He won national acclaim in the art world during the 1930s and ’40s. His work can be found in the collections of many museums, including the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art, and his painting Funeral Procession received national exposure on the set of Bill Cosby’s 1980s television show. Yet Mayfield, Kentucky-born artist Ellis Wilson remains relatively unknown in his hometown and home state.
Wilson, an African American, was born in 1899 in a black neighborhood known as the Bottom in Mayfield, one of six children of Frank and Minnie Wilson. His father, a barber, was also an amateur painter. In a 1975 interview, Ellis acknowledged that he got his artistic talent from his father. The family in particular cherished two paintings of Frank’s—“If they would be around today, they would be considered primitives,” Ellis recalled—but the elder Wilson gave up painting after his marriage. It was a luxury unaffordable to a man trying to support a growing family.
While still very young, Ellis started taking odd jobs to help out with the family finances. Among the many jobs he had while growing up in Mayfield was as a janitor for a dress shop. He once drew a portrait in cleaning soap on the store’s window, which attracted the attention of passersby. The delighted store owner encouraged weekly drawings.
Ellis Wilson’s formal education began in the Bottom at the Mayfield Colored Grade School. He attended the all-black Kentucky Normal and Industrial Institute in Frankfort (which has since evolved into Kentucky State University) for two years, but could study only agriculture and education. Ellis wanted to study art; so, at 19, he left Kentucky for Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute.