The Groucho Marxist
University of Utah professor Sam Wilson melds whimsy and discipline in his art.
Here comes Sam Wilson, carrying a wild pig.
He plops the pig, which is mustard-colored and plastic, on a platform in the center of his classroom. It is the beginning of the 2012 Fall Semester, and the beginning of Wilson’s 35th year teaching at the University of Utah, and he is here to show his students how to draw.
Today the topic is triangulation, the technique of drawing, for example, a pig’s head by sketching a series of smaller and smaller triangles instead of the object’s natural curves. It’s a technique that will help the students draw what they actually see rather than what they assume they see, and the result is often messy. That’s okay, Wilson tells the students. “Be sloppy. Leave footprints. Show me you were alive when you drew it.”
Before they begin at their easels, he demonstrates at his own. “I’m going to do a couple of brief drawings,” he tells them, then pauses before he delivers his next line: “I’m going to draw underwear.” He pauses again, waiting to see if they’ve gotten his joke. This is quintessential Wilson; if there’s a pun to be made, he’ll make it, rounding it off with a smile that looks something like a grimace.
The students stand around him in a semicircle. “We’re after drawing as a verb, not a noun,” he tells them. That means working at it, again and again, and it means being willing to make mistakes. “Remember,” he says, “in the College of Fine Arts, everyone sees your blunders,” by which he means, basically, get used to it. Drawing, as a verb, means caring about the act of drawing—or painting or making a sculpture—as much as you care about the finished product.
It might even mean caring more about doing art than selling it.
Which brings us, now, to Wilson’s home studio, a few miles south of the U. He is standing amid so much clutter and inspiration and finished products and nearly finished products that it’s hard to find an uncovered surface. “I have the world’s largest collection of my work,” he deadpans. There are paintings and drawings stacked deep on shelves and on the floor; many of the works are crammed into corners of the room.
There are also plaster busts, of Mozart and Beethoven and St. Francis of Assisi; there is a mannequin wearing a bra and Foreign Legion hat; there are skeletons and photos of popes; there is a rooster, a banjo, a moose head. There is a cabinet of rubber heads, including one with a fake nose, eyeglasses, mustache, and a beret. This is the one he calls Groucho Marxist.
In Wilson’s paintings, Groucho Marxist is a stand-in for the artist himself, and indeed the name and the mask add up to the perfect Sam Wilson. Don’t take any of this too seriously, they seem to be saying.
Like the studio itself, the paintings are crammed full of an odd juxtaposition of images. Wilson pulls out one painting with a title that’s 15 words long in Latin, plus 30 more in English, which he translates as “All things change as the years go by.” The painting is populated by a couple dozen figures, including a host of Renaissance-era Florentines, a comic-strip Blondie, the Groucho Marxist, and the initials LSMFT (from the 1950s ad slogan “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco”).
Wilson likes surprises, so perhaps it’s no wonder that when he begins each painting, he has no plan and no message in mind. They usually begin with something realistic—a finely rendered drawing of a turtle, perhaps—and then Wilson’s subconscious takes over. Many of his paintings include monks and everyday folks, which he freely admits he has copied from Renaissance works of art. The paintings might also include copied illustrations from 1950s magazine articles, with titles such as “Weasels Ripped My Flesh,” and perhaps a clown or a set of false teeth. The paintings are rendered in intricate detail, through a process of layering charcoal, pastels, and acrylics.
“He has his reasons for putting the objects together,” says his colleague, University of Utah art professor Kim Martinez BFA’98, “but he’s asking the viewers to come up with their own associations.”
Wilson sometimes calls his work “over-educated folk art,” and at other times “a neurotic conversation” or “these harmless dramas.”
He hates to be pigeonholed (he is, after all, a man who loves Italian Renaissance painter Domenico Ghirlandaio and also walks around a lot of the time chewing on toothpicks), but perhaps his art can best be described as pop art—not of the Andy Warhol variety but more Jasper Johns; art full of visual jokes about art itself. “They’re all legitimate historical things,” Wilson says about the art references in his paintings, “but I’ve redirected the truth of art history. It’s like I have a play with a lot of characters and I’ve mixed up the scripts; I have Hamlet quoting Puck.”
The titles of his works, often full of puns, add to the whimsy: He might refer to an “altar” ego, or “A Tension to Detail,” or the “Bisontennial.” Sometimes the titles are in Latin, or some approximation of Latin. Sometimes the titles go on for a hundred words or more.
His tendency to begin a painting without a roadmap of where it’s going to end up is “a product of a lack of discipline,” he says. But this is more self-deprecation than truth. His brother-in-law once figured out, for example, that one of Wilson’s paintings—a relatively small four-by-five-foot piece—took 450 hours to finish.
Wilson is a disciplined artist, comfortable with routines, and he has little patience or applause for what he calls T-ball art (anyone can do it), the kind of conceptual art in which the idea is sometimes more important than the execution. He is wary of celebrity culture, and museum and gallery curators who have too much power. “Contemporary art is too big a tent,” he says. “There has always been a balance between concept and content, and to me, it’s shifted excessively to the conceptual, at the expense of people making things. It’s getting to the point you’re denigrated if you make something.” And then, just to make sure you know that he realizes how he sounds, he adds, “Like every generation, Wilson’s gotten old.”
