Excerpts from James Lancel McElhinney’s Foreword for the J. Chris Wilson Retrospective catalogue

Who is this man, this painter? Why does he go about doing things the way he does? Is it so unusual that someone in this day and age might prefer to pursue a connective rather than an expansive agenda in his exhibiting career—to be content with a regional audience and not so interested in a big time schedule of international and national shows? Who is this painter who was trained both here in America and abroad? He is someone who has been in the presence of the greatest works of art in Western history, and chooses to live as a family man, husband, teacher, citizen, and artist. He inhabits and surrounds himself with the architecture and decorative arts of a prior age. Wilson’s home looks to the past, but exists very much in the present—much like his paintings. Many of Wilson’s paintings have this particular blend of traditional and modern painting strategies.

He produces works of significant theoretical and technical proficiency, while utterly disregarding the influence of New York, and the sense of urgency so many other artists feel to pursue fame and prominence in the “art world.” Chris knows how to accept his passions and desires as an artist. Creating a world in which he, his family and his art can grow, as a part of a greater local and regional community, he paints whatever he wants. He possesses the determination and conviction to follow his own course, at times in defiance of what some might deem better advice. I had to abandon assumptions I had begun to develop in anticipation of actually seeing Wilsons’s work in the flesh, and in the company of the artist, who appeared to be following a road less traveled.

Embracing his role as a Southern artist—a role he has carefully refined over the years—he has chosen to identify with a regional community, distancing himself from the trends of the national and international art scene, even where they might intersect his work. Wilson’s position is very clear. He is highly knowledgeable on the subject of art, but chary to discuss his work outside of the domain of formal issues, his own creative passion, and Southern art.

Wilson’s impressive record of exhibitions, his aura of confidence and evidence of success intrigued me, given his apparent preference for pursuing his career within a relatively small geographic context. I looked around the studio. The books that were scattered around the room had to do mostly with regional painters, including several hardcover coffee-table books on Lamar Dodd. Chris was very clear about his regionalist agenda. There is no doubt in his mind at all that there is a Southern school of painting, and a Southern realist tradition for which he identified Lamar Dodd, Francis Speight, Sarah Blakeslee and Hobson Pittman as leading lights.

When I taught at East Carolina University in the visiting artist position originally created for Francis Speight, my rediscovery of Pittman and Speight as local artists was a delightful surprise. Meeting with Chris revived that sense of excitement, and renewed hope that American regionalism still has its champion.

James Lancel McElhinney

Rinmore, Fanad, Donegal, Ireland

June, 2003

Edited, 2010