Tag Archives: May Wilson

Juried and Invitational Exhibitions at the BMA


First Annual Exhibition of Maryland Painters, Sculptors, and Printmakers exhibition, The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1933

As the recently announced 2015 Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize finalists prepare for their exhibition at the BMA this summer, I am working with the Archives’ Juried and Invitational Exhibitions Records and giving much thought to the incredible creative output of Maryland’s artists over the past century and the BMA’s role in displaying it.  From the moment the BMA opened its doors in 1923, opportunities for local artists to exhibit their work were a part of each year’s schedule of exhibitions.  With the opening of the John Russell Pope building in 1929, the BMA was able to develop its own exhibitions and expand its relationship with local artists.  The records I am processing as part of the Library and Archives’ NHPRC grant project document group exhibitions such as the BMA’s Maryland and Regional Artists Exhibitions, the Baltimore International Salon of Photography, and annual exhibitions of the work of members of the Baltimore Water Color Club and the Artists’ Union of Baltimore.

This week I am nearing the end of arranging and describing the largest part of the records, the Maryland and Regional Artists Exhibitions files (21 boxes of material).  The files document a long-running series of exhibitions of the work of local and regional artists organized by the BMA beginning in 1933.  Following a highly successful series of solo exhibitions at the Museum in 1930 to 1932, space considerations and the number of artists in the state interested in exhibiting work led to the decision to instead hold a major group exhibition for Maryland artists.  Although it wasn’t long before the solo exhibitions started up again, the Maryland and Regional Artists exhibitions continued for nearly 60 years.

Exhibition catalog, Maryland Artists Twentieth Annual Exhibition, The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1952

Exhibition catalog, Maryland Artists Twentieth Annual Exhibition, The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1952

The contents of the files for each exhibition vary, but most contain material about the logistics of bringing artwork into the BMA and hanging it on the walls, facilitating purchases, and returning the work that remained after the exhibition.  Cards or lists of entries provide information about the work each artist entered.  Some files also contain correspondence with artists, jurors, and museum visitors–complaints and praise for the most part.  Through these letters, it has been interesting to note how each year the challenges of coordinating the exhibitions shifted as the BMA’s staff worked to weather difficulties such as World War II and changes in artistic influences as new art movements made their way to Baltimore.

Perhaps surprising to those who aren’t from Maryland is the number of nationally-known artists who worked in the area between 1933 and 1992: Grace Hartigan, Morris Louis, Lowell Nesbitt, Martin Puryear, Amalie Rothschild, Anne Truitt, and May Wilson, to name a few.  All submitted work to the Maryland and Regional Artists Exhibitions at least once.  Jurors for the exhibitions also included influential artists, critics, and curators such as Max Weber, Betty Parsons, Richard Tuttle, Sam Hunter, and Dore Ashton.


Grace Hartigan, Maryland Artists Invitational exhibition, The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1968

In an effort to please artists and visitors and to support its small staff, the BMA revised the format of the exhibitions several times.  A separate exhibition for Maryland crafts was held in 1952, 1953, and 1954.  Beginning in 1953, regional exhibitions including the works of artists from Washington, D.C. and Delaware alternated years with the strictly Maryland exhibitions.  An invitational was attempted in 1968, followed by a move to biennial exhibitions from 1974-1985.  The exhibitions ultimately ended with Maryland by Invitation in 1992 which featured the work of artists Jeff Gates and Lisa Lewenz, but the commitment to Maryland artists lives on through the Sondheim exhibitions, the Baker Artists’ Prize exhibitions, and the Front Room exhibitions in the Contemporary Wing—Baltimore-born artist Sara VanDerBeek’s work is on view now!

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.