Donald Roller Wilson (1938–)

Donald Roller Wilson is a nationally acclaimed artist whose paintings use distinctive and mysterious imagery. He lives in Fayetteville (Washington County).

Roller Wilson was born on November 23, 1938, in Houston, Texas. At the age of six, he moved with his family to northern Nebraska when his father opened a company that made farm combines. In 1945, the family moved to Wichita, Kansas. The last of three children, he grew up essentially an only child because his brother and sister were much older. His first artistic experience was painting signs on beer trucks.

After earning an MFA in painting and art history at Kansas State University in Wichita, he taught painting at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville from 1967 to 1974. In 1969, his work was the subject of a one-man show at the Houston Museum of Contemporary Art, followed a few years later by a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. After this, the Finley Gallery of New York approached Wilson about representing him, and it became his first dealer. His work began to attract wide attention, with reviews in the New York Times and Time magazine, and celebrities began buying his paintings.

Wilson studied the techniques of the old masters and French neoclassical painters. To make imagery look real, he created paintings with smooth surfaces that made observers feel as though they were looking at a photograph rather than a painting. He described his work’s content as a “by-product” of his thoughts. He said he spends his “days and nights pondering the meaning of life, the state of the universe, and the Home Shopping Network….More than anything, my work deals with pointlessness. It takes all the arrogance out of everything you do when you know that God is so much bigger than you are. And yet everything you are and do and see is filled with God: the grass, the asphalt, and the people fighting over Aqua Net at Wal-Mart….You can make a profound intellectual statement just by basing your efforts on silliness.”

Maia Jalenak, curator of the Louisiana Arts and Science Center, said of Wilson’s work, “The bizarre happenings in the paintings are meticulously rendered with amazing detail, jewel-like colors, and a sparkling surface quality. Enigmatic captions are often painted directly on the canvases or on the magnificently carved and gilded frames designed by the artist. These captions give clues to what is happening in the paintings and are part of an unfolding storyline akin to a gothic Southern tale.”

Wilson stretches and prepares his canvases himself, hanging them to dry for two years before using them. He designs and has a frame custom built for each painting. His process involves creating the scene to be painted in his darkened studio, lighting it theatrically, and then painting what he sees. For his accurate portrayals of apes, Wilson works from memory and uses drawings he created while pretending to be a professor of zoology to gain access to primate houses for extended observation. He generally works seven days a week, going as many as forty days without a break.

Wilson’s work is displayed at the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock (Pulaski County); the Brooklyn Museum; the Chicago Art Institute; the Whitney Museum; the Bank of America in San Francisco, California; and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

For additional information:
Donald Roller Wilson. https://www.donaldrollerwilson.com/ (accessed December 30, 2019).

Wilson, Donald Roller. Roller: The Paintings of Donald Roller Wilson. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1988.

———. A Strong Night Wind. Albuquerque: Wright Publishing Company, 1995.

Erin Branham
Arkansas Arts Center

Last Updated: 12/30/2019

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