Faulconer Gallery Features John Wilson’s Studies for a Lynching Mural

January 08, 2019

Grinnell College’s Faulconer Gallery is the first in the nation to open Reckoning with ‘The Incident’: John Wilson’s Studies for a Lynching Mural.

The Yale University Art Gallery organized the traveling exhibition in collaboration with Faulconer Gallery, which provided 14 of the exhibition’s 23 works from the Grinnell College Art Collection. The exhibition, which opens Jan. 25 and continues through April 6, is free and open to the public.

Also partnering in the exhibition are Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, which loaned its major Wilson painting from 1952 that is a study for the mother figure in the mural, and the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Wilson, an African-American who studied mural painting in Mexico City in 1952, created the hauntingly powerful The Incident, depicting a Ku Klux Klan lynching just outside the door of a young African-American family’s home. The commanding fresco, which Wilson painted on an exterior wall of a building at street level, featured twice-life-size figures.

Although the mural no longer exists, the exhibition brings together nearly all of its known preparatory studies and related works including oil paintings, lithographs and drawings in chalk, crayon, graphite, and gouache. The works from the Grinnell Art Collection consist of 12 partial studies, a full study in black and white, and a lithograph depicting the mother and her baby who witness the event. Grinnell’s collection is distinguished by its social and political commentary by artists who have created works challenging oppression, exploitation, and human folly.

A centerpiece of the exhibition is a complete compositional study of The Incident in gouache from 1952. The Yale University Art Gallery acquired the work in 2000 and has been collecting Wilson’s work since then.

This exhibition dovetails with the recent opening of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. These national monuments honor and memorialize more than 4,000 African-Americans who were lynched between 1877 and 1950.

Inspired by the political and social activism of Mexican muralists and haunted by images of lynchings he had seen in newspapers as a child, Wilson revisited the subject of The Incident over many years as a way of grappling with racial violence. The works on view, some disturbing in content, encourage contemporary viewers to do the same.

Wilson explored the intersection of art and politics, always with an eye toward issues of social justice. His most visible work is a bust of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., which has been on view in the U.S. Capitol rotunda in Washington, D.C., since its installation in 1986. Faulconer Gallery organized a major retrospective of Wilson’s work in 2004.

“We welcomed the opportunity to collaborate on this new traveling exhibition because it underscores an aspect of American history that most people don’t think about these days,” says Lesley Wright, director of Faulconer Gallery. “We have worked hard to present the exhibition in a way that is meaningful, sensitive, and connected to contemporary events.”

In preparing for the exhibition, four faculty members and six students came together last fall for a three-day workshop with StoryCenter founder Joe Lambert. They created digital stories that provide a compelling platform for connecting with the exhibition.

“Broad in their perspectives, these stories explore art as a way of knowing and processing the impact of Wilson’s work, lynching, and continued systemic racist violence through personal narrative, weaving together the verbal, the visual, the aural, and the temporal,” says Tilly Woodward, Faulconer Gallery’s curator of academic and community outreach. 

The students and faculty will present their stories at “Reckoning: Digital Stories,” a public event beginning at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 4, in Faulconer Gallery.

Highlights of additional public events to be held in Faulconer Gallery are listed below:

  • Opening reception, 7 p.m. Jan. 25, features students performing dance, reading from works by Langston Hughes and other poets, and senior Eden Gregory singing Strange Fruit.
  • Gallery Talk, 4 p.m. Feb. 7, will be presented by 1994 Grinnell graduate Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean and professor of law at Boston University School of Law, who will discuss cultural trauma resulting from the expectation of routine harm experienced in African-American communities.
  • The Statistics of Lynching, 11 a.m. Feb. 12, will be presented by Kesho Scott, associate professor of sociology and American studies.
  • Gallery Talk, 4 p.m. Feb. 26, will be presented by Maurita Poole, director of the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, who will focus on the significance of Mexico on the development of The Incident.

The exhibition of Reckoning with ‘The Incident’ at Faulconer Gallery will close at 5 p.m. April 6. It will then travel to the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum before its presentation at Yale in early 2020.

Exhibition Credits:
Exhibition organized by Pamela Franks, senior deputy director and Seymour H. Knox Jr. Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Elisabeth Hodermarsky, acting head and Sutphin Family Senior Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings, Yale University Art Gallery. Made possible by the Isabel B. Wilson Memorial Fund.

Faulconer Gallery Hours and Location:
Faulconer Gallery, which is free and open to the public, is housed in Grinnell College’s Bucksbaum Center for the Arts, 1108 Park St., Grinnell. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The gallery is closed on Sundays and major holidays.