Here we are, on the roads of Georgia with J. Chris Wilson, headed to college. The year is 1966, and it’s hot. Or we can interpret it so; this is August in Georgia, after all. Wilson leaves his home in Waycross, Georgia, bound for Valdosta State College, about 65 miles away. He is the son of a great lawyer, who once brought home the biggest settlement in state history. He is also the grandson of a lawyer. And the great-grandson of a lawyer. Wilson’s older brother has already veered from the family path, working toward a career as a writer, of all things.
Wilson is his father’s last hope. He’s 18 and carrying the weight of a family tradition on his shoulders. In the second term of his freshman year, he takes an art-appreciation class and loves it. He enrolls in a painting class for the next term. He drives home for Christmas and tells his dad: He is no lawyer; he is an artist.
They argue. Dad’s disappointed.
Wilson’s dad makes the boy transfer, farther away now, out of state to the University of Florida. Wilson enrolls in the architecture school because his father approves of architecture as a worthy profession. Wilson’s first design course consists of 180 students. By the end of the semester, only 65 remain. Only eight of those receive A grades, and Wilson is one of the eight. He drives home to Waycross. Despite the high grade, he tells his dad: He is no architect; he is an artist.
They argue. Dad’s disappointed.
Before his junior year, Wilson convinces his dad that he needs to return to Valdosta State to improve his grades. He says he’s returning to be pre-law. Instead, he takes three art classes and aces them all. He drives home at the end of that year and tells his dad again: He is no lawyer; he’s an artist.
They argue. Dad’s disappointed.
Wilson finally enrolls in the art school anyway and makes the dean’s list in his final seven terms. The next summer, he travels to Italy with an art class. He graduates with a Bachelor of Arts and continues on his way.
Move forward 30 years. Now we’re on a road in North Carolina, a straight road from the sea to the mountains, U.S. Highway 64. This North Carolina road is far different from its more sterile east-west counterpart, Interstate 40, which is a fine highway for the more pragmatic. But it is no 64.
Highway 64 is a character. It runs through small towns. It presents stoplights. In some spots, it hitches rides with other highways for a few miles at a time, only to jump off and wave good-bye, off again to cut its own path.
Now the year is 2001, and it’s a splendid day. Or we can interpret it so; it’s North Carolina and Highway 64, after all. Wilson has known this road for many years by now. In 1974, he began a career as an art teacher at Barton College in Wilson, not far from 64. On this drive in 2001, he starts noticing the scenery. He collects travel brochures. He takes pictures of places that strike him and marks their locations on a map. The idea grows from there, until Wilson begins telling people: He’ll paint 100 large-scale paintings of landscapes along 64, and he’ll call the project “Murphy to Manteo — An Artist’s Scenic Journey.”
And it will be big.
• • •
The landscape of North Carolina, which has been photographed millions of times over, has never been painted like this.
Wilson began painting his Murphy to Manteo project in 2007, and he’s finished about 30 pieces to date. The paintings are huge, many reaching 16 feet in length or height.
On the table in Wilson’s studio in downtown Wilmington sit letters from various museums and art galleries in North Carolina. The galleries all want to display Wilson’s art, but they must send him the dimensions of their spaces first. In some cases, Wilson’s paintings won’t even fit through the door.
Wilson is, by numerical coincidence, 64 years old now. He retired from Barton College after school ended last year and moved into a role as professor emeritus and artist in residence with the college. The Murphy to Manteo project came to him in the twilight of his career, but according to the artist, there is no such thing as a twilight to creativity. Inspiration, he says, is better with age; creativity is better later in life, after you’ve seen some of it. Wilson never attempted anything of this scope before. Artists, so aware of themselves in relation to the course of time, only do things when they’re ready.
The Murphy to Manteo project will be the thing people remember about J. Chris Wilson long after he’s gone. We don’t know that for sure, but we can interpret it so if we imagine it all together as one exhibit: 100 paintings each at least a dozen feet wide or high of scenes in North Carolina. The sheer size will be hard to forget.
Some of the completed pieces already hang in the North Carolina Museum of History, which in a way makes Wilson’s project a piece of our state’s history already, and he’s not even one-third of the way done.
