MIAMI, Okla. —
“Storyteller” and “poet” were some of the words sources used Monday to describe famed Oklahoma artist Charles Banks Wilson.
Funeral services for Wilson, 94, will take place at 9:30 a.m. today at the First Presbyterian Church of Miami. He died Thursday at Rogers, Ark.
Wilson was born Aug. 6, 1918, in Springdale, Ark., and moved to Miami with his parents when he was young. He graduated in 1936 from Miami High School.
In an Aug. 10, 2010, interview conducted for Oklahoma Voices, part of Oklahoma State University’s Oral History project, he said he was president of his high school class.
“I don’t think I was very well-liked, but people thought I was pretty smart,” Wilson said of the post.
He received further art education at the Art Institute of Chicago, beginning in 1937.
He is known for his portraits of Oklahoma figures, including Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe, folk singer Woody Guthrie and humorist Will Rogers. The latter painting is in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
He also is known for his paintings and drawings of Native Americans. They include a portrait of Sequoyah at the Oklahoma State Capitol. Wilson also painted the murals at the Capitol.
He began drawing American Indians upon his return to Miami. He said they were often at the bus station, near his studio. He said in the Oklahoma Voices interview that he thought they were interesting people.
In an interview published in the June 22, 1980, Joplin Globe, Wilson described why he had an easier time among Native Americans than a photographer would, and achieved a better result.
“I’ve been able to go into places with a pencil and paper where an Indian would never allow a camera,” he said. “While drawing the picture, I have the advantage of the Indian’s philosophy and his comments. This is a very personal experience for me. A photographer misses this experience.”
Quapaw tribal Chairman John Berrey in a news release paid tribute to Wilson.
“He was a treasure, a great man, and his art will preserve Native American culture forever,” Berrey said.
Berrey said Wilson would always be remembered as a friend of the Quapaw people.
Wilson talked about his philosophy in a 1977 interview with The Joplin Globe, as he was to be inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.
“If we have any record of artists of earlier times, it is because they painted the period in which they lived,” he said.
He said in the Oklahoma Voices interview that he had to promote himself.
“An artist has to have a certain self-confidence,” he said. “It’s interpreted as ego.”
He added that most of his paintings were done because they were fun.
In Miami, he began teaching drawing at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, and he went on to establish the art department and direct it for 15 years.
Current NEO President Jeffery Hale said Wilson had inspired many students and community members with an interest in art.
“Charles had a significant influence on the campus” during the 1940s and 1950s, Hale said.
Hale said he traveled to Fayetteville, Ark., to meet with Wilson shortly after he became president of the college in 2008.
“He was still painting every day,” Hale said. “He was such an engaging individual even at age 90. My first opportunity to meet him just demonstrated to me what a unique individual he was.”
Hale said he met with Wilson three more times in recent years, and Wilson most recently told him that his biggest desire for the college would be for it to preserve art education.
Subsequent donations and grants have resulted in the creation of the Charles Banks Wilson Art and Cultural Education Center in Kah-Ne Hall at NEO. There will be a formal dedication in early September, Hale said.
Steve Roark, of Neosho, Mo., and Paul Wannenmacher, of Springfield, Mo., worked closely with Wilson in filming a 2009 documentary, “Charles Banks Wilson: From the Ozarks and Beyond.” The Newton County (Mo.) Tourism Council produced the film for Ozarks Public Television.
Wannenmacher said Wilson’s “drawings are impeccable. He was a great historian. He insisted that every aspect of his subject matter was spot-on.”
Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, said Wilson’s murals at the state Capitol tell the history of Oklahoma, from prehistoric Native Americans to the 20th century.
“Charles Banks Wilson, more than any other artist in Oklahoma, bridged art and history,” Blackburn said. “He was able to tell in paintings and drawings and sculpture of people and events and communities.”
Blackburn also mentioned Wilson’s drawings of pure-blooded Indians.
“He could put the spirit of a person’s life into a painting,” Blackburn said. “He brought these people to life. We’ll have that for all time.”
Blackburn said he has a Wilson painting of Will Rogers on his office wall at the state Historical Society.
“It’s full of emotion — the sense of magic that only an artist can infuse in his work is there,” Blackburn said. “He’s a great storyteller.”
James Yood, an art history teacher at the Art Institute of Chicago and an author, said Wilson continued in the American regionalist tradition of Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood. He said Wilson had his own style, but aspects of Benton can be recognized in his work.
“His art is about the land he knew and the people he knew,” Yood said. “He was a great visual poet of those peoples.”
CHARLES BANKS WILSON is survived by his daughter, Carrie Wilson. Native American graveside rites will be conducted today by his grandson, Solomon Jones, at GAR Cemetery in Miami.