An interview of Ralph Coburn conducted 1995 May 25 and 1995 June 23, by Robert F. Brown, for the Archives of American Art, in Coburn's home, Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Coburn talks about his parents and his childhood in Miami Beach, Florida; his early schooling; and entering Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1941, in its 5-year architecture program. He recalls Walter Netsch, a classmate at MIT, who later became a partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who introduced Coburn to modern design and to avant-garde music. He also recalls the painter and head of painting at the Museum of Fine Arts School, Karl Zerbe, his teacher in the course of his work for advanced MIT architecture students. He talks about his return to Florida as a draftsman for an aircraft equipment company in Miami, outfitting planes for the African campaign, and his foreman, a son of Al Capone; then returning to Massachusetts to work with an electrical company making secret military components.
Coburn discusses returning to and dropping out of MIT; working at the Institute of Modern Art in Boston through Hyman Swetzoff; following Swetzoff to the Boris Mirski Gallery; studying at Mirski's art school with Esther Geller and John Wilson and friends made at the school, including Ellsworth Kelly, Arthur Polonsky, and Reed Kaye. He recalls Carl Nelson, one of his teachers. He talks about the change in atmosphere at the Institute with the replacement of Thomas Metcalf by James Plaut and Nathaniel Saltonstall who changed the Institute's name to Institute of Contemporary Art and the protest surrounding the name change.
Biographical / Historical:
Ralph Coburn (1923- ) is an architect, painter, and designer currently living in Gloucester, Massahusetts.
Originally recorded on 2 sound cassettes as 4 digital wav files. Duration is 2 hr., 36 min.
This interview is part of the Archives of American Art Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and administrators.
An interview of John Woodrow Wilson conducted 1993 March-1994 August, by Robert F. Brown, for the Archives of American Art.
Wilson discusses his childhood as a member of a family of middle class blacks from British Guiana (now Guyana); his father's grave disappointments in the face of racial discrimination; his parents' push for their children to succeed; early urge to read and draw; encouragement by School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston students who taught at the Roxbury Boys Club; his secondary education; and friends.
He talks about his education at the MFA School, Boston, and comments on such teachers as Ture Bengtz and Karl Zerbe and compares their exacting methods with those of Fernand Leger, his teacher in Paris.
His work of the 1940s prior to going to Paris; the importance of early awards and sales received while still a student at the MFA School; the excitement of sharing a studio with fellow students, Francesco Carbone and Leo Prince; and encouragement to stay in school during WW II with the promise of a European study fellowship after the war.
The great impact of his years in Paris (1948-49); the lack of racial prejudice; the liberating effect of Leger's teaching; his awe of the work of Masaccio and Piero della Francesca during a trip to Italy; and the deep impression made on him by seeing tribal art in the Musee de l'Homme, Paris.
Continued discussion of Leger; his teaching methods; and influences on his work.
His first teaching position at the MFA School; his involvement in civil rights in Boston; his gregariousness and the use of his studio as a meeting place for artists and political activists; his involvement with socialism in Boston and New York; and working in a socialist children's camp. He remembers meeting Paul Robeson, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, and Bob Blackburn, who was then setting up his printmaking atelier in New York; marriage to a fellow socialist (June 1950); move to Mexico on a fellowship to study with Jose Orozco on the advice of Leger, only to find that Orozco had died; terrors of travel as an interracial couple through the U.S.; and different racial attitudes in Mexico and the U.S.
Living in Mexico (1950-56) and anecdotes of David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera; his wife's meeting with Frieda Kahlo and seeing her collection of folk art; their free and cosmopolitan, if impoverished, life in Mexico; his work in a printmaking atelier and on the production of frescoes, and a lengthy aside about his brilliant brother, Freddie, who because he was black was not allowed to pursue his first love, geology, for many years.
Continued discussion of his experiences in Mexico; the dreary year (1957) he spent doing commercial art for a meatpackers' union in Chicago, a city he disliked; his move to New York in 1958, taking on commercial work to support his family, and teaching anatomy at the Pratt Institute.
