John Wilson’s Presence
For more than a decade I knew one version of Eternal Presence, the stately handsome bronze sculpture by artist John Wilson. That was the forty-inch-tall head sited on a high point in the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. As a volunteer guide I often told visitors that it was a maquette, or smaller-scale model for the final work. I’d ask them to envision the already huge head at twice that size, outside the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists (NCAAA) in Boston. Almost as often I told myself that I would go see that final version, but somehow I never got to its location in the Roxbury section of Boston.
In 2012, near the artist’s 90th birthday a retrospective exhibit, “John Wilson: Eternal Presence” at the Danforth Art Museum in Framingham rekindled my long strong admiration of Wilson’s powerful purposeful drawings, prints, paintings, illustrations, and sculpture. John Wilson’s dramatic portrayals of figures in African-American history and literature combined forces with his personal yet universal human images. (See Globe review by Sebastian Smee.) After that exhibit, the bronze head at the deCordova became an even more radiant reminder of the artist’s range of impact and persistent productivity.
In January 2015, John Wilson died at age ninety-two. Climbing up as close as possible to Eternal Presence in deep snowdrifts at the deCordova, I vowed that I would finally visit the larger version in Boston. This summer at last I stood in the presence of the seven-foot head on the hilltop near the entrance of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists. In getting to that place, I gained perspective and information to offer now.
How are the two sculptures alike?
Both these versions of Eternal Presence are bronze and all facial features seem to be scaled equally and in proportion to each other. Both are sited at high points in their landscape so viewers can approach from below, looking up at African facial features. Both seem to look beyond anything specific. Both seem youthful yet mature. Both could be either male or female. Both have beauty, majesty, and mystery.
How are the two sculptures different?
Besides being twice as big, the piece at the Museum of NCAAA is many times more open than the one at the deCordova. People can approach it from any side and touch it anywhere they can reach. They can lean against it and listen to its inner echoes. They can circle it and stage events or ceremonies around it.
For example on Saturday, July 11, community members of all ages are invited to help with a yearly cleaning and waxing. John Wilson had specified regular treatment of the sculpture with black wax to preserve the blackness of the surface. By contrast the surface of Eternal Presence at the deCordova has a range of colors and tones in its surface as time and weather change the patina of the bronze.
The deCordova maquette would be a transitional form for the artist toward his monumental sculpture at the Museum of NCAAA. Yet in my personal experience as a deCordova guide, the maquette has been a stable presence amidst many shifts and changes in the park. It is a reliably engaging work that generates rich associations. Though I seemed to know it well, now I want to know it better.
An upcoming event featuring the sculpture at the Museum of NCAAA will be the Third Annual Big Head Community Festival, on August 8, 2015. I hope to go and learn what happens when more people interact around the art. While there I intend to revisit the museum’s gallery of work by John Wilson. Both will likely influence what I share in my familiar setting at the deCordova.
In addition, I want to learn about other versions of Eternal Presence, such as the one in the photo with John Wilson. It doesn’t look like the one at the deCordova or the final form at the Museum of NCAAA. Clues and answers welcome!
Clicking on the red-type phrases throughout the post should take you to the link in a new tab. For additional access, those links are listed below in order of appearance.
deCordova Sculpture Park information/images for Eternal Presence:
Danforth Art Museum exhibit:
Jared Bowen 2012 interview with John Wilson about retrospective exhibit:
Exhibit review by Sebastian Smee:
Boston Globe Obituary for John Wilson, January 26, 2015:
Museum of NCAAA:
Calendar of community events for NCAAA:
The National Center of Afro-American Artists:
Map and directions for Museum of NCAAA at 300 Walnut Avenue, Boston, 02119:
Many thanks to Barry Gaither, Director/Curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, for an inspiring, highly informative tour! http://www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/edmund-b-gaither-40
A month after first publishing this post, I attended the Third Annual Big Head Community Festival on Saturday, August 8. Here are a few added photos of Eternal Presence from my enjoyable visit.
Sounds and sights from the perspective of Eternal Presence
Cheers to everyone who created the Big Head Community Festival! I’ll hope to be at the fourth annual next year.