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Greenville artist makes history, brings home awards, remains humble

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Greenville artist Richard Wilson talks about his painting "Jack Johnson," which won the 20th Annual Pastel 100 Competition sponsored by the Pastel Journal. The painting was among more 2,000 entries in the prestigious contest, and Wilson won $5,000 for first place.

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Mackenzie Tewksbury
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, December 16, 2018

In 2003, there was no way Richard Wilson could afford the $5,000 booth fee at the Philadelphia International Art Expo, one of Philadelphia’s largest African-American art shows in the country at Temple University.

He negotiated with the organizers and purchased half of a booth for $2,500 — still a stretch, but it was an investment of sorts. He knew people needed to see his work.

Just last month, the artist won the top prize at 20th Annual Pastel 100 Competition in memory of Maggie Price with his painting of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion. His piece stood out in a field of more than 2,000 entries, and Wilson took home the same amount of money he once couldn’t afford: $5,000.

That is just one of the many awards and recognitions the Greenville artist has collected this year. He also will be featured in one of the leading pastel artists publications, The Pastel Journal which sponsored the Pastel 100 contest. The award comes right after Wilson unveiled his portrait of Mary Frances Early, the first African American to earn a degree from the University of Georgia.

“That was major,” Wilson said. “I’m just honored to be a part of her legacy.”

Early graduated from University Of Georgia in 1962. After graduation, she was a pioneer in Atlanta’s education system — she taught music at segregated schools before she eventually became the president of the entire school system. She then became the first African American president of the Georgia Music Educators Association in 1981. 

Gregory Trevor, spokesman from the University of Georgia, said the school was thrilled to be able to honor her legacy with a portrait from Wilson. 

“Richard Wilson is a gifted artist, and his portrait is a beautiful tribute to the life and accomplishments of Mary Frances Early, one of the most important individuals in the history of the University of Georgia,” Trevor said. 

Wilson comes from humble beginnings of helping his father paint in his hometown of Conetoe, but has now made himself a living through his artwork — and a good one.

“It was just stepping out on faith and going for it, and things started happening for me. I know everything happens for a reason.”

His artwork now spans nationwide; it can be found the households of rapper Ice Cube and popstar Beyonce Knowles’ mother. In 2005, Wilson became the first African American to have a portrait in a North Carolina courthouse with his portrait of George Henry White, the last former slave to serve as a United States congressman, in the Edgecombe County Superior Courthouse.

Wilson made history again in February when his portrait of the late Attorney Earl T. Brown was unveiled in the Pitt County Courthouse. He is also scheduled to finish a commissioned portrait of legendary baseball hall-of-famer Hank Aaron next February. 

But, you would likely never know it. Wilson, who was just featured in The Wall Street Journal as “one of the most successful artists you’re likely to actually meet” and has a studio wall completely covered in awards, still has the humble spirit he once started with.

“I just stay true to who I am. I love being able to share what I do with everybody. I go to my shows, and I see how people how react to my work… that’s all an artist really wants — to know that what I’m doing is helping someone else,” he said. “The fact that I am able to do what I love for a living and then make other people’s lives better, you can’t get much better than that.”

It wasn’t always awards and riches for him, though. Wilson spent much of his life doing artwork on the side while working jobs to make money.

“I’ve worked at some jobs that I just hated. I dreaded going to work. I used to cry sometimes because people would say, “Richard, Why are you working here if you’ve got this talent?’ It really hurt.”

He was tired of no one seeing his work, but when they finally saw it, it paid off in abundance. He plugged himself into art shows across the country, entering just about every art show that would accept him and scraping his wallet for cash to pay entry fees.

“I never looked back,” he said. “I just kept doing it. It opened my eyes up to what the possibilities were.” 


The possibilities, Wilson now knows, can be endless as he continues to pour his talent into the community and beyond.

“There’s no need for me to keep this to myself. I need to share this with the world.”

Contact Mackenzie Tewksbury at mtewksbury@reflector.com and 252-329-9585.

 

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