Charles Banks Wilson: An Oklahoma Original

Thursday, May 15th 2008, 3:26 pm
By: News 9

By Terry Hood, For NEWS 9

As long as the state capitol stands, he'll be part of Oklahoma history. 

Artist Charles Banks Wilson created the murals that line the dome of the capitol.   He also painted the portraits of the famous Oklahomans that hang there.

"That was the great good fortune of my life was coming from Oklahoma," Wilson saud.  "I had the cowboys, the Indians, the farmers, miners.  Everything.  The only thing we didn't have were the hills and mountains.  But, if I wanted to get on a hill, I'd get on a chat pile."

Wilson will celebrate his 90th birthday this summer.  And, he still greets every morning armed with a paintbrush.

"Every time I do one anymore I say, well this is the last one I'm going to do. I think I've done ten last paintings," said Charles Banks Wilson.

Wilson grew up in Miami, Oklahoma, in what was then a brand new state. He studied art in Chicago and established a career as a successful illustrator in New York City.  But, Oklahoma always had his heart.

In 1943, he returned home.  He set up shop in a studio above his father's paint and wallpaper store on Main Street.

"I remember John Steinbeck telling me he wished he had an office downtown in a little town on Main Street," said Charles Banks Wilson.

The best part of Wilson's little town office, was the bus station across the street.

"If I needed a model for something all I had to do was go downstairs, wait awhile and my model would come by," said Charles Banks Wilson.

Many of those models were Native Americans and their portraits sparked the beginning of a lifelong fascination.  As the years rolled by, Charlie Wilson came to believe it was his life's mission to chronicle the people and the places of his beloved home state.

"I remember Tom Benton introducing me to President Truman, saying I was America's greatest art historian," said Charles Banks Wilson, before disagreeing.  "I'm not a historian.  I'm a storyteller.

Wilson told the stories of miners and cowboys, farmers and spirited boys on hot Oklahoma summer days.   And, perhaps most importantly, he spent decades telling the stories of Native American purebloods beginning with the 64 tribes of Oklahoma.

"I think they're the only important thing I've done.  A lot of other things are pleasant, but to me, these are important," said Charles Banks Wilson.

In many instances, the pictures may be the last pureblood of the tribe.

Tulsa's Gilcrease Museum recently sponsored a six-month exhibition of Wilson's work:  almost 300 paintings, lithographs and illustrations that spanned almost seven decades.  And, Charlie Wilson had a story for almost every one of them.

Some critics say one of Wilson's best works is his portrait of Will Rogers which was done backstage in Miami's famous Coleman Theatre.  What many people don't know is that Wilson was 15 years old at the time.

"People have asked me, 'what did you think of Will Rogers?'  And, I usually think what did he think of that damn kid?" laughed Charles Banks Wilson.

Wilson once said that art is a lie which helps us picture the truth. 

His art tells the truth of a state young and proud and the men and women, who lived, worked and died here.

Of all his paintings, one of his favorites is the portrait of great Cherokee educator Sequoyah.  That portrait now hangs in the rotunda of the state capitol.  In the background are a little cabin and a meandering path where Charles Banks Wilson can picture a truth of his own.

 "I've always said if something happened to me and I wasn't around come down there and I probably will come out from those bushes.  Can't you imagine that I could make that journey very peacefully?" Wilson said.