Hank Wilson

Hank Wilson lo res

Hank Wilson

Hank was an old man when I met him in Seattle in the early ’60’s. I had been conned into a creating poster for what turned out to be one of the last of my friend Malcolm’s Seattle productions. I can’t remember the name of the play although I saw some of the rehearsals.  I had attended the rehearsals to draw a couple of the characters in confrontation with a strong city background. The style probably resembled the above drawing of Hank, a bit coarser ala Beckman and Grosz.

The posters were to be two color and silkscreened because that was the least expensive way to produce a small quantity of strongly colored units. I was told to take the ‘artwork’ to that little shop on Ravenna in Seattle. On that block the adjacent businesses were a diner, a barber shop, a TV repair place (We fix everything!). Each business was in a space about the size of a caboose – tiny. The silkscreen shop reeked of ink, and upon entry there was was a small wiry old man trimming menus with an office cleaver-cutter. I had thought this would be a 5 minute drop off errand, but we ended up discussing aspects of production and then the state of the world for a couple of hours.

He was born around the turn of the century, his parents were immigrants from England. His father had been a Apothecary and had similar but irregular employment in the USA until the Depression. The family was wiped out and basically homeless during the Depression. Hank’s earliest employment had been as a wallpaper hanger and was in his 20’s when the Depression hit. He was a hobo riding the rails and became crop worker, farmhand, beggar and tramp. When the WPA Artists program started he swindled a position by exaggerating his role as paper hanger into a designer/decorator and was put to work in a printing facility in New York – the printing was in the new experimental and still basic silkscreen medium. The silkscreening techniques developed in the WPA program became the basis for a modest industry, now fading rapidly thanks to computer technology.

Hank found himself working shoulder to shoulder with Ben Shahn and other artists producing posters for the many plays, musical, educational, and art programs of the WPA. Through his association with artists such as Shahn and the Soyer brothers, Hank was led to begin his own dabbling in oil paints. His heart was in the right place, but he had not put in enough time and thought to arrive at reasonable and coherent work. Shahn, et al, were very potent political artists in a time of great ferment. Socialism, communism, and what today would be considered far-far-left ideas were eagerly discussed and infected a great deal of the art of the Depression & WWII era. That sort of work is ignored if not suppressed in our enlightened times. The Soyer brothers, Levine, Grosz, Beckman and many others have simply disappeared from contemporary art history.

The Theater poster came out fine, Hank’s suggested minor changes much improved the design. I stopped in and chatted with Hank several times – I was still afflicted with colitis and his shop had an available toilet, but one of the most dirty, shabby and ill-kempt I have ever experienced. When I returned to Seattle in ’66 he was buried in work. He was printing ‘Hippie’ band posters full of curlycues, paisley, cartoons, bubble type, and odd band names; most printed in shrieking dayglo colors. He didn’t like that stuff, but was glad to have the work. He had hired a couple long haired young men to help production, but he didn’t have time to talk, unfortunately. He is long dead and forgotten. The block that contained the little funky businesses has been entirely re-decorated and is now all candy-assed with decor shops, a vegan diner, an organic pet food purveyor, and hand crafted trinkets and bead sources.

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