May Wilson and Her “Ridiculous Portraits”

May Wilson was called the “Grandma Moses of underground art.” She was also an old artist who may have used some of the same skills as we find in children’s pretend games.

May Wilson got to New York City in the 1960s about the same time I did. I don’t know what her childhood had been like or whether or not she played pretend games, except that she grew up poor and wanting to do art. Instead, she’d married an ambitious lawyer, climbed the social ladder, and raised two children on a ten-acre gentleman’s farm north of Towson, Maryland. My friend Sally remembers her there, living in a beautiful house, and kept by her husband in an almost surreal helplessness.

But even though she’d never traveled much beyond Baltimore where she was raised or Towson where she lived, in her 40s she started doing art through a correspondence course. There was a huge wall of constructions, and more outside hanging from the trees. Sally bought a few pieces then and that’s why I spent some of the 60s and the three decades that followed living with May’s early art. I remember I found her pieces very elegant, including the gilded broom that hung in the doorway first in New York, and then in Vermont.

Chelsea Hotel, 2007. Photo by Wallyg. Flickr.

When she was 61, her husband told her that after 40 years of marriage he wanted nothing more to do with her, having found a “real woman.” That was when she headed for New York City and the Chelsea Hotel. It was the place artists went, and she was now an artist through and through. But the first night she found she didn’t know how to drain the bathtub. Just one of those things she’d never had to learn.

In New York, May discovered photo-booths, and began fitting her face to the Statue of Liberty, to a young woman in a polka-dot dress running through a field, to a 17th century lady playing the viola, to Queen Elizabeth. The faces she made inspirited her “Ridiculous Portraits.” I can’t help but think that they’re a form of pretend game, though their intent may be a more critical and biting than any I could pretend to as a youngster, and their satire and irony is anything but childish.

Untitled ("Ridiculous Portrait"), 1966-1969, collage.

But the obsession is the same as in childhood pretend games. Like the child pretender, she takes what’s at hand, from household implements to street junk, and makes a new reality. The possibilities are nearly without limits. You may argue that her art is more serious than child’s play – that it’s social commentary. It would be interesting to study pretend games as their own kind of social commentary.

May found countless objects to make art in New York. I remember we visited her, perhaps with an offering of objects she could use, but that may only be wishful remembering. By then she was working on throwaway dolls, binding them into mummies, spray painting them. Sally remembers broken faces. One gallery review describes dolls hanging on the wall, bandaged, blindfolded, occasionally bound with rope. I remember they were profoundly disturbing and I can’t pretend to know what she was doing, but there’s no doubt that she was, as Gerard McCarthy put it in the September 1, 2008 issue of Art in America, “hell-bent on transfiguring the mundane and subverting traditional values, including those most cherished by a complacent world.”

One other thing. Many artists seem absorbed in covering one thing with another; in May’s case the covered could be a doll or kitchen utensils or almost anything. What she called her “snowflakes” were sometimes pornographic images. What’s fascinating is what you can see of the material behind the covering, and how it’s transformed by what’s on top. Collage juxtaposes things and makes us see them differently, but this is collage with a special dimension. And, I think, very like the draping of one thing and another, including ourselves, that we all did as children.

Untitled (pink netting), 1965-1972.

May Wilson was prolific until she was in her 80s. Says Sally, “From the time she came to New York, she seemed to me to be some sort of genius, self-made, and someone who had found something very, very important.”

Finally, there’s a very wonderful short film about May called “Woo Who? May Wilson” (1970). It’s well worth seeing. It can be rented, for example, at Newday Films.

Author: latefruit

I am forever writing the great American novel, practicing the piano (in hopes of joining an amateur string quartet someday), gardening, and now, since I've gotten old when I wasn't looking, trying to figure out what that means.

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