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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.

York Wilson - Self Portrait 1981
  Nov 23, 1981 Globe and Mail, Toronto clipping

Nov 23, 1981 Globe and Mail, Toronto

Canadian Artist York Wilson, Commissioned by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to do a self-portrait, has learned his work has been accepted as part of the gallery's permanent collection.

He received word Saturday that his portrait will be on permanent display in the Gallery of Self Portraits, along with those by such all-time greats as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Most recent additions to this gallery are by Siqueros of Mexico and Chagall of France.

Mr. Wilson was born in Toronto to English parents. He has painted for lengthy periods in France, Italy, Spain, Canary Islands (Tenerife and Lanzarote), Mexico, Greece, Turkey, Guatamala, Japan and Borneo.

He considers the Uffizi the most important collection his work is in, Although his Imperial Oil mural is reproduced in the World Book Encyclopedia along with works by Michelangelo and Thomas Hart Benton of the United States - the only three murals mentioned.

Mr. Wilson has done 12 murals in Canada, including the 15-foot-by-100-foot piece at the SONY Centre For The Performing Arts.

He is represented in the permanent collections of world famous museums including the Musée Nationale d'Art Moderne in Paris and the Birla Academy Museum in Calcutta.

His work is also on display in 14 museums in Canada, as well as at banks, universities and in corporate and private collections such as those of Col. and Mrs, Kenneth R. Campbell, Premier and Mrs. William Davis, Mrs. John David Eaton, Charles P. Fell, William G. Harris, former lieutenant-governor Pauline McGibbon and Donald McGibbon, Gordon Sinclair, Mr. and Mrs. E.P.Taylor and Mr. and Mrs. John Yaremko.

The Guild Inn in Scarborough had a room dedicated to Mr. Wilson, calling it The York Wilson Room. It held paintings from many periods of his work.

Although there have been some 45 one-man York Wilson exhibitions, York Wilson said: "For each one I'm as nervous as though it's my first show back in 1931"

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