Evansville, Wis. — `Idesigned it all, even the house,'' explains John Wilde, a leading Midwestern artist and one of America's premier draftsmen. ``I wanted privacy, a place where I could work in peace, and where my wife, Shirley, and I could lead the kind of life we enjoy.'' He is sitting at one end of a long, screened porch that extends almost the entire length of their rambling, single-level house and that overhangs a deep, heavily wooded ravine. Bird and animal noises, from both wild and domesticated creatures, fill the air, and an occasional frog can be heard from the tiny pond at the bottom of the ravine.
``We've created an environment here within which I can create,'' Mr. Wilde continues. ``I bought the land in 1962, when most of it was a cornfield, and planted the trees that hide it from view. We have a vegetable garden, a few chickens, and, best of all, it's only a little over 20 miles from Madison, where I taught drawing at the University of Wisconsin until I took early retirement in 1982.
``Of course, I never paint this environment. In the over 20 years I've lived here, I've never once drawn that old dead tree across from us, even though it would fit nicely into some of my pictures, and those woodpeckers digging away at it for their dinner are certainly the kinds of birds I enjoy drawing. No, nature may be very important to my art, but I prefer this to be the place where I paint, not the place that I paint. After all, I have other wonderful sources from which to draw -- and I have my imagination.'' Outrageous things seem natural
Anyone familiar with his work will understand exactly what he means, for it is unlikely that any other artist working today has a richer or more delightfully idiosyncratic imagination than Wilde (pronounced ``WILL-dee''). His small, jewel-like paintings and delicate drawings of strange and wonderful people, places, things, and events have introduced American art to a kind of intimate, imaginative realism hitherto unknown to it.
In Wilde's world, anything can happen -- but always with great style and wit and with the quiet assurance that makes even the most outrageous things seem perfectly natural. In our world, artists do not sketch while seated on large balls floating high above the countryside; lovely ladies do not pop up out of sardine cans; giant eggplants don't dominate rural landscapes; birds with women's legs don't scamper along beaches; and assorted nudes, elegant gentlemen, strange beasts, and fantastic birds don't promenade in beautiful, open parks. But in Wilde's world they do.
The quality of his work is such that close to 70 of his paintings and drawings now belong to museums, and more than 800 are owned by private collectors.
``I have always loved to draw and paint,'' he asserts, ``ever since junior high school in Milwaukee. I was particularly fond of drawing imaginary cities, which I then erased and re-created. Now I concentrate more on the little things -- a tiny skull, a piece of fungus or bark that Shirley or I find in the woods or by the pond. I also enjoy depicting the vegetables and fruit we grow, the birds and animals we see or I imagine. And then, there are always the figure studies, nudes, and exotic, fanciful things that have always engaged me.
``I also like doing self-portraits. I must have done close to a hundred by now. The definitive one, however, may well be ``The Great Autobiographical Silverpoint Drawing,'' which I finished in 1984 and which is now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. It shows me standing in front of the many people -- historical and contemporary -- who inspired me and enriched my life. It is 90 inches wide, and someone said it must be the biggest silverpoint drawing ever made. I don't know about that, but I do know it is an important document of my life and work.''
Our conversation is interrupted for lunch, served on the porch to the accompaniment of a parrot's scoldings (which stop abruptly when a cloth is placed over its cage), and the sounds of a wren inside a birdhouse. Lunch is followed by a tour of the house, beginning with the large living room complete with fireplace, and ending in Wilde's studio. Most remarkable are the hundreds of paintings, drawings, photographs, and found objects that fill every room. Most of the objects are small, and almost all the pictures are by Wilde or his friends.
The studio, a small room at the far end of the house, includes a work area in one corner, the usual studio paraphernalia, a number of posters and exhibition announcements, and a few drawings. A display case holds tiny found objects. Off to one side, several recent paintings are spread out awaiting their frames. Neither the oils nor the drawings take up much space, but then Wilde has been known to carry an entire year's work under one arm. Free-spirited and `modern'
``The studio is not large, but it's all I need,'' he says, checking a panel to see how it has dried. ``When I began teaching at the university in 1948, they let me have a corner of a classroom as my very own, and I did a great deal of my work there -- even, at times, when the room was filled with students. Now, of course, I have everything exactly as I want it. I am here, either drawing or painting, every morning until 12:30, seven days a week. The afternoons are spent in the garden or on other chores. And I never work at night.''
Nothing proves Wilde's seriousness as both craftsman and creator more conclusively than the thoroughness with which he approaches every step of the painting process, from the preparation of the small birch laminated plywood panels on which he works to the final glazing, varnishing, and framing. Even the underdrawing, which he considers the ``skeleton'' of a painting, is a complete pictorial statement.
His technical and stylistic approach, while grounded in the painting traditions of 15th- and 16th-century Europe, actually permits him freedom to pursue whatever fancies or ideas cross his mind. His paintings and drawings may look like something of which Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) or Hans Memling (1433-94) would approve, but the best of them are every bit as free-spirited and alive and ``modern'' as the works of his modernist contemporaries.
``I don't understand this passion for the `newest,' the most `advanced'!'' he exclaims. ``Art isn't a circus, continually demanding new acts, and neither is it a science, advancing from one dramatic discovery to another. Art states that things don't change, that genuine creativity is as much a matter of reverence and refinement as of invention and innovation.
``It also tells us that the world is infinitely lovely and beautiful -- brief though our experience of it may be -- and that art is one of the truest and best ways we have of understanding and enjoying it.''
Wilde's enjoyment of the world and of the life he leads shows in his demeanor -- in the manner in which he manages to look both dignified and rakish -- and in his pride in his home and land.
The five grown children he and Shirley have between them from previous marriages are long gone, but contact with them is warm and fairly frequent. And Banjo, his corgi, even more than his two other dogs and the two cats, is the apple of his eye.
The Wildes' life here on their 15-acre retreat deep in the heart of Wisconsin farming country is profoundly private. It's a life in which the little things matter, in which the hatching of baby wrens and the furtive appearances of furry wild creatures are occasions for comment and celebration, and in which objects found underfoot or in the bark of trees are appreciated and preserved.
But perhaps that's putting too romantic a face on things, for it is also a life of routine and hard work. Although retired, Wilde retains the title of emeritus professor of art at the University of Wisconsin -- an honor, he points out, that leaves him with little authority but with a few pleasant perks. And to further keep him on his toes, he will have an exhibition in November at the Schmidt-Bingham Gallery in New York.
In addition, there's a chance he and Shirley may be able to add a few more acres to their property -- which would mean more digging and planting. And then there's the pond that needs to be dredged and the ravine to be cleared of underbrush. Formidable tasks, each and every one -- not the least for an artist known for his exquisitely subtle drawings and his delightfully fanciful oils.