During the late 1960s and 70s there was an interest in astrology. I didn’t think much about it, except for the discovery of my own star sign, Libra. The qualities of that—balance, seeing both sides of anything, and difficulty in making a decision—were all familiar to me. The effects are subtle. I realized traits about myself that I had never put into words. If the topic of Libra came into a conversation, I would express my discovery, and usually have it confirmed by another Libra. It isn’t a fact, but an understanding, kind of like being left-handed.

Wilson 2 Running Man copy

Richard Wilson, Running Man, gouache 30 x 22 in., 2004.

Balance in my artwork was more than the weight of objects. I saw the world from a prepositional point of view: inside, outside, above and below, front and back. Being aware of these opposites and seeing them as balance developed into patterns, as in the drawing Dysfunctional Friends (at top). The patterns became a grid, as in Running Man and Amphora. I have never been comfortable with the big brush, and the pattern and grid allowed me to control the surface. I could paint inside of each grid and in the whole painting, balancing two ideas in one image.

Wilson 3 Amphora copy

Richard Wilson, Amphora, oil on linen, 69 x 51 in., 1987.

Another bit of enlightenment came to me in 1985. Juris Ubans created an exhibition experience called Maine in Maine. This brought together artists who were born in Maine and stayed here, or left Maine and came back to develop their art careers after some time away. There was an exhibition at the University of Southern Maine (USM), and soon after, Ubans put Alan Bray, Eric Hopkins, and me together. All three of us would call Ubans a mentor in our art careers. We traveled to a small college art museum in Albany, NY. We stayed two nights and got the opportunity to talk to each other and in the museum about our artwork.

Bray is from central Maine. His paintings are inspired by patterns of the woods and ponds, and how they develop through the seasons. Eric grew up on an island and found his imagery from his father’s fishing boat. He saw the islands and clouds and changes of light during the day.

It was then that I realized that my imagery was all in my head. It never occurred to me that all I had to talk about was myself. I grew up in Springvale, Maine, a part of Sanford. My mother called it the cultural center of Sanford. I know I must draw from that experience as a source of inspiration for my artwork, but I have not yet figured out how.

Wilson Pan

Robert Wilson, Pan, scratchboard, 8 x 16 in., 1958.

My mother had an art store in Springvale. My father and his sister were both artists, my aunt professionally as an artist and teacher. My father’s artwork was personal and private. He never exhibited. His expressions were interesting, and sometimes a little dark. He had a great imagination, which always intrigued me, as in the scratchboard image titled Pan. In 2015, I curated an exhibition of his artwork. I discovered paintings that he had done for friends depicting some event in their lives. Most I had never seen until then, and they are a gift of communication.

I discovered my drawing ability in high school at a drawing group in John Emery’s pottery studio in Springvale. Dewitt and Pat Hardy, George Burk, and members of the southern Maine Ogunquit art community were there. It was intimidating but a great experience.

After a year at USM, I studied at the San Francisco Art Institute during the 1970s. It was a cultural exposure that I had to adjust to. It then became the great experience of being appreciated and accepted as the artist I thought I was. While I was there, I was most influenced by Fred Martin and Jerry Gouch. I studied printmaking, a balance of chemistry and imagery, with Patty Benson. She later moved to Maine and has enthusiastically supported my artwork. In 2003 she encouraged me to apply for a Percent for Art project for the Southern Maine district courthouse, then helped me get the commission. It’s one of the great achievements of my art career.

After leaving San Francisco in 1978, I moved to New York City, and with the help of Ubans I worked with master printer Tom Black. I learned the craft of printing editions in his studio. After two years, I realized I was losing track of my art career, so I moved to Portland in 1980, and have maintained a studio here ever since. For the next forty years, I worked occasionally in NYC at Black’s studio. I have also done edition printing in Portland for John Hultburg, Italo Scanga, George Burk, Hopkins, and others. In Portland, I was able to balance my art career with the craft of working with artists. It has been a privilege to see how other artists work.

My artwork is always ahead of me. I have an idea, but I never know what this will look like. As I draw or print, the image comes clear and a story comes to life. I thought that creating an image was like developing a photograph. I have a picture in my head and try to develop it on paper or canvas.

Now I think what is in my head is an idea, not a picture. An idea is the catalyst for a reality, but only a limited resemblance of reality. I never seem to be successful doing the same picture twice. When I know what I’m doing, it seems to get in the way of creating.

Wilson 5 A Moment copy

Richard Wilson, A Moment, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 24 in., 2022.

