Now, Leelanau County artist Van Wilson has truly gone to the birds. Over the past six or seven years, Wilson has created dozens of multi-media pieces featuring crows, magpies, and ravens.
Many are whimsical, but all reflect his wit, wisdom and love of the American Southwest.
In one example, Wilson created a carved, Native American-inspired doll series featuring crows. In 2014, he published a colorful calendar highlighting a different crow piece for each month.
Wilson and his wife Susan operate Sleeping Bear Bed and Breakfast, six miles east of Empire. Susan is a chef trained in the French tradition; Wilson is the artful handyman.
Ten years ago, the Chicago-area couple ditched the big city life. “We needed to make a lifestyle change,” Van Wilson said. “We … looked in Wisconsin and in southwest Michigan, in the St. Joseph area. But we ended up here in Empire and we love it.”
The five-bedroom house was built in 1890 and showcases an array of art, much of it Wilson’s. Many pieces reflect the culture of the American Southwest. “I’m a lifetime collector of art,” said Van Wilson. “I’ve always viewed art as an essential element of life.”
HOW I GOT STARTED
I always drew as a child, but didn’t really take art classes in high school. Then in college I started taking classes and loved it. I wanted to be an art professor at a university. After graduating from the University of Texas – Arlington, I taught art for six years in Texas, first in an elementary school, then the last three in a high school and junior college. I taught ceramics then. But I was never a utilitarian potter, I was always intrigued, always interested in shapes.
When the school program lost funding, I quit the job. I had a friend who was an architect and builder and went to work with him.
Segue to a nearly 30-year career as a carpenter and construction manager. The first six years inspired me to make art; the next 30 sharpened my woodworking skills.
THE STORY BEHIND MY ART, MY INSPIRATION
It goes back to growing up in Amarillo, Texas, surrounded by Native American art and culture, much of which is based on myth and spirit.
I am intrigued by ravens and crows and their reputation for intelligence. Their image has always appealed to me. The first two crows I made were much cruder, much different than the crows I make now.
I named them Heckle and Jeckle, after the brash magpies who were popular cartoon characters from the 1950s. After that the crow thing just kind of grew over the years.
WORK I’M MOST PROUD OF
A piece named Saint Crowstina, Patron Saint of Roadkill. It features a crow driving a car along M-22. She’s crushed a snake and is heading toward a porcupine.
YOU WON’T BELIEVE
It’s been 37 years since my hands touched clay. Maybe it’s time again. I’ve been thinking of ways to bring clay back into my work.
Also, during my time in construction, I had the opportunity to work on three different Frank Lloyd Wright houses and lots of other historical houses in the Chicago area. Some of those Frank Lloyd Wright houses were the worst built houses. He built for aesthetics, not functionality.
MY FAVORITE ARTIST
John Nieto, Native American painter and Dewey Blocksma, Northern Michigan sculptor and occasional painter.
ADVICE FOR ASPIRING ARTISTS
Do what makes you happy and keep busy doing it. You will go much further if you do what you love, rather than what is marketable.
MY WORK CAN BE SEEN/PURCHASED
At the Ruth Conklin Gallery in Glen Arbor and Cog’s Creek Gallery in Traverse City.