La Wilson. Photo: Helen Strong/John Davis Gallery.

La Wilson (1926–2018)

La Wilson, who imbued everyday objects with meaning in mysterious boxed assemblages, has died at age ninety-three. Cue chalk, dice, pocketknives, rosaries, brushes, eating utensils, toys, matchsticks, dominoes, hair, crayons, and guns: such sundry materials can be found in her whimsical compositions, which were first shown in the early late 1950s in Akron, Ohio. Her work has been featured in numerous exhibitions in New York and across the Midwest, including the 2004 retrospective “La Wilson: Altered Objects” at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania and a 2014 retrospective at the Akron Art Museum in Ohio, where she first began making art in a painting course for adults in the ’50s.

Wilson, who was born Mary Alice Purcell on May 26, 1926, in Corning, New York, turned to assemblage after affixing objects to her canvases. In a short 2012 documentary, she admitted to feeling “self-conscious” about artmaking in a society unreceptive to female artists—especially those with little formal training. Still, she continued making her “constructions” because she loved doing so, and expressed fascination at the fact that anyone would buy them. 

While noting the influence of artists like Jackson Pollock and Joseph Cornell, critics discerned Wilson’s distinct style. “They always feature recognizable elements, from earrings or watch faces to spigots and rosary beads, that serve as familiar points of entry to the psychologically intense zones of emotion and sensation that her art evokes,” wrote Edward M. Gomez of Wilson’s works in the New York Times in 1999. During that year, her constructions were shown in the New York gallery of dealer John Davis, whom Wilson partnered with in 1983 and remained with for the rest of her career, traveling from her home in Hudson, Ohio, to Hudson, New York. In 1993, she won the Cleveland Arts Prize for Visual Arts. That same year, she received the top award for sculpture in the Cleveland Museum of Art May Show.

Wilson remained modest, or perhaps skeptical, about explaining her art and described her method as being premised on various hunches about encountered materials. “Some things click instantly and other things take forever,” she remarked about her process of scavenging for objects. “This thing appeals to me,” she said, tracing her thoughts when finding a piece she would use. “It makes my heart beat faster.”