Devlin Wilson Paints Darkness Into Light

In bars, atmosphere is created by lighting, or lack of lighting. The glow of the jukebox, video games, bar lamps, and neon signs breaks up the darkness, illuminates faces and splashes shadows on walls. Artist Devlin Wilson is known for using blackgrounds to set up vibrant colors on his canvas, a technique absorbed by growing up in the bars of Mobile where his dad spent most of his time. Wilson calls himself an impressionistic expressionist, using the contrast of shadows and darkness to accentuate the light.

Wilson knew he wanted to be an artist from the time he could hold a crayon.  “Art is all that I have wanted to do since I was five years old,” he says. “Riding to Dauphin Way Baptist Day Care, I thought about how to convey the beauty of the houses, the bay, ancient oak trees, and sun-dappled light.”

Living close to Mobile Bay is the only inspiration Wilson needs. “I want each painting to look like it was done with the exuberance of seeing something for the first time,” he says. “…The moment of being so impressed with the lights on the oak trees on Government Street that I just had to stop the car and paint it right then.  I want people to see why I wanted to paint it too.”

Wilson’s art is rooted in his family and his memories and he paints what he lives. “It was shaped by cleaning pool tables and pinball machines in the Blue Jay Lounge, Quarter Note, and Jack of Diamonds, living close to Wragg Swamp with ditches filled with crawfish, snakes, and rats, sitting on the roof of Springdale Mall and watching fireworks on the 4th of July,” says Wilson. “I spent wild nights at Ft. Morgan, surfed on 2-foot waves off Dauphin Island and raced Hobie Cats with my mom,” he says. “I love this place so much that I was once a docent at the Mobile Museum of History.”

“Devlin knows Mobile and has explored so many aspects of this town,” says Charlie Smoke, associate director of the Mobile Arts Council. “People respond to the familiarity and looseness and freedom of his style.” TSR Devlin Wilson 06.2014-4643-L

Creating images on paper and canvass was passed down from his grandfather and father. His father dreamed of being a professional artist, but he painted houses, worked odd jobs, took pictures, and drew on napkins in bars. “Dad sold the napkins for drinks, but people kept the napkins and collected them,” says Wilson. “He died of lung cancer when he was 60 years old, and it breaks my heart to think of his unfulfilled dreams. He is now a part of my art because I paint pieces from the photographs he took. I am using his art to fulfill his dreams.”

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The early death of his father pushed Wilson into pursuing his own artistic dreams. The two worked together at Denny Manufacturing–Wilson painted backdrops and his father made wood props. “After dad died, I quit working there to make it or break it as an artist,” says Wilson, “It was a time to reevaluate myself and my life. If you know how blessed you are to recognize your talents, then why aren’t you using them? How could I make my mark with what I can do? I realized my dad spent so much time wishing. I was 35 years old, but wishing and doing the same things. I decided I wanted to make a name for myself at that age.”

Voted “Best Local Artist” three times for the Lagniappe Nappy awards, Wilson’s art career started with painting portraits of neighbor’s houses and scenes from Brown Bag Concerts and Market on the Square in Bienville Square. He bartended at Guidos Restaurant and put his paintings up there and other restaurants around Mobile. Today his murals are on the walls at Veet’s Bar and Grill, Mudbugs, and Mobile Regional Airport.

“Devlin painted a portrait of my father for the mural at Veet’s and he captured my dad and what was important to him. Devlin said it was also a tribute to his own father because our dads were good friends,” says Gina Jo Previto, owner/manager of Veet’s. “Art and music are the heartbeats of Mobile and I have fallen in love with Mobile all over again by seeing Devlin’s paintings around town. He captures the feeling of life in Mobile and he is always supportive of what is happening here.”

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Wearing a fedora hat over hair pulled back in a short ponytail, Wilson paints quickly and attempts to solve the problems he sets up in a painting, unconcerned about mistakes because the black paint is his eraser. “Art is solving the problems of the medium,” says Wilson. “It is isolating light, having good perspective, and realistically drawing 3-dimensional things on a 2-dimensional plane. If something gets out of place, or the perspective or tonal values aren’t right, I put black paint on it and try again.”

Wilson’s technique of covering the whole canvass with black paint came from his dad’s collection of velvet Elvis paintings and matadors. “I like the graphic nature of the blackground and it connects every piece to the others,” says Wilson. “I then use complimentary colors on the color wheel that make sense to the mind.”

His acrylic paintings of houses, shrimp boats, Mardi Gras, musicians, or the bay are usually completed within three hours and every stroke he makes sets up the end. “I look at these paintings as Crayola scribbles with paint and a pallet knife,” he says. “I am faithful to composition and I take a picture to identify the best composition and draw it in to sight it. I use a piece of chalk to free hand the drawings with a few quick notation marks and fill in the details at the end. I trust my eyes and hands to paint loosely enough that it looks like it was done easily in one sitting. It is a quick impression.”

Wilson often paints in public or teaches art in front of a class and these are his time to take risks. “I love painting in front of people or having people watch while I paint,” he says.  “It makes me think on my feet and I can’t overthink it. Overthinking is the death of painting. I want my paintings to be effortless, to look like I am having fun and experiencing it right now. Here is a memory and a reminder of this moment we shared together.”

His Victorian cottage in Mobile’s Lienkouf Historic District is a domestic studio filled with paintbrushes, golf bags (he was named after golfer Bruce Devlin), guitars, a collection of fedoras on the armoire in the hall, his wood carvings and creations such as a toilet paper holder out of his grandfather’s golf club. The walls are covered in paintings of Atmore Indians, musicians, and family photographs. “I don’t dream at night because if I do, I don’t remember any of it,” says Wilson. “They must be just trash dreams because I do all of my dreaming during the daytime. I constantly daydream about what I will make.”

This week Wilson is opening a new studio with jewelry maker Shelly Ingersoll at 505 St. Louis Street in downtown Mobile (he left Portal Studio several months ago). “There is no job security in this career,” says Wilson “I am only as good as the next canvass I make and only worth what I sold the last painting.”

“Devlin is persistent and always ready to try something new that benefits the community,” says Smoke. “He has the courage to step up and be a pioneer. This new gallery will help enlarge the arts district.”

“I want to help create an atmosphere that encourages an art market downtown,” says Wilson. “I am in love with Mobile and I am in love with what I do. I want to be synonymous with Mobile and be known as the one who stuck around. I hope my paintings survive me and are still hanging on walls after I am gone.”

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Photographs by Michelle Stancil