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The Magical World of Beloved Ohio Artist La Wilson

Crows have a centuries-old reputation for collecting shiny things. It makes sense, then, that La Wilson—an assemblage artist who obsessively gathered found, forgotten objects—once adopted a maimed crow, which she named Jake.

Wilson lived in Hudson, Ohio, a small town that I have also called home for most of my 32-year-long life. Sometimes, as Wilson scavenged for materials around its streets, Jake would land on her bike basket. He’d always find her—shining person that she was. I liked to think of them as kindred spirits. Wilson, who died this month at age 93, had magic in her. That’s what I believed at age five, and for a long time after. Her idiosyncrasies were refreshing in our mostly conservative community. They were also enchanting.

The artist’s daily uniform consisted of knickers with knee socks, zippers for earrings, and discarded bullets as lapel pins. She roamed garage sales and flea markets, hunting for curiosities, and loaded them into her bag like treasure. She once said of her deep cache of materials—from rosaries and bird eggs to bullets, bones, and broken mirrors—that she was “just try[ing] to find a home for them.” These objects found refuge and a new purpose through Wilson.

She, likewise, found refuge in them. “She told me that art saved her life,” John Davis, Wilson’s longtime dealer and dear friend, told me from his gallery in upstate New York, on a recent morning. In the end, that life was over nine decades long. It was also marked by a practice whose singularity and strength (not to mention sharp wit and spunk) has attracted a passionate band of followers, like critic Edward M. Gómez and collector Agnes Gund. Her work was compared, rightly, to both that of Joseph Cornell and Louise Nevelson.

Artwork by La Wilson. Photo by David H. Wilson Jr. Courtesy of the photographer.

Artwork by La Wilson. Photo by David H. Wilson Jr. Courtesy of the photographer.

“The magic of her art, which is about examining, collecting, sorting and assembling,” Gomez wrote in 1999, in the New York Times, “lies in its unexpected transformation of ordinary, even bland, items into objects of power, danger, wonder or warning, all with a mysterious aura and an offbeat, lopsided charm.”

Wilson was born in Corning, New York in 1924 as Mary Alice Purcell, a name that soon transformed into “La,” thanks to an auspicious mispronunciation by her young brother. She went to high school at Abbot Academy (these days, Phillips Academy) and, during a short stint at Smith College, met her future husband. After World War II, they moved to Ohio, where he secured a job as a lawyer.

It was there, as a housewife and young mother of three children (Jenny, David, and Robert), that she took her first and last art class: an introductory course at the Akron Art Institute, which has since become the Akron Art Museum. She started as a painter, but her teacher, a local artist named Leroy Flint, quickly nudged her in a different direction. “Her work was starting to come off the canvas—she really built it up,” Wilson’s daughter Jenny remembered, fondly, as she led me through her mother’s home last week. “He suggested she try sculpture.”

The advice kindled Wilson’s 50-year engagement with three-dimensional work, constructed almost exclusively from tiny, found objects arranged within boxes. “I started making boxes after I had done some thickly painted, nearly sculptural pictures,” Wilson once told Gomez. “It all developed little by little, accidentally. The art sort of found me.” The compositions that resulted were surprising and radiated with Wilson’s sly humor and whimsy.

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She built her some of her earliest sculptures from silver objects. Some she found, like broken mirrors, and others she spray-painted, like brown paper bags and an assortment of her own bras and underwear, which she hung on a line in the yard to dry. “She was still married to her husband, then,” remembered Davis. “He was a little perplexed by all that, but that was La!” (Wilson and her husband later divorced.)

Not long after, she began accumulating found objects and boxes and stockpiling them in her garage, a space which morphed into a studio-cum-curiosity cabinet. “She had an eagle eye and she was always looking,” remembered Jenny. Everything was game—from McDonald’s Happy Meal prizes found at garage sales (including my own family’s) to driftwood picked up on the beaches of Lake Erie.

For an early piece from 1980, she even embedded her own jewelry and her children’s toys. “My brother said his squirt guns all went in there,” Jenny remembered, with a smile. The sculpture in question, Homage to Jackson Pollock, has since become most of Wilson’s well-known works, and is now housed in the Akron Art Museum’s collection. The box contains a splatter of trinkets, but they’re carefully arranged to create bold swipes of color and unexpected—even naughty, and dark—juxtapositions. A plane sits atop dismembered dolls limbs; a tiny plastic gun points directly at a strand of rosary beads.

In 1983, just several years after she constructed Homage to Jackson Pollock, Wilson met Davis. He was then in his early-30s and operating a small gallery in downtown Akron, a 20-minute drive from Wilson’s home. She was recently divorced and blanketing the interior of her tall, historic home with a fast-growing cache of sculptures.

La Wilson, Burn Out, 1980. Courtesy of the Akron Art Museum.

La Wilson, Burn Out, 1980. Courtesy of the Akron Art Museum.

Artwork by La Wilson. Photo by David H. Wilson Jr. Courtesy of the photographer.

Artwork by La Wilson. Photo by David H. Wilson Jr. Courtesy of the photographer.

