York Wilson was born in Toronto on December 6, 1907. Following two years of formal education in art at Central Technical School in Toronto, Wilson began a successful career as a commercial artist at Brigden’s, later moving on to Sampson-Matthews, where he worked alongside Franklin Carmichael and A.J. Casson, members of the Group of Seven. This formative experience in the competitive field of illustration allowed Wilson to develop his skills in a variety of media, providing him with a solid technical foundation for his subsequent career as an independent artist.
Wilson’s decisive shift to the world of Fine Art took place in the 1930’s, during a close friendship with Ed Smith, an Upper Canada student. They went to Detroit together and found work with various art agencies. They visited art museums, read Fine-Art books and York was able to take advantage of Ed's more advanced knowledge of Fine Art.
York's first trip to Mexico in 1949 cemented his decision to leave commercial art behind. The distinctive quality of light and intense colour of Mexico soon became a powerful visual stimulant for Wilson, and even the most abstract of his canvasses from this period bear witness to his experience of the Mexican landscape. He spent several winters in Mexico with his wife and constant companion, Lela.
A nomadic way of life took over, with the couple living in Europe, the Middle and Far East. Wilson's fascination with Mexico finally led him to purchase a house in San Miguel de Allende in the early '70s. This did not stop the globe-trotting couple who eventually returned to their home in Toronto in 1982.
In spite of the fact that his work was almost entirely abstract for most of the 1950s and 1960s, Wilson never fully repudiated his figurative background, always drawing from a live model at least one afternoon a week.
York's relentless experiments with abstraction resulted in a highly eclectic body of work, including a precise geometric style of painting which had been suppressed in York's subconcious. He began showing evidence of more interest in slightly conformist work until his return to Paris.
During the first and second nights sleeping in Luc Peire's atelier,(which the couple were renting from their Belgian friend and painter,) York had two dreams of conformist/geometric painting like nothing he had ever seen before. The struggle to return to his own type of abstract painting continued for 3 months, but the geometrics won and York eventually returned to Canada with about 50 studies, 2 serigraphs, a tapestry and a vow not to exhibit anything for a year while he evaluated the experiment. The geometric period ended in 1971 as abruptly as it had started
York Wilson is well known to the Canadian public for his murals. His reputation as a muralist rests on a series of prominent public works dating from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s. This period saw the completion of murals for Imperial Oil, the O’Keefe Centre for the Performing Arts (now The SONY Centre For The Performing Arts), Bell Canada, the Ontario government at Queen's Park and Carleton University, where his mural PEACE was unveiled by Buckminster Fuller. Despite the fame associated with the mural work, he met with considerable success as an easel painter, and was known to have described himself "first a painter, with a flair for murals."
In keeping with his penchant for constant travel and cultural exchange, Wilson's work was well received overseas, especially in France and Italy. In 1961 Wilson was invited by the French government to mount a one-man exhibition in the Paris gallery of his choosing, and in 1981 he was asked to paint a self-portrait for the permanent collection at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. He regarded the Uffizi commission as the highest honour he had received in his long career as a painter.
On his return he was discouraged when he discovered that, despite a lifetime of research and experimentation, his contributions to Canadian art (introduction of new media, advanced painting techniques and fresh outlooks and his earlier support of the Gallery), none of the 16 works that the A.G.O. possessed were hanging in the Gallery. The situation with the A.G.O. began while it was under the directorship of W. Withrow, and continued despite York being widely acclaimed internationally. He was further disappointed when, despite requests from members of the A.G.O. Canadian Buying Committee, (of which York had been a member), for his re-integration, he was not invited to rejoin the Committee after his absences abroad. York is only mentioned as a co-exhibitor with Jack Bush in a recent book on Canadian Art by the Chief Curator of the A.G.O.
York Wilson died in 1984 at the age of 76.