December 6 1907 – February 10, 1984
In 2013, the York Wilson Foundation for the Visual Arts contacted the Georgina Arts Centre and offered a bequest of 30 original paintings by York Wilson! This wonderful addition to our Permanent Collection was exhibited first in its entirety in the Summer of 2014. It was complemented with a further donation of 30 more paintings, giving the Gallery a total of 60 original works by this internationally renowned artist. You can still see the works, one at a time, on THE WALL.
Ronald York Wilson was born in the city of Toronto on Friday December 6 1907. His father was a Shakespeare buff with a great sense of humour; his mother was a pianist who taught local students. When he started to attend Oakwood Collegiate School in North Toronto, his talent as an artist was immediately recognized. He was academically bright, but completely undisciplined, and at age fourteen he was asked to leave the school. He spent the next two years studying art at the Central Technical School in Toronto, then at the age of sixteen he left school and looked for work.
He soon found a position. Brigdens, one of the largest art studios in the city, gave the teenager a four-year contract as a commercial artist. Work included preparing mats for framing, washing brushes for the more senior employees, and generally running errands for everyone. He took an especial interest in lettering, and spent his evenings and weekends copying letters from a book by the American type designer Frederick Goudy. After a year of this hard work, he had established himself as one of the best letterists in the company. His interest in sketching and painting was also developing, and he would often climb to the roof of the Brigden building and paint cityscapes of Toronto.
It was at this time, in 1926, that York Wilson first met Lela Miller. She was ice-skating, and he was immediately smitten with her grace and her ability. For several months they went out together, but then, in 1927 at the age of nineteen, stories of higher salaries in the United States drew him to Detroit. It was there that he discovered modern art, and he remained in Detroit for over two years. The Great Depression of 1930 forced the commercial art studios to lay off most of their staff, and by summer he was back in Toronto. In 1932 he met Lela Miller again, and in the summer of 1933, they were married.
Times were hard. Money was scarce, and to make matters worse York Wilson had a personality clash with the art director of a major company. His solution was ingenious: he signed samples of his work ‘Lela Miller’, and sent his wife to masquerade as an illustrator! Gradually, over the decade from 1933 to 1943, life improved, and he established himself as a leading commercial illustrators. In 1940 he received his first commission for a mural. Roy Thomson (who would become one of the world’s richest newspaper owners) asked York Wilson to create a mural for the office in Timmins, Ontario. While the result was not very inspired, it sparked an interest in murals that was to last for more than thirty years.
By 1943 York Wilson was becoming dissatisfied with his life as a commercial artist. He had been painting in watercolour and in oil with increasing regularity in the years since his marriage, and now he started to target a life where he could devote himself to creative painting. For the next six years he divided his time between the job that brought in the money, and the job that was to be his real vocation. His focus was on social commentary, and his paintings from this period show a fine perception and rendering of the society that surrounded him.
In this social commentary he was very similar to another painter in our Permanent Collection, Albert Chiarandini, who also showed great compassion for the communities around him, and often painted people and situations from the lower strata of society.
One of York Wilson’s most successful canvases from this period was Welfare Worker, a biting display of social criticism. When it was displayed in Winnipeg, welfare workers petitioned to have it removed from the wall!
This painting earned him an election to the Ontario Society of Artists. It has been pointed out (‘York Wilson’, by Paul Duval) that this was a remarkable success, considering that York Wilson was only at the beginning of his career as a creative artist; a success that was crowned by his election as president of the society in 1946.
Dissatisfaction with commercial art came rapidly to a head in the last years of the 1940s, and when the Canadian painter Leonard Brooks spoke with great animation about Mexico and Mexican art, the decision was taken—commercial art would become a thing of the past, the future would be creative art. By the Fall of 1949, he had fulfilled all of his obligations to commercial art studios, packed his bags and his family, and left Canada for Mexico. The true York Wilson was about to be born…
To read more about York Wilson, read the exhibition catalogue.
The principal web site for information on the painter and his works can be found at: