Timothy Wilson Deconstructs Wyeth

Words by Edgar Allen Beem

Wilson finds the dark beauty in the elemental experience of Maine.

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Timothy Wilson has moved from Portland to Deer Isle for the winter to get some work done. Mostly he paints in the little house he is renting above Greenlaw Cove, but when weather allows, he paints in the red barn across the yard. 

As slender and handsome as a poplar, Wilson, 32, is the latest in a line of native Maine artists to make his mark in a state once mostly colonized by artists from away. 

“I really wanted to immerse myself in a new environment that I find inspiring, poetic spaces,” he says of his retreat to Deer Isle. “I gravitate to places that have a stark, inherent beauty.”

Several of Wilson’s works in progress—male figures that seem to be painted in mud, a dim landscape that might be rendered from soot and ash—look right at home in the chilly barn amidst the stacked firewood, old windows, discarded furniture, and steamer trunks. But Wilson walks right past his paintings to enthuse about the timber peg construction, a shim that levels the loft, the skeletal remains of a raccoon grisly in death, and, most of all, about the way a slant light from the side window hits the inside of the barn door.

“I wish I had 30 years to paint that light,” he says.

Like most artists born and bred in Maine, Timothy Wilson does not paint pretty pictures of the state’s natural beauty.  “I appreciate people who can do that,” says Wilson. “I’ve tried. I can’t. People respond to high contrast and bright colors.”

Instead, Wilson internalizes a particular Maine experience—cold, dark, lonely, primitive, a bit threatening—and expresses it in a personal way. In Wilson’s case, this means reducing life to a palette of turpy oils and to sketchy forms of human figure and natural landscape.

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There is about Timothy Wilson’s Maine a rather gothic quality bordering on the macabre, as though he were painting ghosts and the afterlife. This is a quality celebrated directly in the narrative paintings of Andrew Wyeth. Very few contemporary painters other than imitators would praise Wyeth’s romantic melodrama, but Wilson does not hesitate to call himself a “Wyeth sympathizer.” 

“There is a lot of darkness in his work that I do respond to,” he says. “He immersed himself in the experience.”

Wilson responds to the raw, rural authenticity that Wyeth found in the lives of Christina and Alvaro Olson in Cushing, Maine, and Anna and Karl Kuerner in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, but he does not describe this strange bleakness, he deconstructs it. He is more interested in the parts than the whole. The colors he chooses, the images he finds, and the brushstrokes he uses are one with his emotional response to Maine’s elemental nature. 

Truth be told, Wilson was actually born in Dover, New Hampshire, but that was only because that was the closest hospital to West Lebanon, Maine, where his father was a woodworker and his mother a musician. Wilson himself plays guitar, piano, violin, percussion, and French horn. He thought about pursuing musical composition, but when he graduated from Berwick Academy, he was accepted early decision at Rhode Island School of Design, where he graduated in 2008 with a degree in illustration.

Upon returning to Maine, Wilson was hired as a model by Rogues Gallery, the Portland-based designer T-shirt company where he soon became a graphic designer. He also worked on branding materials for L.L. Bean’s Signature Collection, which was designed by Rogues Gallery founder Alex Carleton. And when Wilson decided to pursue fine art rather than commercial, Carleton gave him one of his first painting exhibitions at Foc’sle, a Provincetown, Massachusetts, gallery, in 2011.

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Wilson currently shows at Corey Daniels Gallery in Wells, Steven Amedee in New York, and Sloane Merrill Gallery in Boston, where his new work will be shown in May.   

Some of that new work is propped on shelves, floors, and easels around the Deer Isle house and barn. There is a material correspondence between the bare plaster walls, the peeling woodwork, and the stark surfaces of his canvases. Figure and landscape abstractions morph one into another the way life arises out of the primordial ooze and the body returns to earth. Wilson roots around in paint until he finds what he is looking for, often leaving four or five paintings obscured beneath. 

Timothy Wilson’s art is really a form of conjuring with paint. He is after what lies behind the appearances. He is drawn to “whispering places” where the divide between the spiritual realm and this world is thinnest, and he paints these primal places as though they were haunted, transforming Maine tide marsh into Asphodel Meadows, the purgatory of Greek myth.

“To look upon the marshes and quiet beds of sea grass,” Wilson writes in an artist’s statement, “one must confront death, masked in silence and muted tones, and realize the inherent beauty within.”

And perhaps it is this otherworldly beauty that is attracting a growing number of collectors.

“The thing I often hear from collectors,” says Wilson, “is, ‘I don’t know why I purchased this. I just had to.’ I think it has something to do with me getting something out of my system that is ineffable and unresolvable.”

Edgar Allen Beem