Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Arkansas artist had early ties to Whitney

A few weeks ago, we received an e-mail from Donald Roller Wilson, providing us with a correction to a caption in one of our Whitney School photo galleries -- and providing us with a few new photographs.

Donald Roller Wilson and parents Archibald (Arch)
and Lillian Wilson near Whitney Lake (ca. 1946)
Wilson and his parents lived in Whitney in the 1940’s, and his father was associated with Baldwin Ironworks.  This undated photo shows young Donald Wilson with his mother and father on an outing at Whitney Lake.

He inquired about his second grade classmates from 1946, and we exchanged several missives as I directed him to a few folks still residing in the Whitney area.

Wilson’s e-mail signature also contained other contact information, including a web site.  Curiosity got the better of me, and I went exploring.

It seems that Wilson (one of his classmates that I contacted called him “Donny” -- but he now signs as "Roller") is quite an established artist and his paintings hang among the collections of celebrities such as Steve Martin, Meryl Streep, Elizabeth Taylor and Jack Nicholson.  We’ll not recite the very long list of museums where his work is exhibited!

We found a 10-year-old web site promoting the 25th Annual Old Dominion University Literary Festival in 2002.  It noted that Wilson’s paintings “tell stories with pictures and he tells the stories through the innocence of images created from a seemingly pointless combination of various dressed up animals, objects – even vegetables – assembled for just one last family portrait.  The surface effect is whimsy.

When we did a web search, we came up with a menagerie of Wilson animals and objects, decked out in a wide variety of attire and in most unusual circumstances.  Unusual for the subjects in the painting, that is.

When Wilson’s work was exhibited at the Wright Gallery in New York City back in 1999, reviewer Ken Johnson wrote this for the New York Times:

...on a mythical quest?
"Donald Roller Wilson's goofy, hallucinogenic, Old Master-style painting of monkeys, dogs and cats dressed up in antique costumes may be kitsch, but it's high-quality kitsch, like good beach reading. This longtime Arkansas resident's glossy surfaces, jewel-like colors and meticulous rendering of texture and detail -- from satin and velvet to fur and teeth -- give his bizarre visions a striking illusory presence. There is tender psychology in some of his animal portraits, like that of a cat formally posed in a red, puffy-shouldered dress, but the trend is more toward a wacky, down-home surrealism of flying pickles, mystic auras and coatings of crystalline water droplets.

As this small survey of works from the late 1960's to the present demonstrates, the interest is not only in individual pictures. Mr. Wilson's oeuvre constitutes a vast graphic novel, a continuously unfolding Southern Gothic allegory (advanced by neatly painted texts and long titles as well). In ''Jimmy in the Woods'' a chimp wearing a white ruff collar sits at a table with a big coffee cup surrounded by stamped-out cigarette butts; in the background a castle rises from the misty forest. It seems our badly behaving simian hero has lost his way in the course of some mythic quest."

It’s always a pleasant experience when we come across information and old photos that help to tell the story of Whitney………and the people who have lived there over the years.  It’s doubly delightful when someone happens across the Whitney Reflections web site – discovers a bit of their own past – and then contacts us.

Thanks to Donald Roller Wilson of Fayettville, Arkansas for sharing some of his family photos with us, which we’ve posted in our Whitney Reflections Gallery.

And we certainly encourage others with stories and/or photos to share them.  Simply send us an e-mail at Whitney Reflections.