March, 2002

Theresa Tribble's Travels

By Theresa Tribble

The following is a letter from Theresa Tribble (Judy's oldest daughter) to her family and friends about what her life has been like the past few months. ... Gilbert Wilson’s Dream of A Hautean Utopia
By Darla Beasley

Gilbert Wilson CoverHis name will crop up in the unlikeliest of places, mostly because this is where Gilbert Wilson worked. As a Terre Haute native, Wilson created art in the name of the common man, and his creative themes came to be associated with the philosophy of social activists such as Eugene Debs , Theodore Dreiser, and the political cartoonist, Art Young Working in a time of economic and international crisis, Wilson was influenced by the radical call for social change illustrated in the murals of Diego Rivera Jose Orozco and Eugene Savage. Wilson was exposed to these artists during a trip to New York in the 1930s. Undaunted by the possibility that these radical themes would not be embraced by the conservative Midwest, Wilson was eventually able to secure commissions around Terre Haute, including the murals at Woodrow Wilson Junior High School. The implementation of this mural is an example of the obstacles that Wilson was up against when it came to the financing of his work and the support of the ideals behind it—the school board would not pay him for the mural, nor reimburse him for materials used in the project. When the mural—a sprawling and somewhat menacing depiction of capitalism and industrialism, offset by the hopefulness found in youth and hard work—was completed, it was the junior high students who paid Wilson for his work, by taking up a collection totaling $28.00. This doesn’t sound like much to us today, but deep in the grip of the Depression, this must have seemed like a very generous gesture.  In fact, Wilson considered this donation, “the highest pay I ever expect to receive for my works of art.”        Wilson had high hopes for Terre Haute, and saw the city as a representative of Midwestern potential—the heartland of America as the center of culture, art, and the exchange of ideas. In conjunction with this hope was his belief that his murals would help elicit thought and change in the “existing social pattern.” Naturally, schools seemed to be an ideal setting for the philosophy behind his work.  Wilson also created a mural at the Laboratory School in Terre Haute, which he later destroyed in a fit of depression. Although some of his frustration stemmed from personal issues, he was also finding it difficult to win patronage or to locate places in Terre Haute suitable or willing to allow him to express his ideas on their walls. Many of the more affluent members of Terre Haute society did not feel the need for this avenue of expression, especially since Wilson’s repetitive motifs of oppression could be considered politically radical and aesthetically overwhelming. “I felt it was like taking the shock of the needle to inoculate you against a disease,” Wilson said in a 1984 interview about the social issues represented in his work, “If you don’t get sick from it, it doesn’t ‘take.’” 

Some of Wilson’s artistic and financial frustration was relieved through the patronage of George and Fannie Blumberg, who continued to support Wilson long after he had left Terre Haute. Wilson also associated with Terre Haute poet, Max Ehrmann.

Although he was never able to stimulate Terre Haute towards becoming the center of a new Renaissance, Wilson did leave behind a legacy of work, lush in detail but sparse in number, scattered here and there in Terre Haute. These murals can be considered “witnesses” that still speak about the turmoil and human grace of the troubled 1930s.  The mural, “Liberation” at Woodrow Wilson Junior High has allowed the school to become a historical landmark, and Wilson’s mural at the Terre Haute Community Theater is still an intriguing piece of art. Some of Wilson’s work is also owned by the Turman Gallery at ISU.

Wilson is also known for his complete obsession with the novel, “Moby Dick.” He literally stumbled onto the book during a turn of bad luck. While recuperating from a pedestrian accident on the streets of New York, which permanently injured his hand, Wilson was staying with another artist, Rockwell Kent.  Wilson’s health continued to deteriorate to the point of being bedridden, with plaster wrapped around his ribs to aid his breathing. Having nothing better to do with his creative energies, Wilson picked up a copy of “Moby Dick,” which had been illustrated—inappropriately, Wilson would later say—by Rockwell Kent.

Wilson’s intrigue with Ahab and the white whale would follow him for the rest of his somewhat impoverished life. (One of his earlier “white whale” paintings was given to his plumber, to pay for a $40.00 repair bill. The plumber was an ex-sailor and instantly bonded with the picture.) Eventually, Wilson’s interpretations of Melville’s novel would be the focus of an extended series of intense and thought- provoking paintings, including the “Insanity Series,” which our own Carol Jinbo helped to secure as part of the collection of the Sheldon Swope Art Museum. The Swope offers an online catalogue of the Wilson collection. There are also postcards of Wilson’s work available for purchase in the museum gift shop.

Other recommended sources on this topic include Unpainted to the Last: Moby Dick and Twentieth-Century American Art, by Elizabeth A. Schultz, which can be found here at CML under the call number PS2384 .M62 S36.

Wilson’s murals were recently the focus of an article in the Winter 2002 edition of Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, which is available via the CML Rare Books and Special Collections department. RBSC also has a fascinating collection of interviews with Gilbert Wilson, which was sponsored by the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature. The interviews are located under the call number ND237 .W62.

As always, for interesting publications that highlight local and state history, you can check in at the Indiana Historical Society 

 Sites of Interest Cited                                       

For more on Diego Rivera:

Jose Clemente Orozco’s Murals In The Baker Library at Dartmouth College

Eugene Savage Murals at Purdue:

Art Young Cover Art/Cartoons from the Michigan State Libraries’ Collection:

Eugene V. Debs Foundation:

International Theodore Dreiser Society:

Turman Gallery:

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Editorial Board: Carol Jinbo, Darla Beasley Co-Editors
Paul Asay, Ann O'Bryan, Karen Evans, Marsha Miller

Your ideas are always welcome
Feb 2002 Newsletter
Behind the scenes at a Newsletter Meeting