Tag Archives: Head of a Clown

BMA Voices: May Wilson and the art of reinvention

May Wilson. Head of a Clown. 1953. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Jeffrey Davison Case and Raymond B. Case, Jr., Baltimore, BMA 1991.63

Rob Morgan, Collections Database Administrator

As the Collections Database Administrator, I have access to tens of thousands of records stored in our database. Every now and then, an object catches my eye due to its uniqueness. The first time I spotted one of May Wilson’s pieces, I knew there was a story behind it. Researching her life proved to be just as interesting as her art.

A native daughter of Baltimore, born in 1905, May Wilson didn’t start painting until 1948 at the age of 43. Married to William Wilson, himself a lawyer and state legislator, the Wilsons lived on a ten-acre farm north of Baltimore. Whilst there, Wilson took correspondence courses in painting. During the early 1950s, she exhibited and sold paintings at taverns such as the infamous Martick’s on West Mulberry Street. Head of a Clown is from this period, painted in 1953 as a Christmas present for a friend’s son.

Around 1956, Wilson began to focus more on assemblages of found objects. A decade later, with the dissolution of her marriage, she moved to the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. No longer obligated to be a housewife, she pursued art full-time. Wilson continued to make assemblages by arranging found objects, and spray-painting her final creation in a single color. An example of one of her assemblages is Untitled (twin dolls in sneakers), n.d.. By wrapping and mummifying the dolls, I get a sense of the conflict Wilson must have felt between her past obligations as a mid-20th century housewife and her artistic pursuits.

May Wilson. Untitled (twin dolls in sneaker). n.d.. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of William S. Wilson, New York, BMA 2003.115

May Wilson. Untitled (twin dolls in sneaker). n.d.. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of William S. Wilson, New York, BMA 2003.115

There was a sense of circus in much of Wilson’s work. For a series of “Ridiculous Portraits”, Wilson would walk to Times Square and take her portrait in a twenty-five cent photo booth. Bringing these portraits back to her apartment, she would superimpose her face over famous icons or works of art. Below is a work after Goya’s Dona Maria Martinez de Puga. There is a little bit of spectacle in these pieces; the absurdity of superimposing your face on a famous icon, or, creating a “Ridiculous Portrait” to comment on beauty and sexism.

May Wilson (American, 1905-1986). Untitled. n.d.. From the series 'Ridiculous Portraits'. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Betty Jane Wilson Butler and William S. Wilson, BMA 1991.312

May Wilson (American, 1905-1986). Untitled. n.d.. From the series ‘Ridiculous Portraits’. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Betty Jane Wilson Butler and William S. Wilson, BMA 1991.312

Wilson continued to create into her seventies, filling up her studio apartment in Chelsea with hundreds of portraits and assemblages. She was an incredibly unique artist – a woman over the age of 60, during the Age of Aquarius, living an artistic, bohemian life in NYC. Instead of withdrawing after the dissolution of her marriage, Wilson reinvented her life. She died in New York City in 1986.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.