Thursday, April 05, 2018

La Wilson: Her Life and Art

La Wilson passed away on March 30, 2018, at her home on the north end of College Street in Hudson, where she had lived for many years. It was here that artist La Wilson (born Mary “La” Purcell in 1924) produced the original art work that made her one of the leading names among modern American artists. She had a long association with Western Reserve Academy, not only from the proximity of her home, but because her father-in-law Robert S. Wilson, longtime President of the WRA Board of Trustees, was the namesake for the science building, Wilson Hall, and her former husband, David H. Wilson ’38, was a member of the Board of Trustees, and his and La’s two sons, David H. Wilson, Jr ’63 and Dr. Robert S. Wilson ’65, are both graduates of the school.

Artist La Wilson at the Moos Gallery Show,
spring 1987, courtesy of WRA Archives
La Wilson began taking art lessons at the Akron Art Institute in 1954, the year her third child, Jenny, was born. Initially she did drawings and student pieces, but at the suggestion of Art Director Leroy Flint, she began creating three dimensional art constructions, which became the medium that La’s work would take for the next several decades. After three of her entries in the Annual Juried Exhibition at the Akron Art Institute won awards in 1967, she became friends with John Davis, who offered her a show at his Akron Gallery and became something of a mentor for her. La went on to exhibit all over the country, including in John Davis's gallery on Broadway Avenue in New York City.
WRA Trustee Willis I. Else looks at one of
La Wilson's larger productions at Moos Gallery,
courtesy of WRA Archives
In the spring of 1987, Western Reserve Academy opened its Moos Gallery at the Knight Fine Arts Center, and La Wilson was the featured artist at that time. She exhibited 22 works, all done in the 1980’s, and at that time art critic David J. Ewers wrote about this gallery show in a short article titled, “Seeing La Wilson’s Art”. In it he said that La Wilson’s work “defies categorization and defies the traditions of modern art history”. Ewers wrote that La’s “art is the result of her creative process unhindered by the baggage of the past, unrestricted by the philosophies dictating the present”. He made the point that children genuinely enjoy La Wilson’s art, to which the delighted artist responded, “they get it right away”.
WRA art teacher Tom Armbruster (back to camera) talks to artist
La Wilson about one of her box creations at the Moos Gallery show,
courtesy of WRA Archives
La Wilson’s neighbor on College Street, Grace Goulder Izant, who also had a long association with Western Reserve Academy, wrote about her artist friend in The Cleveland Plain Dealer and the monumental oak beam that she had placed on the terrace in front of her home. La was also the subject of a 1994 monograph by Elizabeth McClelland, and in 1999 she had a special exhibit at her art dealer, John Davis’s, new gallery in Hudson, New York. La enjoyed the idea of going “from Hudson to Hudson” and her exhibit won her notice by Edward M. Gomez, whose “Arts in America” feature in The New York Times for Feb. 11, 1999, was all about La Wilson and the distinctive art work she created.
"Homage to Jackson Pollock", a piece by La Wilson from the
Akron Art Museum Exhibit, 2014, courtesy of the Akron Beacon Journal
In the spring of 2014, the Akron Art Museum celebrated La Wilson on the occasion of her 90th birthday by mounting an exhibit called, “La Wilson: Objects Transformed,” which was the subject of a long piece about her by art critic Dorothy Shinn in the Akron Beacon Journal. The special exhibit of La Wilson’s work remained on view for four months at the museum. Over the last few years, her work was still seen at the Stanton Harris Gallery in Akron, although there are reports that La Wilson stopped producing her work a few years ago. She died quietly at her home, a historic house in Hudson that once was the home of noted 19th century architect Orrin Porter. A memorial service is scheduled at the Western Reserve Academy Chapel on Saturday, April 7, 2018.