• • •
Wilson’s home has 21 rooms in it. It’s three stories tall, and it’s a fully restored 1854 antebellum structure shaded by oak trees on Wilmington’s Fifth Avenue, five blocks from the Cape Fear River. Among the people who have lived in this neighborhood: former President Woodrow Wilson and renowned architect Henry Bacon.Wilson’s home required three years of renovations to restore, and he was his own contractor on the project. He finished it about five years ago, just before his retirement. Wilson also had an elevator installed, not for show, but because he’s simply planning for the days when he’ll be in a wheelchair.
The kitchen in the back of the house is nothing like it would’ve been in 1854. Rather, it’s custom-built for Wilson’s wife, Kathy, complete with symmetrically located sinks, a Wolf range, and a Sub-Zero refrigerator.
Wilson says that the key to landing here in life was planning. He taught at Barton for the security, and he made art for the love of art. He and Kathy have enjoyed some other good fortune along the way.
Wilson has a 30-year-old son, Matthew, from a previous marriage, and has undoubtedly heard the same thoughts on life from his dad. Wilson and Kathy also have a daughter, Singleton, who’s majoring in singing at Salem College. Matthew is in his final year of graduate school at Columbia University, where he’s studying three-dimensional art. Matthew is sort of an enigma, his father explains, and the two have different opinions on eating meat and the proper amount of time between haircuts and shaves. But those differences don’t dampen the pride in Wilson’s face when he talks about his son’s work.
Wilson has reached the point where he can give lessons about life. But they are only means of guidance, he says. His approach to life worked for him, but he knows his life’s order isn’t necessarily someone else’s.
• • •
Wilson has an older brother, Austin, who also didn’t become a lawyer.
Austin is now retired from a career as a college English and writing teacher in Mississippi. His work has been published in several literary journals, and he was a good friend of Eudora Welty.
Let’s go back, though, before all of that. Their grandfather graduated from law school in the same class with three other members of his family. The Wilson men were lawyers, all of them. Until these two came along. Wilson’s father thought little of three professions in particular: art, writing, and teaching. And his boys inhabited those exact three.
The Wilsons were a prominent family, proud of their heritage. One of their relatives — a first cousin, six times removed — was Angelica Singleton Van Buren, the hostess of the White House in the 1830s. Van Buren’s portrait still hangs in the Red Room. This was not a family in which you easily escaped your father’s dreams.
So when Chris Wilson told his dad, one last time, that he was not going to complete the pre-law program, the news was met with sadness. Wilson’s dad agreed to pay for his undergraduate work, but nothing more. So Wilson, from one of the more well-off families in the state, paid his own way through the University of Georgia’s graduate school.
“I thought I had found something I could do better than my mother or father or brother or anybody else,” he says. “It was unique to me and my family. There was a great deal of chaos, but I could control what happened inside the rectangle.”
At Georgia, Wilson’s major professor was Lamar Dodd. Dodd was the first living American artist to have a painting in the National Gallery of Art. He was also the official artist for NASA.
Dodd once sketched a thumbnail that he used as a guide to create a larger painting called Monhegan Theme. The larger version landed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The smaller version hangs in the entranceway of Wilson’s studio in Wilmington. Every day, Wilson walks downstairs and passes the thumbnail before going to work on his massive project.
“It reminds me that something small can be developed into something big,” he says.
• • •
If there was a cover painting for the Murphy to Manteo project, a painting that introduces the whole series, it probably would be one scene from the North Carolina-Tennessee state line.
The painting — 40 inches tall and 56 inches wide — hangs in the lobby of the history museum in Raleigh.
The painting represents what travelers would see if they drove into the state from the west. A mile marker reads: “Manteo 563,” indicating the number of miles across the state. The welcome to North Carolina sign is in the foreground, and the highway sign for 64 is in the background.
In order to make paintings like this, Wilson takes dozens of photographs of scenes from slightly different angles and merges them using Photoshop. He wants the finished portrait to look like the scene would to a viewer standing right there in that spot, full of color and dimensions. He calls the North Carolina landscape his protagonist.
He records GPS coordinates of all of his sites because sometimes he has trouble finding them again — a tree can fall or a barn can be built, changing the scenery. U.S. Highway 64 wanders through 24 North Carolina counties along its way, and by the time Wilson is finished, all of them will be represented in his work. He set the parameters for the scenes. They must be within 10 miles of the roadway. He made that provision because he wanted to paint Whitewater Falls near Cashiers, a little more than nine miles off the highway.