Teaching art at a junior high school in the Bronx, and his gaining respect of students through special projects; teaching drawing at Boston University (1965-86), his approach to teaching including his demanding standards, the seriousness of the students, his opposing rigid attendance and grading rules, and colleagues, such as David Aronson who had created the School, Reed Kay, Jack Kramer, Sidney Hurwitz, and the University president, John Silber.
Working with the black arts entrepreneur, Elma Lewis, in setting up a visual arts program for the Boston black community (late 1960s-1970s), including the selection of a curator, Edmund Barry Gaither, a young art historian, who eventually established a museum of African-American art; his participation in various black art exhibitions, despite his belief that art should be seen regardless of the ethnic origins of artists; his move toward sculpture, beginning in the early 1960s, as a medium most expressive of black persons, culminating in the 1980s in a series of colossal heads and a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. for the U.S. Capitol (1985-86); and why he makes art and will so long as he is able.
Biographical / Historical:
John Wilson (1922- ) is an African American painter, sculptor, illustrator, printmaker, and educator from Boston, Massachusetts. Full name John Woodrow Wilson.
Originally recorded on 11 sound cassettes. Reformatted in 2010 as 22 digital wav files. Duration is 16 hr., 2 min.
This interview is part of the Archives of American Art Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and administrators. Funding for the transcription and microfilming of the interview provided by the Newland Foundation.
This microfilm collection of the papers of African American painter, sculptor, illustrator, printmaker, and educator John Woodrow Wilson contains biographical material such as autobiographical notes, school records, personal documents, and a bibliography; personal and business correspondence, undated and 1938-1993; files on the New York City Board of Education, 1959-1965, regarding his teaching; and project files, including Wilson's submission for the competition for a Frederick Douglass statue, Eternal Presence, Father and Child Reading, and Wilson's monuments and bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. Correspondents represented include the Albany Institute of History and Art, Atlanta University, Carnegie Institute, Ebony, David Porter of the G Place Gallery, the Institute of Modern Art, Alain Locke, Gloria May, the Museum of Modern Art, Frederick G. Rice, and Hale Woodruff.
Also included in the collection are files on exhibitions; notebooks, 1958-1960; lesson plans, 1959, 1963; notes, writings, and lectures, circa 1945-1993; transcripts of interviews of Wilson and related correspondence, 1978-1987; legal material, 1978; financial records 1944-1991, including a notebook of sales and expenses 1945-1950; photographs, 1940-1990, of Wilson, his work, sculpture, and exhibition installations; a scrapbook, 1939-1967; artwork, including sketchbooks, 1970-1992, life studies completed as a student, 1939-1947, and miscellaneous art work, 1939-1992; and printed material, 1939-1993, including exhibition catalogs, illustrated books and book jackets, and ephemera. The collection also includes a copy of a sound recording of an interview of Wilson conducted by Alan Trachtenberg, circa 1979 (untranscribed).
Biographical / Historical:
John Woodrow Wilson (1922-2015) was an African American painter, sculptor, illustrator, printmaker, and educator in Boston, Massachusetts. Wilson studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston under Ture Bengtz and Karl Zerbe, graduating in 1945. He lived in Paris through the MFA fellowship and studied with modern artist Fernand Leger. He then attended Tufts University, graduating in 1947. Wilson received a John Hay Whitney fellowship and lived in Mexico for five years with his wife, Julie Kowtich. After his return from Mexico in 1956, Wilson made artwork for Chicago labor unions and taught in New York City before returning to teach at Boston University in 1964. During his career, Wilson won competitions to execute statues of Martin Luther King, Jr. for the city of Buffalo, New York and for the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.
Lent for microfilming 1993 by John W. Wilson, except for the 1979 sound recording which he lent for copying.
Microfilm portion must be consulted on microfilm. Use of untranscribed interview requires an appointment.
Statements from artists participating in the "Crosscurrents U.S.A." exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts, including Romare Bearden, Leland Bell, Benjamin F. Cunningham, Elaine De Kooning, Balcomb Greene, Joseph Hirsch, Lester F. Johnson, Alex Katz, Robert Kaupelis, John Koch, Jacob Lawrence, Alice Neel and John Wilson.