NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – Wilson Lee Jr. vividly remembers the Smithsonian Institute approaching him about his artwork as an undergraduate student at Mississippi Valley State University.
“One day I was sitting outside under a cottonwood tree, and a man walks up and says, ‘I am looking for Wilson Lee. Are you Wilson Lee?’ And I say, ‘What do you want with him?’ And he says, ‘I am a researcher from the Smithsonian Institute. I’ve already talked to his father. Now I want to talk to him about his carvings.’ So he showed me his credentials, and from there I did a show with the American Folklore Festival. All of this is while I am in college.”
Lee is director of the Tennessee State University One Stop Shop. His celebrated woodcarvings are currently featured at the Nashville International Airport (BNA) as part of the 2018 Flying Solo Winter Exhibitions. Lee said he grew up in Greenville, Mississippi, going from his bedroom to his father’s woodworking shop where they restored antique furniture.
“We basically worked for the rich land owners in the Delta, so my upbringing was quite different from a lot of other African Americans in the Delta,” he said. “I knew the difference between walnut, mahogany, oak, pine and various fine woods at a very early age.”
That early training provided Lee with the foundational skills he has used to create a lifetime of art, such as that featured in Back to Now, the collection of his work on display at BNA.
“There is so much going on in the country now that reminds me of what I have already gone through,” he said. “So what I did for this show was select work from the late 60s and the late 70s and from 2018.”
The exhibit, which runs through February 24 in the Concourse C Waiting Lounge, features eight of Lee’s carvings, touching on topics ranging from gentrification to the spirit world. He said his work often speaks about injustice and is rooted in his rich heritage and culture.
“I have never been afraid to speak about injustice, and I’ve never been afraid to create work about injustice,” he said. “The fall out from that is that you won’t be listed in some settings. You won’t be invited to some places. But that’s just the price that you pay if you are willing to go this route.“
Mary Grissim, curator of arts at BNA, said the Flying Solo Exhibit features five Tennessee artists and will last three months.
“Wilson’s art was selected because, one, woodcarving is not that common. We don’t see a lot of entries in that area, so his was very unique in that respect,” she said. “The quality of his work is outstanding, and what I love about this program is that of the 14 million people who pass through our airport yearly, I would say the majority of these people aren’t exposed to art. They don’t go to art museums. They aren’t hanging out in art galleries. So for many of these people, this is their first exposure to fine art.”
Grissim said one of the major purposes of featuring art in airports is to distract people from the personal challenges many of them grapple with as they travel.
“It’s very similar to art in healthcare,” she said. “You can’t imagine going in a hospital that doesn’t have art in it because art is distracting you from the tension of why you are there, whether it’s for yourself or someone else. That’s what happens in airports. This would be a grim place if there wasn’t beautiful artwork.”
Lee said his work as an artist has paralleled his work in higher education.
“My whole mission in life was to work at an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). I wanted to do my whole tenure there,” he said. “I wanted to help these kids, so I just got my credentials, and that’s where I work. That’s where I play ball.”
Lee previously worked at TSU from 1991 until 1999 as the director of financial-aid. He has also worked at Jackson State University, Texas Southern University and Mississippi Valley State University.
“What I tell young people is, if you are passionate about something, do it. Do it when you don’t get paid. That is my philosophy,” he said. “Just keep doing it if you think that this is what you are here on Earth to do. Somebody has to leave a record; I leave a record in wood. Somebody’s got to say something about gentrification; I comment about it in wood. Somebody’s got to say something about the blues; I do it in wood.”
For more information about Wilson Lee Jr.: Back to Now and the 2018 Flying Solo Winter Exhibitions, visit www.flynashville.com.
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With more than 7,000 students, Tennessee State University is Nashville’s only public university, and is a comprehensive, urban, co-educational, land-grant university offering 38 bachelor’s degree programs, 24 master’s degree programs and seven doctoral degrees. TSU has earned a top 20 ranking for Historically Black Colleges and Universities according to U.S. News and World Report, and rated as one of the top universities in the country by Washington Monthly for social mobility, research and community service. Founded in 1912, Tennessee State University celebrated 100 years in Nashville during 2012. Visit the University online at tnstate.edu.