The piece he’s working on now, on which he’s darkening a cloud with a quarter-inch brush, is a scene from Coquina Beach at Hatteras National Seashore. It’s 80 inches by 186 inches, or 62 1/3 feet by 15½ feet. He’ll go over most spots five or six times.
“In any painting, there are millions of decisions,” he says. “And if you mess up one of them by a whole lot, then the painting fails.”
One painting he finished this past fall is a scene from Raleigh with broken trees and the skyline in the background. Wilson painted this 16-foot landscape after a tornado came through in 2010. The cyclone opened up a new view of downtown from a neighborhood where residents couldn’t see the tall buildings before the storm.
“It’s not about the destruction, but the beauty of a new vista that was created,” he says. “The painting looks tremendously better than the photographs. I’m trying to transport the viewer to the scene. That’s why the scale is important.”
So that’s why they’re so big; he wants the viewers to feel like part of the scene.
But of course, that’s only the first-level reason. There’s also a more metaphorical reason, right?
“It’s a desire to do something of consequence,” he says. “It’s not big for the sake of being big. It’s an aspiration to achieve beyond what I’ve already achieved.”
• • •
In 2002, a young man leaves his home near Oxford, North Carolina, and hits the road for Barton College, about 65 miles away.
The young man is the son of a tobacco-warehouse worker. He and his mother attend orientation together. They meet J. Chris Wilson, a teacher and artist. The young man’s mother tells the artist of her son: “He can do whatever he wants, as long as he comes back to Oxford and has a house behind me and has kids.”
That day, Isaac Talley believed he would make a career out of graphic design. He’d never painted anything before he went to Barton and met Wilson. Near the end of his freshman year, though, he went home and told his parents: He’s no designer; he’s an artist.
They said to go for it.
Wilson became his mentor, a relationship that continues still. Midway through his senior year, in January 2006, Talley traveled with Wilson’s art-history class to Italy. He couldn’t wait. His favorite artist is Caravaggio. Before the flight took off, Talley knew that one of the main stops on the trip would be the famed Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which houses a large Caravaggio exhibit. He told everybody who’d listen that this was what he was most excited
But when the class arrived at the Uffizi, the museum tour guide played a trick on Talley. The guide told him that the Caravaggio exhibit was on loan to another museum in Italy; he wouldn’t get to see his favorite artist’s work.
Talley hung his head as he walked around the gallery. But at the end, he turned a corner and saw a Caravaggio painting. The painting’s title? Sacrifice of Isaac.
Talley then realized the guide’s prank. The student walked into the room full of Caravaggios and stood in front of the painting with his name on it — about 53 inches by 40 inches — and cried.
Wilson walked up beside him, looked at the painting and the tears, and said, “Isaac, you know how you take the country out of the boy? You take the boy out of the country.”
Talley went on to receive his master’s degree from East Carolina University, and he’s now a member of the faculty at ECU and Pitt Community College. This spring, he’s teaching a study-abroad course in Italy.
“I come from a very small community out in the middle of nowhere,” Talley says now. “Nobody expects to go to Italy. But through art and painting, I’ve been able to experience it all.”
• • •
We could go back some more, to explain how Wilson’s relationship with his dad deteriorated even further after he left college, until his dad died about 15 years ago. “This is going to be all about me and my dad, isn’t it?” Wilson says, laughing, about this impending magazine story.
No, not anymore. Let’s just go forward.
Wilson hopes to have the Murphy to Manteo project completed by late 2014. It sounds ambitious. He has about 70 more paintings left to create. But he’s retired now.
He says he’s not making any money off Murphy to Manteo, not a dime. He’s sold hundreds of paintings in his lifetime, many for price tags in the thousands. But he’s not selling these, at least not yet.
Materials cost money, though. All that oil paint, especially, adds up when talking about 100 giant paintings. But he says he planned for this.
“You can’t be concerned with the value of materials,” Wilson says, “because they don’t have any value until they become something.”
North Carolina Museum of History
5 East Edenton Street
Raleigh, N.C. 27601