“I think my beef with contemporary art,” he says, “is their collar isn’t blue enough.”
Wilson was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and grew up in Southern California, the son of two parents who never finished high school. His own high school career, he says, mostly centered on being cool. He gives a demonstration of what “walking cool” looked like in 1961: He strolls across his studio, slouching a bit and looking like someone who doesn’t care about anything very much.
His real name is Roger Dale Wilson; but one day when he was 5 his father looked at him and announced, “You look like somebody named Sam,” and that’s the way it has been ever since, except on his driver’s license and Social Security card and the Art Department list of faculty, where “Sam” is still in parentheses.
After high school, he enrolled in a community college and got a D in art history. He was married briefly in the 1960s and had one son. By the mid-1960s, Wilson was against the Vietnam War— and then he was drafted. He was sent to Vietnam as a sign painter, and when he came back home, his protestor friends thought he was too much a soldier, and his soldier friends thought he’d had too cushy a job in-country.
He enrolled in college again, and this time he tried harder. Here’s how he likes to tell it now, though: “You became an art major so you didn’t have to grow up too soon.” He eventually got bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts from California State University at Long Beach.
The art degrees led to teaching art at his alma mater. There were also some side jobs painting the carousel animals at Knott’s Berry Farm, and cleaning the brushes of the matte painter for the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In 1978, he was hired by the University of Utah as a visiting artist, and then stayed on and became a faculty member. Along the way, he met and married his wife, Kristie Krumbach BFA’80.
Today, as a professor of art, he teaches beginning and advanced drawing, figure drawing and figure painting, and intermediate and advanced painting. “I’m probably the least structured teacher” in the Art Department, he says. Except in the beginning drawing classes, he says, he tends to not have a series of set assignments. “I think it’s my role to encourage the students to find their particular voice.”
Over the past decade, he has also mentored five emerging artists through Art Access, a Salt Lake gallery that encourages and provides a venue for disabled and disadvantaged Utah artists. Art Access, which is part of VSA Utah, which in turn is an affiliate of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, occasionally couples these new artists with established artists.
“Sam is one of the kindest people I know,” says Ruth Lubbers, who retired in 2011 after 17 years as director of Art Access. “He puts on a really good act, like he doesn’t care. But he cares.”
The first artist Wilson mentored was Vojko Rizvanovic, a Bosnian war refugee whose injuries left him nearly blind. They first started working together in 2003, and the mentoring continues informally to this day. Rizvanovic BFA’05 is currently working on his master’s degree in fine arts at the U.
“He never says ‘Look at me, I’m the best,’ ” Rizvanovic says about his mentor. “But I’ve never seen anyone who draws that well, especially with colored pencils.” More than most observers, Rizvanovic has gotten an up-close view of Wilson’s work; because he is legally blind, he views both his own art and everyone else’s by using a magnifying glass. Many of the paintings in Rizvanovic’s MFA art show were made with art supplies Wilson donated.
Rizvanovic likes not only the mastery in Wilson’s work, but the spirit. “His art says, ‘Laugh, eat well, make friends, because tomorrow we will die. … Use your mind, make some jokes.’ ”
Wilson’s most public art pieces can be found at Salt Lake City’s Cathedral of the Madeleine, where his 14 paintings of The Stations of the Cross line the cathedral walls. Wilson grew up Lutheran, which he defines as “an underachieving Catholic.” But he had spent 16 months in the 1980s helping to renovate the interior of the Cathedral of the Madeleine, and when the diocese put out a call seeking someone to do the Stations, he applied. The paintings, which he completed in 1993, are in Wilson’s brightly colored, fractured style, but his usual irony has been replaced by a more mystical, darker reverence. Wilson chose to make each Jesus look different from the one before: Some look Hispanic, some Middle Eastern; all clearly show their pain. In 2010, Wilson was awarded the Cathedral’s Madeleine Festival Award for his artwork.
His cathedral paintings sparked his interest in the long history of church art in Italy. He and Kristie now travel there every year. Like the 15th-century Florentines he admires— Ghirlandaio and Filippino Lippi—he isn’t what he calls “a headliner,” the way a Michelangelo or a Masaccio was. By and large, he has made no effort to sell or promote his art, although he has shown his work in galleries in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and California. Former first lady Betty Ford bought one of his paintings at a gallery owned by a friend of his in Vail, Colorado. The piece was from his tromp l’oeil days, a watercolor featuring a paper sack, masking tape, and a seascape in the background. The title: Pull-tab Seascape in a 10-ounce Container.
“Part of selling art is building a reputation,” he says. “But I don’t want the responsibility of a reputation,” because that entails going to too many gallery receptions, he says. And, too, “the expenditure of time promoting myself isn’t worth it.”
He is happy to be holed up in his studio, or teaching his students to draw, or traveling to Italy with his wife, soaking in yet another fresco.
“I would rather do art,” he says, “than ‘be an artist.’ ”
—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based playwright and journalist, and a frequent contributor to Continuum.