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Scottie Wilson (6 June 1888 – 1972), born Louis Freeman, was a Scottish outsider artist known particularly for his highly detailed style. Starting his artistic career at the age of 44, his work was admired and collected by the likes of Jean Dubuffet and Pablo Picasso and is generally accepted to be in the forefront of 20th century outsider art.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland at 24 Ropework Lane, Wilson dropped out of school at the age of 8 to help subsidize his family's meagre income by, amongst other things, selling newspapers on the street. In 1906 he enlisted with the Scottish Rifles and subsequently served during World War I on the Western Front. At the end of the war he emigrated to Toronto, Canada, where he owned and operated a second-hand shop.
- “I’m listening to classical music one day – Mendelssohn – when all of a sudden I dipped the bulldog pen into a bottle of ink and started drawing – doodling I suppose you’d call it – on the cardboard tabletop. I don’t know why. I just did. In a couple of days – I worked almost ceaselessly – the whole of the tabletop was covered with little faces and designs. The pen seemed to make me draw, and them images, the faces and designs just flowed out. I couldn’t stop – I’ve never stopped since that day.”
It was there that he began his work, embodying a personal code of morality wherein characters called “evils and greedies” are juxtaposed with naturalistic symbols of goodness and truth. The first dealer to encounter Wilson’s work was a Canadian, Douglas Duncan, who displayed them in various gallery shows. While Wilson did not want to part with his drawings, he found the idea of an artistic career preferable to shopkeeping and attempted to solve the problem of raising money by staging travelling shows for viewing only and charging modest entrance fees or holding tray collections.
After receiving recognition for his work in Toronto, he abruptly returned to London in 1945 and continued to exhibit his drawings for modest fees while maintaining a deep distrust of dealers. A few months after his arrival he was persuaded by dealers to show in galleries, and had a solo exhibition at the Arcade Gallery in London, shown concurrently with other works by such 20th century artists as Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Klee, Joan Miró, amongst others. Wilson's rejection of commercialism was unabated, however, and he continued to sell his work on the street for a minute fraction of the prices the gallery owners were asking. He said of the working-class customers he attracted, "They're the intellect, you know".
Wilson spent his remaining years in Kilburn, an area of northwest London, working alone in his small lodgings. In the early 1950s, he travelled to France at the persuasion of artist and outsider art fanatic Jean Dubuffet. There Wilson was met by not only Dubuffet, but also by Pablo Picasso; both were fans and owners of Wilson's work. According to art critic Bill Hopkins, a friend of Wilson's who accompanied him on the trip:
- "When we arrived, not only was Dubuffet waiting, Pablo Picasso was with him. Both owned a few of Scottie’s pieces, and Picasso had come to see – and perhaps buy – some more. I vividly remember both artists eagerly admiring Scottie’s work, squabbling in their fierce, theatrical, Gallic voices over who would buy which piece."
In the 1960s, Wilson began to create paintings on plates and was subsequently commissioned by Royal Worcester and had designed a series of dinnerware, which was produced until 1965. His picture ‘Bird Song’ was chosen as a design for the 1970 UNICEF Christmas Card. He died in 1972 from cancer. Though he always complained of poverty, Wilson was discovered at the time of his death to have secreted a suitcase full of money under his bed and large sums in various bank accounts.
Subject matter and style
The evolution of his style was notoriously non-existent and, because he did not date most of his works, it is very difficult to place his works in time apart from the few documentary records that exist. He stuck mainly to a narrow range of visual elements: botanical forms, birds and animals, clowns (self-portraits), and 'Greedies' and 'Evils' (malignant personifications). His work can be placed in a purely speculative chronological order by the subtle changes and progressions in his subject matter and style. His earlier pieces are thought to be generally more organic in composition and have less precise cross-hatching and detail. Certain images did become more prevalent, while others were used less frequently, and the level of detail is thought to have increased over time. As he once said:
- "When I'm working I can see what's happening, and I can imagine what's going to happen. I can see best when I'm finishing my pictures with a pen. When I'm making strokes; hundreds and thousands of strokes".
- Cardinal 1972, p. 79
- [dead link]
- Cardinal, Roger. 1972. Outsider art. New York: Praeger. OCLC 10975468
- Biography of Wilson
- Raw Vision magazines article on the life and work of Scottie Wilson