“Walking into her house at that point was just like walking into one of her constructions,” remembered Davis. “The house was just filled with her art. Every room! I fell immediately in love with her work—immediately in love with La—and offered her a show that day.”

For that exhibition, Davis and Wilson recreated her living room within the gallery, complete with her rugs and couches, and a whopping 96 sculptural constructions. Wilson visited the show often, which indeed became an extension of her home. One night, in the middle of a bitter Ohio snowstorm, she brought a group of friends, a picnic basket, and several bottles of champagne—one which she placed in the snow to chill. “When we went to get it, it was missing,” Davis recalled. “La was so amused by it. She thought it was just wonderful that someone would warm themselves with it on that cold night. She was very, very special.” Davis called Wilson not only his best friend, but “the most important thing that had ever happened to [him].” (He represented Wilson throughout her life, showing her work at his galleries in New York City and in Hudson, New York. He now represents her estate.)

Wilson lived and worked in the same home until her death, and it’s that space which still makes clear how inseparable art and life were for her. “My objection to ‘art,’” she once wrote, “is separating it from the rest of life.”

Last week, I visited Wilson’s home with Jenny and Katie Coulton, Wilson’s dear friend and a local artist and shop owner. Even now, Wilson’s assemblages are tucked into every corner and cover nearly every wall. A net heavy with a collection of plastic forks hangs from the dining room ceiling; they poke out from the mesh, as if simultaneously attempting to burst free and seek revenge on their captor. Another piece, sitting on the piano, is stuffed with bits of found wood mixed with masses of curly hair. Smushed within are tiny toy cars, suffocating under the pressure of the wooden, hairy world. Pincushions surround the base of the piece, each pricked with Wilson’s designs—some menacing, like voodoo dolls, others whimsical and jewel-like.

La Wilson, Retrospective, 2004–06. Courtesy of the Akron Art Museum.

La Wilson, Retrospective, 2004–06. Courtesy of the Akron Art Museum.

Work made by artist-friends, photos of loved ones, piles of the books she voraciously consumed, and portraits of her pets fill the house, too. In addition to her human children and Jake, the crow, Wilson also mothered Autumn Raindrop, the rabbit, and Sugar Shortears, the guinea pig. Both were castoff pets from a young neighbor, and they “had the the run of the house,” remembers Jenny, as we pass a painting of Autumn.

Wilson’s work—and her presence—are everywhere. Even the yard is covered in her interventions. Gaps in the wooden fence are stacked with stones and gridded boxes; divets in the brick patio are filled with a pattern of white ping-pong balls. As Davis remarked, the whole home still feels like one of her artworks: arranged just so, full of unpredictable, weighty, and wonderful combinations. This is true of her studio, too, where rows of her tools (little saws, cans of paint) and boxes of her materials (bouncy balls, letterpress blocks, keys, corks, hair baubles, crayons of every color) are organized neatly, lovingly.

Though Wilson mostly stopped working by 2012, when her mobility became restricted, one construction remains propped on a work table, as if she had just paused in the process of making it. The tall, segmented box is filled with little stacks of lead and wood, each marked with her fingerprints and arranged in geometric compositions.

Wilson didn’t like to talk about her creative process, maintaining that each construction came directly from her subconscious. “I never set out to say something with a particular piece, I wouldn’t know how,” she once told Gómez. “I just take things I’m intrigued by; nothing is planned.”

One of La Wilson’s artworks, hung in her home. Photo by David H. Wilson Jr. Courtesy of the photographer.

One of La Wilson’s artworks, hung in her home. Photo by David H. Wilson Jr. Courtesy of the photographer.

Sculptor La Wilson, framed in a window of her home in Hudson in  1999. Courtesy of the Akron Beacon Journal File.

Sculptor La Wilson, framed in a window of her home in Hudson in  1999. Courtesy of the Akron Beacon Journal File.

But when a composition was working, Wilson knew it. She said that the right object or arrangement “made her heart beat faster,” remembers Jenny. “I just love that feeling of [the materials] coming together,” Wilson once said.

While she didn’t write explicitly about her work, Wilson did jot down daily musings each morning over tea as she looked out at her garden. She called these her “weather reports.”

One read: “Quite quite cold – pale blue sky / Some sun – clean & very beautiful – / It makes me feel clear – sharp – pared down which is a way I love feeling – If I could get rid of the inner clutter I could be a part of this day all day – just like a tree is –”

Inner clutter—or the pain that comes with the ups and downs of life (divorce, family illness, a studio fire that destroyed much of her work)—was something Wilson struggled with, as Davis recalled. But her practice offered an outlet and a place of refuge. She once remarked that the process of making her boxes “has taught me to let go, to let the materials reveal their personalities, to remain open to possibilities….What I’m getting from the art is a spirit I want to bring into the rest of my life.”

Most importantly, though, Wilson found a sense of freedom through her work—the strength to be completely and unapologetically herself. “I am freer in art work than in any other area of my life,” she wrote in another weather report.

Since hearing of Wilson’s death, everytime I see crow flying through the sky, I think of her: a wild and free creature with the power to transform the world’s forgotten, castoff objects into shining treasures.

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