Detroit Artist Discovers His Mother in Latest Exhibit


Detroit artist Carl Wilson’s mother was somewhat of a mystery to him. “I didn’t know her as well as I wanted to,” he said, adding that parents from her generation “didn’t spill their guts.”

While attending an artist colony in upstate New York in 2014, Wilson said the 400 wooded acres and stately mansions got him contemplating his relationship with his mother and thinking about who she was. His mother had passed away in 2003.

“I didn’t have a lot of access to people who could tell me about my mom’s life, so I tried to recall the stories that I knew, took a little poetic license and filled in those blanks,” he said.

Wilson created the work “Her Purse Smelled Like Juicy Fruit” out of those memories, developing a series of linoleum prints with narrative text that tells the life story of his mother.

The work is on display at the Grand Rapids Art Museum currently and will be there through Feb. 11. It’s his first solo museum exhibit.

Getting to the Bottom of It by Carl Wilson
Getting to the Bottom of It by Carl Wilson

Wilson became an artist late in life, after spending his entire career at an auto plant in Detroit where he grew up. He left the plant at 50, taking a buyout and decided to make a big life change and pursue a passion for art.

He came to linoleum prints after injuring himself while trying to do woodblock carvings. He said artist grade linoleum is easier to carve and allows him to work faster.

Since that time, he’s explored other mediums including animation and video.

The response to “Her Purse Smelled Like Juicy Fruit” has been inspiring for Wilson who said, “You should know I am pretty much deaf. I lost my hearing in 2012, after a bout with cancer, and it made me isolate myself. Now, to work so intensely and to find that people are interested is literally yanking me from my shell.”

Wilson uses cochlear implants to help him hear, but he said it’s still a challenge.

Wilson’s work has a universal quality and he said the resiliency of humans is a part of his work.

Boy, You Need Jesus by Carl Wilson
Boy, You Need Jesus by Carl Wilson

He noted after first showing “Her Purse Smelled Like Juicy Fruit” he was surprised by how many people told him they identified with his story, having also not known their parents very well.

“It was a generation that really didn’t know their parents, and it was surprising how many shared experiences we had,” he said.

Wilson said he has since learned more about this mother, discovering she was much older than he’d originally thought. “She had me in her 40s. This was a shock to me. She was older than my dad and she’d had another couple of families too.

“The main thing, although I’d been hard on my mom previously in my life, I was able to see she really loved me.” Wilson said he came to understand why his mother had been so tough on him during his childhood and that it was out of her intense love for him.

Wilson is currently working on a graphic novel about his time working in the factory and going through a divorce and the “toll it took on me, going to work somewhere so impersonal and dehumanizing, that really took a toll on me.”

Wilson said he hopes his work can help bring people together, noting there is a lot of separation in the world right now. “My biggest wish is to bring people together.”

*Main photo courtesy of Carl Wilson

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