For artist LeRone Wilson the last few months have been like the happy ending of a harrowing novel. His December 2011 win of the esteemed Bombay Sapphire prize in Miami Art Basel thrust him into a glittering arc of artistic fame against great odds. But a few years earlier his future looked impossibly bleak and success far away.
Wilson, 43, is a Christian father and Harlem artist who struggled for years to make it in the uber-competitive New York art world. He’s been moderately successful before his Art Basel coup, with a few high times and some museum shows and just enough sales.
But during a lull in business, he lost a lease and couldn’t find another affordable place in high-rent New York. Wilson ended up in a homeless shelter for about six months and even worse for an artist, the contents of his studio, both tools and work, were sold for debts.
His response to this stress test, spiritually and artistically, was the beginning of his success in Miami. Wilson openly and unashamedly credits God with both his vision and his work.
He recently told me, “My faith is believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, so all of my blueprints come from Him and His Word.”
Specifically, Wilson’s winning work “A Path Through the Sky” originated in a conversation with God in 2010. While working on a piece he was praying about personal problems and ongoing stress. God spoke to him while he was looking at the sky, telling him to “look up” and to “let it go and leave it in My name.” Wilson took that to mean leaving the whitish cloud shapes he observed and a hovering, heavier path that seemed to cut through them, symbolizing God’s way out of his distress.
“A Path in the Sky” LeRone Wilson
This high-relief, encaustic piece would eventually win him first place, (along with co-winner Miguel Ovalle) standing out from 4,000 other artists’ entries across the globe.
Sponsored by Barcardi, Bombay’s parent company and Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, the Sapphire Prize promotes mid-career and emerging artists into the mainstream art scene.
Andre Guichard, curator for Bombay Sapphire Prize, defined their goals in DNAinfo.com: “An award like this is about opportunity. By competing with the best and coming out on top, it says it’s not about who is on the radar. There are art systems happening outside of the normal system of who critics have in line.”
Working the unusual medium of encaustics for at least 16 years, Wilson refined the difficult and ancient technique into a highly sophisticated and modern style. This was noted and appreciated by the show’s judges in Miami. He uses bee’s wax, resin and pigments, which are heated and fused into a unit before applying onto a surface. Using a deft hand the hot wax/paint must be skillfully worked before hardening. Built-up layers are sometimes chiseled and cut and can take up to six months to finish. Although generally displayed on wall panels, some of Wilson’s works are so deeply textural that they’re designated sculpture rather than paintings. His winning piece resembles tufts of sheep fur from a distance.
Wilson embeds images related to nature or at least organically inspired shapes in the wax layers. Clouds, sea life, mountains, figures – you can read many things into his work, although some of them have names: a clue.
Although not specifically Bible characters or illustrated stories, Wilson claims that all his work is still directly related to the Bible. He asks the Lord for “wisdom and inspiration” and feels his work is informed by thoughts or concepts God gives him. Wilson also points out that we should never be afraid of working out the ideas God gives us.
“It’s through Him I get my concepts and titles and through Scripture,” he says. “This work belongs to Him because He alone gave it to me.”
Wilson was excited to give me a short history of the art form: “Encaustics were first used by the Egyptians in their hieroglyphic paintings, and those are still around.”
Greeks and Romans then picked up the techniques, creating beautiful fine-art portraits. One early (100 B.C.) portrait in the British Museum especially intrigues Wilson. It’s the face of an African man, possibly Terence Afer, a famous playwright and human rights philosopher who is still widely quoted today.
The senses all come into play with encaustics. Wilson mentions that people first see his work, then want to touch it.
“I try to incorporate a sense of touch in my work,” he says.
It’s tactile, an odd medium – is it hard or soft? Then there’s the smell, with visitors often commenting on the scent of beeswax with a hint of honey.
Beside his love of the difficult medium, Wilson finds other things to appreciate about the old, rarely used craft. Specifically the way lights react shining through the wax, which he compares to the “light” or Word of Christ. It reflects through the darkness “showing us things we need” and illuminating what is in the dark.
“‘A Path Through the Sky” was the only encaustic painting from thousands of works of art in the show.
“Artists are afraid of encaustic because it requires so much heat,” Wilson explains.
While he reminds us to know what we’re doing in the studio, “we should still never be afraid” to do what God is telling us, drawing a parable between art creation and faith.
Wilson’s bold declaration of faith during the contest seems to be reflected in the comments of curator Guichard, quoted in an AP article: “There’s always a time and space where you feel it’s God’s push that keeps you going, helps you get through trials and tribulations,” Guichard said. “‘A Path Through the Sky’ appropriately depicts that message.”
Art Basel Miami is one of the world’s largest art markets, drawing thousands of collectors, socialites, performers and fine art professionals every year. A prize this big may possibly change Wilson’s life. It brings publicity, contacts, interviews (like this one), a big New York show and probably lots of future commissions and opportunities.
Guichard claims that Wilson’s life story resonates with viewers. What’s more interesting is that Wilson’s bold and simple declaration of faith held up so well at the hyper-sophisticated, even Bacchanalian, Art Basel Miami. Considering that the business of Barcardi is hard liquor, it makes me realize that even distillers realize they need God, along with movie stars, curators, art collectors and the idle rich.
Perhaps we may see a new spiritual trend for the big art fairs and shows. His win is unusual because of his religion, medium and even family.
“You tend not to see many families, in terms of people who are a professional artists like myself,” said Wilson in TheGrio. “It’s just a wonderful feeling.”
Either way, LeRone Wilson intends to keep his trademark signature “In His Name,” which is his sign on all his work and also the theme of a new series. He desires that this prize encourage others when they see what God is saying through his life. Wilson thanks God for writing his “love, truth, grace, faith and mercy” across his heart.
His advice for those who need professional and spiritual advice? “Close your eyes and ask for it.”
Rush Arts Gallery presents the works of Lerone Wilson and Miguel Ovalle, final winners of the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series, from Feb. 9 – March 16, 2012, at 526 W 26th Street, New York, N.Y. Wilson’s work can also be found in collections of the African American Museum in Dallas, The Chicago Public Library and other venues.