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The Artists’ Advocate: The Legacy of Ellen Wilt

Editor’s Note: In tribute to Ellen Wilt, we are sharing an interview from 2019 with permission from her family. This personal portrait highlights her journey as an artist and her passion for supporting new artists and their work. It also shows the early roots of Envision: The Michigan Artist Initiative that Wilt championed to support the work of emerging artists. Wilt passed away on March 25, 2020, at the age of 98

At the center of a sunlit room at the back of Ellen Wilt’s Ann Arbor home is a large table strewn with paints, colored pencils, and paper, while intricate charcoal prints of two-dimensional watercolor works in progress adorn the walls. Wilt is extremely uncomfortable being the center of attention. Yet she’s been singled out for her artistic creations ever since she was chosen among her kindergarten classmates to do a turkey drawing on the chalkboard with colored chalk. Now 98 and limited only by slightly decreasing eyesight, she’s still creating while providing a new opportunity for emerging Michigan artists to showcase their work.

Artist Ellen Wilt stands in front of her work in her home
Ellen Wilt in 2019

Wilt was more at ease having her husband take center stage. Richard Wilt was a professor at the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design from 1949 to 1978. He passed away in 1981 at the age of 66. The two met in 1941 when Richard, five years her senior, was her instructor at a summer art school in Pennsylvania. We had great arguments about color,” she said. They were married two years later.

During the early part of their marriage, Wilt supported her husband’s work instead of her own. I really concentrated on Dick’s things. I never pushed myself, but I never wanted to,” Wilt said. However, she had a home art studio where she created her own art alongside her husband. Although she never attempted to sell her art or seek recognition, she won numerous awards. People think I came into my own after he died, but that is not true,” she said.

At the age of 50, she went back to school to take art classes. She initially started at Wayne State University but then asked her husband if she could finish her degree at the University of Michigan. I said, Dear Dick, do you mind if I enroll in your art school?’ ” She thought he’d reject that idea but recalls instead that he said, Go for it.” Wilt graduated and went on to teach art at Eastern Michigan University from 1969 to 1985.

Wilt has organized creative moments and exhibitions for the community throughout her life. In 2002, she and 197 of her artistic colleagues participated in an exhibition held at The Michigan Guild Gallery called A Room Of Your Own.” Wilt got the inspiration for the idea from Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own,” a pivotal work of feminist literature articulating the need for a woman’s independence and personal creative space. The artists created their own rooms” in cardboard boxes. In 2006, she spearheaded an exhibit called Adam and Eve,” held at the Riverside Arts Center in Ypsilanti and the Holland Area Arts Council in Holland. Exhibitors created their visions of Adam and Eve in a nine by 12-inch vertical format. 

In 2018, Gunalan Nadarajan, Dean of The Stamps School of Art & Design, and Srimoyee Mitra, Stamps Gallery Director, approached Wilt about an exhibition at the Stamps Gallery celebrating 50 years of her work as an artist. My instinct is to hide,” she said, feeling unworthy of being showcased at the gallery but eventually agreed. When you’re 97, and somebody says let’s show your work,’ you think that would be sort of interesting,” she said. Mitra, the curator of the Wilt exhibit, found undiscovered treasures, including over 100 works of two-dimensional drawings and paintings. The experience exceeded Wilt’s expectations, and she remarked, The most wonderful thing about having a show there was people told me that they went back two and three times.”

Ellen and Robin Wilt at the opening reception for Ellen's 2018 solo exhibition, Materials on Hand.
Emily and Robin Wilt at the reception for Materials on Hand: the Art of Ellen Wilt. Photo by Katherine Raymond.

Realizing the impact of that exposure, Wilt approached Dean Nadarajan with an idea to showcase emerging artists. The project is called Envision: The Michigan Artist Initiative” and will debut with a call for work in March 2020.

Wilt hopes that Envision will help provide a financial boost to artists by giving them a visible platform. As someone very active in the local art scene who has juried numerous art shows, Wilt continually saw artists creating extraordinary work who never received recognition over many years. Having heard the disappointment from these artists about the state of their lives, she felt it was terribly important” to feature some of them — including older artists. I found out how hungry people are to express themselves and how good they are. There are so many artists in Michigan that are excellent and need to be recognized.”

Wilt says the show will feature Michigan artists in a way never previously done before in the state. The idea is to give individual Michigan artists a chance to soar and enlist them to enter,” she said. There is no entry fee. Each entrant will be asked to submit sample images of artwork. A jury will select four to five artists to exhibit their work, and the winner will receive $5,000. It’s going to be great for the artists. They’re going to be so excited about this,” she said. She expects it will also help to make Ann Arbor an even greater draw within the arts scene. It’s just thrilling to have it actually happen at the end of my life,” she added.

In an archival photograph, Ellen Wilt builds a wood assemblage in a studio.

Wilt has every intention of continuing with her art, her drawing abilities firmly intact, unencumbered by her advancing years. She’s constantly thinking about ideas for projects for herself and friends who are artists. I can’t turn it off. It’s always going. I haven’t stopped yet.”