not but nothing other: African-American Portrayals, 1930s to Today

Edward Wilson's obituary was published in the New York Times.

THOMAS, ROBERT McG, Jr. New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y] 27 Jan 1997: 11.

It has been two months since Ed Wilson died at his home in Vestal, N.Y., and if the event has not been widely noticed beyond the Binghamton area, where he had been a working sculptor and art teacher, it may be because, like his art, Mr. Wilson's life did not always get the scrutiny it deserved.

Mr. Wilson, whose family said he died of congestive heart failure on Nov. 26, was 71 and had been well known in Binghamton since 1964, when he became chairman of the department of art and art history at the State University of New York.

For all his influence on students, what brought Mr. Wilson to local attention was a series of his sculptures, among them a memorial to John F. Kennedy and a piece titled ''Falling Man.''

Mr. Wilson produced some two dozen sculptures, working variously in bronze, aluminum and red hickory, but the very aspect of his work that made him a prized local artist in Binghamton helped keep him from receiving serious critical notice.

That's because Mr. Wilson worked primarily on civic commissions, and as a result his sculptures were generally not displayed in galleries or museums, but in public spaces -- parks, schoolyards and college campuses -- where they rarely receive more than a passing glance or are such a part of the landscape that they are really not seen at all by those who pass them very day.

Those who did take a second look at Mr. Wilson's work were generally impressed. In their book, ''A History of African-American Artists'' (Random House, 1992), Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson devoted a chapter to Mr. Wilson, ranking him as a significant artist and citing works like ''Second Genesis'' and ''Jazz Musicians,'' both at schools in Baltimore, where he was born.

Whatever his critical standing, that Mr. Wilson became an artist at all represented a certain triumph of will. For a black youngster in the 1920's and 30's, Mr. Wilson, whose mother was a teacher and whose father was a college administrator, grew up in unusually comfortable circumstances.

His interest in art and his talent emerged when he was kept out of school with rheumatic fever and whiled away his time at home making detailed cardboard models of towns. When he returned to school full time his teachers encouraged his art, but his father, concerned about the economic prospects of a black artist, persuaded him to study architecture and civil engineering.

During a wartime stint in the Army, however, Mr. Wilson experienced such extreme prejudice he decided a black architect would face such obstacles that he might as well make a life for himself as an artist.

Switching to art when he returned to school, he soon abandoned painting for sculpture, and after obtaining a master's in 1953, he taught at North Carolina College in Durham until he went to Binghamton, where he worked until his retirement in 1992.

Mr. Wilson had been deeply involved in the civil rights struggle in North Carolina, and the experience influenced his art. Many of his works also reflected his early interest in painting. For all their varied shapes, the focal points of a Wilson sculpture are often small-scale images on a sometimes hidden surface.

At Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, for example, the message of Mr. Wilson's ''Middle Passage,'' ostensibly three gently curving slabs of concrete nestled together outside the school, does not become apparent until one takes a second, closer look, squeezing between the slabs to examine narrow bands of bronze depicting the horrors of a slave ship.

It was perhaps partly because Mr. Wilson's work did not always receive such scrutiny that his own death was largely overlooked, so much so that even Mr. Henderson, the co-author of the book on black artists, did not learn about it until Saturday, two weeks, he said, after he had tried to call Mr. Wilson to discuss a major publisher's plan to include an image of one of his works in an art book.

That a black artist could have a prolific career at once so public and so obscure should not be especially surprising, certainly not to Mr. Wilson. One of his most original works stands in an Oklahoma City park, a memorial to Ralph Ellison, the author of ''The Invisible Man.''

Mr. Wilson, who was divorced, is survived by a son, Craig, of Troy, N.Y.; a daughter, Julie Shiver of Baltimore; a sister, Frances Lee of Baltimore, and four grandchildren.

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