York Wilson
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Critical Insight

York Wilson

A letter from Bob Paterson


"Lives are inter-woven like threads of a weaving, moving in and out, affecting and being affected by others as they go. My own life-thread was altered when I came into contact with York Wilson in the autumn of 1956 as a student of his in an evening class at the Ontario College of Art. There I was introduced to a way of painting and thinking about art which was new and exciting. Unfortunately in mid-term he was obliged to resign due to illness and was replaced by another instructor. He was greatly missed by the class, and by myself in particular, for he had a very special way of getting people to think about their work and of encouraging them. 

"We were not to meet again until the following spring while attending a function at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and it was at this time that he spoke of a pending mural project and invited me to assist with it. The so-called 'Imperial Oil Mural' was to become part of my life, as it had already been part of his for some time.

"Together with Jack Bechtel as the other and more senior assistant, we began work in August, 1957. The three of us became a team with a common goal which was to transpose the ideas of the completed sketch to the huge wall in the lobby of the Imperial Oil Building. It was apparent from the beginning that the mural had been thoroughly thought out, with no detail concerning it having been overlooked. In addition to the actual content and the design, the materials to be used and the appearance of the whole from a distance or from various angles in the lobby were also given great importance. Even the texture of the wall itself was a major consideration.

"Little did I realize that the opportunity to assist on the Imperial Oil Mural was to be involved with one of the more important works of art in Canada. Even at that time there was a pervading sense of historical significance, which added greatly to the excitement and intensity of the operation. 

"The 'sketch' which was the culmination of many months of research and creative input, provided the guide for what we were expected to produce in grand scale on the wall itself. It was required to be accurate in the nature of its 'information', but also to be aesthetically pleasing and visually inspiring. It represented the summation of many years experience in designing and painting and thinking. The desired effect as an end result was the over-riding motivation and challenge, and York seemed to have a clear idea of what this was to be. It was for Jack Bechtel and I to help out in more physical terms to achieve this end, and in doing so we became emotionally involved with every aspect. Even the careful mixing of the ingredients to make the vinyl acetate medium was a large part of the task at hand. 

"I was impressed with the experimental excitement of the testing and trying out of various ideas and materials. York struck me as almost being a 'mad scientist', not content with the accepted materials and approaches to mural painting, but wanting instead to use this new paint which he had learned about in Mexico. 

"I is many years now since the three of us laboured for so many months on that wall, but the memory of it lingers. The conversations, the jovial moments, were as much a part of each day as was climbing up and down the scaffolding and mixing the colours. Work on the O'Keefe Centre mural a couple of years later continued our friendly working relationship and even enriched the already high regard in which I held York Wilson.

"I cannot add to this biography in solely a cold, documentary fashion. The contact with York and his 'perfect' wife, Lela, had too great an impact on my own sensibilities and outlook on art and life for me to be casual and speak only of the work on the walls. The stories about Mexico, Italy, and France caught my imagination and opened up a whole new world to me, being at the time a naive lad from Sudbury. The artist-colleagues were introduced, and I even learned that 'tomatoes' referred to beautiful women!

"One day after lunch the conversation centred on New York City, and since it was Friday, I decided to go there on the week-end to see it for myself. York suggested that one week-end wouldn't be enough time and offered an extra two days in order to make the visit more worthwhile. That was the beginning of a love affair with that city which is on-going, as I have returned many times since.

"While working on the Imperial Oil Mural, I was especially interested in painting a certain section, but York had a particular interest in the same area, and he was after all, 'the boss'. I offered a deal whereby I would work on it New Year's Day instead of taking the holiday, and that he could paint it out later should he not be satisfied with it. A compromise resulted as he touched it up a bit after I had painted it, and so we were both happy in the end. That is the way things were as myself and the other assistant came to regard the work as 'our wall' and tried to satisfy ourselves with what we did, as well as trying to satisfy York.

"The only unnerving experience was when, at the O'Keefe Centre, a union leader climbed the scaffold while we were working and insisted that we either join the Painters and Decorators Union, or else let union-members complete the mural. It was a serious challenge at the time, and took a lot out of us, though it was eventually resolved.

"I always enjoyed the occasional visit to the Wilsons' home, which was unique and possessed many features which made it a very personal and warm place. The studio as part of one's home was a new concept to me at the time. There were countless situations which were 'new' to me, including the genuine enthusiasm with which everything was greeted, from beach stones to old master paintings. The period of serious involvement with York Wilson and the murals will always remain a high-point in my life, of which I will always harbour fond memories."

As a young man, artist Bob Paterson assisted York Wilson on his two most famous murals. Mr. Paterson lives in Hawk's Junction, Ontario.