In 1941, Wilson, a non-Indian, married Edna McKibben, a member of the Quapaw Tribe. The Wilsons, who divorced in 1988, had two children, Geoffrey and Carrie, a former Miss Indian Oklahoma. Wilson still maintains the same studio overlooking Main Street in Miami, population 14,000. A steep stairway leads to the homey second floor hallway where walls, floors and tables are filled with treasures such as beadwork, moccasins, pottery, baskets, pipes and other items used as models in various drawings and paintings through the years.
Wilson was first introduced to lithography as a student in Chicago. Although he had worked and excelled in many other media, his preferred medium is creative lithography because he loves to draw. “Art is afterall, a means of communication, and there is nothing that communicates quite as forcefully as a line drawing.” He stresses.
One of Wilson’s first commissioned lithographs was for the Associated American Artists organization, at the suggestion of Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton who had seen some of the young artist’s works. A close friendship later developed between the two. Wilson helped Benton find Indian models for a mural he was painting for the Harry S. Truman Library, and they carried on a lively correspondence that Wilson remembers with fondness today.
Eventually, Benton invited Wilson to paint his portrait—the only one ever made of Benton from life that he didn’t paint himself. The egg tempera portrait hangs in Wilson’s studio hallway, a few feet from a small statue of the Missouri artist which serves as a model for a larger sculpture Wilson is currently completing for the Kansas City Art Institute, MO. The small figure of Benton striding forward is bathed in white light from an old skylight over the hallway. Wilson says it was Benton’s use of design that impressed him; both artists were influenced by the light and dark patterns that played so major a role in the art of El Greco and Raphael.
Wilson’s exacting attention to lighting, as well as to research and authentic detail, is vividly illustrated by his creation of the Roots of Oklahoma murals completed in 1972 and hanging in the state capitol at Oklahoma City. The four giant murals encircle the top of the rotunda and depict the state’s history from 1541 to 1900.
After Wilson had decided on the events and people to include in the murals, he made clay models of each person and re-created his scenes using a common light source to give the characters a cohesive relationship to one another. Consequently, events that took place over a span of years appear to have happened simultaneously, on a given day. Wilson even had special lights made to duplicate natural sunlight and hung them over the huge canvas panels as he painted.
When the mural project was first conceived, some supporters wanted the panels to eulogize state heroes, but after his research, Wilson realized that the state wasn’t founded by heroes but by ordinary people. Populated by what he calls “prototypes for heroes,” the murals record people going about such activities as hunting, trapping and farming. In a like manner, Wilson says he did not paint the murals for art critics, but for taxpayers who can walk into the capitol and feel as if the murals belong to them.
Wilson credits go on and on. He has illustrated 28 books, including such classics as The Mustangs by J. Frank Dobie and an edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. He also illustrated numerous magazine articles and travelled the countryside producing more than 90 watercolors of Oklahoma’s lakes, streams and farms for Ford Times. Illustration work taught Wilson the benefits of research. His state-commissioned portraiture of famous Oklahomans Will Rogers, Jim Thorpe, Sequoyah and others gave him the opportunity to master the technical aspects of acrylic paints. And all of his experience came together in painting the capitol murals.
Wilson found time as well to establish the art department at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College in Miami and taught there for fifteen years. He’s written articles and book about the history and customs of the Indians of his area.
Charles Banks Wilson attributes his youthful attitude to the profession of art: “Always looking and being alert to what’s going on keeps a person young,” he observes. “One of the great things about being an artist is your enjoyment of everything you see. I’ve painted the big murals; I’ve won awards. Now, I just want to do those things I find interesting.”
In 1995 Wilson painted “Freedom’s Warrior”, which commemorates the history of Native American involvement in the U.S. armed forces, and their contributions to our country in times of war or peace. Commissioned by David W. Hearn, Jr., and currently on loan to the Clifton Steamboat Museum in Beaumont, Texas. The painting was loaned to the museum to highlight its collection of Wilson’s work.
May 9, 2007 “Charles Banks Wilson Day” was confirmed by the Oklahoma House of Representatives and the Oklahoma State Senate.
The NEO Foundation recently renovated the Charles Banks Wilson Art Gallery at NEO as a way to honor his contributions to the college. The 15,000-square-foot (1,400 m2) space will include a student gallery, classrooms, studio space, computer-graphic design studio and faculty offices.
Wilson died in his sleep at the age of 94 on May 2, 2013.
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