo by L.Berry
Gilbert Wilson Home has Fallen on Hard Times, 1201 N. 4th Str. Terre Haute, IN, photo: L.Berry, 2014

Obviously, the home of Terre Haute muralist Gilbert Brown Wilson, pictured here, has not been preserved as an important historical site. Nor has there been a movement to honor him with a statue. He never reached the level of fame needed for these kinds of memorials. Or perhaps he’s simply still too odd to be accepted by the conservative “moral Majority” of Terre Haute.

Gilbert Brown Wilson was born March 4, 1907, the fourth child of Wilton and Martha, and their only son. Articles about Wilson generally say his father was a banker, and some draw a contrast between this fact and Gilbert’s socialist – perhaps even communist – point of view. However, there is a distinction between “being a banker” and “working at a bank.” The former implies a stakeholder status, a kind of financial prestige. The latter more aptly describes Wilton Wilson’s career.

Senior Portrait from Garfield Benedictus, 1925
Senior Portrait from Garfield Benedictus, 1925.

Gilbert Wilson’s father came from a large and far from prosperous family. In a 1979 interview with Philip Gerber, Wilson said, “One of my father’s brothers was a drunk, and another had about twenty-one children.” Though this may well have been an exaggeration, it puts Wilton in the role of the “white sheep” of the family; he became first a clerk and eventually a vice-president of what is now First Financial Bank.

18-year Old G.Wilson was the Artistic Director for Garfield Benedictus, 1925
18-year Old G.Wilson was the Artistic Director for Garfield Benedictus, 1925. This image Features One of his Drawings for the Year-Book.

In reference to his father, Gilbert also told Gerber “he had one job when he was young and kept at it.” Wilson’s letters indicate his feeling of there being a barrier between himself and his father. It would be natural to assume a man who slowly but surely worked his way up in a bank would look askance at a son’s ambition to be an artist, but Wilton Wilson clearly provided both financial and moral support. He even tried to use his connections at the bank to help secure commissions for murals.  Of course, there’s a great deal of irony in Gilbert Wilson’s comment, since he was just as persistent in his “one job” as a painter.

Brown’s mother was not, as some sources claim, a former opera singer. Wilson did speak to Gerber of his mother’s beautiful voice and how friends urged her to go on the Chautauqua circuit. He also pointed out her lack of education, saying she had worked as a domestic servant from a young age. Letters to her son from Mattie Wilson show that she didn’t follow many rules of grammar or spelling, nor had she been trained in penmanship, which was a standard subject at the time.

The Wilson home at 1201 North 4th Street, was, in its day, a solid middle class dwelling with an inviting front porch. In Gilbert’s youth and young adulthood, well before Third Street became the major thoroughfare it is today, it would have been easy to head west, pass Woodlawn Cemetery and take a walk along the river. Wilson mentions such ambles to enjoy nature and clear his head in some of his many letters in the mid-1930s.

 Letters from G.Wilson’s Father, Wilton Wilson
Letters from G.Wilson’s Father, Wilton Wilson. G.Wilson Archives in Special Collections at Vigo County Public Library. photo: L.Berry, 2014

…Wilson often explained his dream of turning Terre Haute into a mural center.

In addition to soliciting emotional support and favorable criticism of his work as he tried to make a name for himself, Wilson often explained his dream of turning Terre Haute into a mural center. Gilbert Wilson seems to have sincerely believed he could make our town the Florence of America, embracing public art and progressivism to boot.

Both Wilson’s personal life and artistic career were fraught with conflict and frustration. His life seems full of unusual contrasts. Although shy – even backward at times – Wilson managed to establish connections and relationships with major literary and artistic figures of his time. He made his socialist leanings clear, but he was supported by one of the wealthiest families in Terre Haute. Wilson was proud to be a product of the Midwest, but disgusted by the provinciality of his hometown, which he became aware of when he was in high school.

Gilbert Wilson ‘s Correspondence
Gilbert Wilson ‘s Correspondence. G.Wilson Archives in Special Collections at Vigo County Public Library. photo: L.Berry, 2014

He discovered in a Time review that Theodore Dreiser was from Terre Haute. Wilson couldn’t believe he’d never studied the works of this native son. Worse, he couldn’t get a copy of Dreiser’s work from the library. His books were locked up due to what the movie raters these days call “mature themes.”

Wilson studied at the Art Institute of Chicago for three years, and then briefly attended the Yale School of Art. He claimed, “I started out in art school wanting to be an illustrator like N. C. Wyeth. I had no social consciousness.”

…Wilson’s acute consciousness of social issues both gave his art power and made his life difficult

Later, however, Wilson’s acute consciousness of social issues both gave his art power and made his life difficult. His tendency to fire off letters critical of influential citizens of Terre Haute, including Max Ehrmann, whom Wilson accused of hypocrisy, certainly did not endear him to the recipients. And it surely didn’t help him gain support when he admitted to “homo erotic” impulses. Even if he was trying to explain how they were sublimated in his art, it’s unlikely many men in the 1930’s felt comfortable finding a term like that in their personal correspondence.

Past Due Bills for Art Supplies
Past Due Bills for Art Supplies. G.Wilson Archives in Special Collections at Vigo County Public Library. photo: L.Berry, 2014

Wilson’s focus changed from story illustration to murals due to his work with Eugene Savage, born in Covington, Indiana and a successful muralist, sculptor and teacher. Wilson was one of several assistants, all apparently more sophisticated than he was.  He recalled, to interviewer Phillip Gerber, being in the next room, unbeknownst to the other aspiring artists, and overhearing them make fun of him for eating shrimp with a spoon instead of his shrimp fork. Wilson stayed put until everyone else left, to save them from possible embarrassment. His acute sensitivity to the feeling of others seems to have been in inverse proportion to their own.

Savage taught Wilson important artistic techniques, and, more importantly, urged him to seek out the work of Mexican muralists David Siqueiros, Jose Clemente and Diego Rivera. Wilson wrote to Rivera, and they planned to meet in New York where Rivera was working on Man at the Crossroads, a mural in Rockefeller Center. Unfortunately, Rivera left New York after destruction of his mural was ordered because it contained a portrait of Lenin.

Rivera invited Gilbert Wilson to visit him in Mexico. The funds for this travel came from Wilson’s payment for a mural he did in the home of Chapman J. Root, whose glass works designed the iconic Coca-Cola bottle. The trip proved a turning point for Wilson, who said, “I saw art used as a social force in a way I’d never seen before.” Wilson was especially impressed with the accessibility of spaces for public art in Mexico, even for young artists.

The Wall and the Stairway at Woodrow Wilson Middle School
The Wall and the Stairway at Woodrow Wilson Middle School, at the Time Junior High, where Wilson Projected his Dreams. photo: C.Daum, 2013

“I would go day after day to that wall and sit on the stairway and look longingly at the huge, bare, clean hungry space.”

With the power of murals fresh in his mind, Gilbert Wilson returned to Terre Haute. Soon after, he wrote to William Allen White, a well-known journalist of the time and another of Wilson’s famous pen pals, “I found a wonderful wall in the junior high school of my hometown, Terre Haute, Indiana. I would go day after day to that wall and sit on the stairway and look longingly at the huge, bare, clean hungry space. And I’d quietly curse all the obstacles of my going to work on that wall.”

Luckily for us, the obstacles were eventually overcome. Luckier still, the murals survived controversy and critical attacks, and are still preserved and protected on the walls of Woodrow Wilson Middle School on 25th Street between Poplar Street and Ohio Boulevard.

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