I wanted to see a boat on the edge of a waterfall. That was the idea for A Moment. I didn’t know what it would look like. The problem with an idea is that it doesn’t conform with the laws of weight, light, and space. I have to find those relationships. I wanted to create a composition that made the image look as real as possible: the rocks, the waterfall, the background trees are all a setting for the canoe on top of the waterfall. I showed this to friends. They all saw it as a disaster for the man in the canoe. The boat would go over the edge and probably kill the canoeist. I never had that thought while I painted the picture. It was a moment for me that would last forever. It’s one of the only paintings of this narrative type that has no future. Time stopped at the top of the waterfall. Originally, I wanted to call it This is Not a Problem, after the Magritte painting, This is Not a Pipe, replacing the object, the pipe, with the idea, the problem.

Wilson 6 Forest Theater copy

Richard Wilson, Forest Theater, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 24 in., 2022.

As I painted, I thought about the canoe coming out from the bottom of the waterfall. The gravity of the water coming down on the canoe got in the way of that being a good idea. I saw the possibility when I turned the waterfall upside down. The waterfall was then parted by the canoe as it flowed up to the mist on top of the canvas and became Forest Theater. In the slice in the waterfall, I painted the forest and river where the canoe was coming from. The canoe coming out into the sky created a problem which I solved by painting the reflection of the background in front of the canoe. This made a slice in the middle of the picture that I had not anticipated. That made a balance of two realities: a surreal idea.

Wilson 7 Evening copy

Richard Wilson, Evening, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 24 in., 2022.

Wilson 8 Passing Through copy

Richard Wilson, Passing Through, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 in., 2000.

I want my paintings to be understood as a moment in time. Something happened before, and something will happen after. The image I present is the balance between that before and the after. That’s the case in the painting Evening. The canoeist paddles in a rippling pattern of water, stunned by a vision that seems to dive through another level of water into his world. At that moment they are both in the water and on the water. Another painting with a similar idea is Passing Through. A man dives into the room of a surprised woman, and possibly through the floor, where the water becomes a surreal element of the picture.

Wilson 9 The Plunge copy

Richard Wilson, The Plunge, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 24 in., 2022.

In The Plunge, the canoeist sits on the edge of the rapids. A nymph appears in front of him. I imagine she is saying: “just do it; it will be difficult at first.” She points to the calm water in the distance as a reason to go over the edge.

When I think of getting my artwork out of my studio, I often have the fear of exposing myself with these ideas, although they give me great pleasure to discover. While I’m painting, I think these images can be anyone. When I think about showing my artwork, I realize I’m painting myself.

I get some ideas from the dualities of good/evil, dark/light, inside/outside, and male/female. Religion and mythologies are based on these ideas. I have a very basic knowledge of these disciplines but find them a good source for my artwork.

Wilson 10 Looking for the Garden copy

Richard Wilson, Looking for the Garden, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48 in., 2023.

Looking for the Garden depicts a man and a woman swimming in open water as a metaphor for evolution, life coming out of the water, and creation, searching for the Garden of Eden.

Wilson 11 Leaving the Garden copy

Richard Wilson, Leaving the Garden, graphite, 12 x 15 in., 2004.

Leaving the Garden shows a boy and girl marching from an idyllic land, crossing the bridge, to the difficult world ahead of them. It is good/evil and dark/light together.

Wilson 12 Conundrum copy

Richard Wilson, Conundrum, lithograph / screen print, 15 x 11 in., 2021.

Another religious theme is represented in Conundrum. Some religious groups seem to battle about who best represents the word of God and the life of Jesus. My print depicts two Jesuses with their crosses locked, like two bucks with their antlers locked in battle. The idea came from a proposal my father had for a commission, never realized, for the fourteen stations of the cross. They were to be painted on glass panels for a Catholic church. I was about fourteen years old at the time and had to build a cross and model for that depiction of Jesus carrying the cross. My father painted it twice on two separate pieces of glass. I saw the two glass panels casually placed on top of each other going in opposite directions. That image stuck in my mind for many years.

I think of my artwork at times as metaphysical and surreal. I work to maintain a consistency of reality in the picture. But that reality may be on a planet of its own. My paintings are meant to be a continuity of light and shadow; gravity must be understood, spatial relationships must have a logical structure. I can then take that concrete logic and turn part of it upside down to create a surreal vision. A painting can be on the water and underwater, or gravity can work in two directions.

I see the duality of my ideas—everything in a balance, a movement between poles. I don’t think I’ll ever be enlightened, forever searching for balance between the polarities that exist. I’ve enjoyed that understanding so far.

My artwork surprises and inspires me. I dwell on the realism of the elements I’m painting and usually find a path to the next idea.


Image at top: Richard Wilson, Dysfunctional Friends, graphite, 14 x 11 in., 2002.