Oriental intrigue: Chris Wilson embraces Sumi-e style late in career, with bold, pleasing results

Chris Wilson poses with one of her exhibits in the current Sumi-e show at Sherburne County Government Center. (Photo by Bruce Strand)
Chris Wilson poses with one of her exhibits in the current Sumi-e show at Sherburne County Government Center. (Photo by Bruce Strand)


by Bruce Strand, Arts editor

Lifelong artist Chris Wilson of Otsego was in her 50’s when she discovered the ancient style of Sumi-e that’s she’s made her own for the past 15 years or so.

Art buffs at local shows who find themselves captivated by an Oriental-style depiction of a cat or rooster or sand crane, with broad, simple ink strokes, on thin paper mounted on a scroll, are probably looking at a Wilson piece.

“It’s not really painting; it’s really drawing with a brush,” said Wilson, whose main tools are a 4 inch large flat “flogger” normally used in theaters to paint sets, and a 2.5bgiant, round, pointed brush.

"Cat Dancing" was a popular entrant at the state fair.
“Cat Dancing” was a popular entrant at the state fair.

The current show at Sherburne County Government Center features Sumi-e artists, including Wilson, who is the only local member, from the Minnesota Ming Chiao Chapter of the Sumi-e Society of America. (Web site mingchiaosumie.org).

One thing cool about Sumi-e, she says, is that you can work big but easily transport your paintings by just rolling them up. “I never liked doing frames anyway,” said Wilson, who currently works mainly 2-by-4 feet, but has done paintings as big as 5-by-10, and once did a 6-by-7 curtain for double-doors for a college.

A Chris Wilson rendition of a rooster
A Chris Wilson rendition of a rooster

They are also so weather-resistant that Wilson hung a bunch of them on the side of her old barn rather than paint the wall. She ran one through a washing machine first to see how it held up.

Asked how to pronounce Sumi-e, by the way, Wilson said you should pretend you’re a Canadian who needs a lawyer: “You’re going to sue me, eh?”

Of the hundreds of Sumi-e paintings she’s made, one of her favorites is “Dancing Cat,” an 18-by-24 piece that she dashed off just on some thin toilet-paper-like material because she had some paint left from another project.

The spontaneity of that creation made for an appealing visual. She got into the State Fair Fine Arts show with Dancing Cat, and because she liked it so much, she over-priced it for $800 to make sure nobody would buy it. Instead, she reports, eight different people wanted to buy it. She made prints for herself and sold it to a gentleman from Little Falls.

Wilson models one of her "wearable" creations.
Wilson models one of her “wearable” creations.

Another State Fair entrant that proved quite popular was a giant rooster that a New Prague man purchased for display in his restaurant.

Wilson said she was visiting New Orleans with her mother about 15 years ago when she found Sumi-e at an exhibit there, and was hooked.

“The museum scrolls struck me as a really smart way to paint large scale,” she said.

The 2000 year-old art form is spiritually rooted in Zen Buddhism. Sumi-e’s earliest practitioners were highly disciplined monks trained in the art of concentration, clarity, and simplicity. A primary object is to capture the essence of the subject in the fewest possible strokes.

A little sumi-e drawing of a cat was dashed off by Wilson.
A little sumi-e drawing of a cat was dashed off by Wilson.

The classic style is ink painting with bold, clean strokes on rice-based paper. Wilson prefers to work on tyzek, a Dupont product that’s used under exterior siding on buildings and also to wrap items (including art work) for shipping. She also throws in some transparent wash color.

Along with cats, birds are another favorite subject for Wilson, who’s a member of the Audubon Society. One of her favorite memories was a recent summer day on her land when, while was sitting in some wildflowers, two sand cranes strolled right past her, taking no notice she was there. “That was just stunning,” said Wilson, who has made several sand crane paintings.

Wilson, 66, grew up in northeast Minneapolis and attended a Catholic school, St. Margaret’s. Her dad, a tool designer and engineer for Honeywell, bought a 160-acre farm in Otsego in 1965 so he could retire early from Honeywell and do freelance work.

That farm is where Wilson lives with her longtime partner Gene Olson, a large-scale sculptor whom the Star News profiled in 2012. They live on the last 35 acres; the rest has been sold off. She’s done some projects in tandem with Olson, such as a stained glass window facsimile for Gustavus Adolphus for which Olson made the frame.

From early childhood there was never a question for Wilson what she would do with her life, largely because her mother was such a fan of her art work.

Birds are a favorite subject of Chris Wilson, who's an Audubon Society member.  Note the bold, simple strokes of this art form.
Birds are a favorite subject of Chris Wilson, who’s an Audubon Society member. Note the bold, simple strokes of this art form.

“My mother would put my things up all the time, and not just on the refrigerator,” said Wilson. “We had a hallway that was sort of my gallery and she would always show it to visitors.”

She did the typical kids stuff with pencils, crayons and water-color sets on newsprint. She recalls one drawing of a road and trees, complete with the vanishing point, made in kindergarten, which showed she had the knack for art.

In high school, when Chris told her dad she wanted to be an artist, he expounded that she better get a teaching degree to fall back on. Wilson attended the University of Minnesota as an art education major.

Her first job was a rough one, teaching art to a small group of delinquent boys at Bar None Boys Ranch in St. Francis. She was looking for a way out of that gig when she heard about an Australian group was interviewing for teachers at the U of M.

Wilson wound up teaching art in Eden, New South Wales, a small town on the Pacific Ocean, for four years. That was a more pleasant experience.

More "wearable" sculptures by Chris Wilson
More “wearable” sculptures by Chris Wilson

However, she came home when her dad died of a tumor, and decided to stay on the farm with her mom, and work as a substitute teacher while selling what art she could. That’s been her livelihood ever since.

Over the years Wilson has learned sweet grass basket making, book binding,  paper making, welding and blacksmithing, all in spirit of  trying new things as an artist. “I do a lot of dabbling,” said Wilson.

Along with Sumi-e, she is known for  intriguing little sculptures, including one on a necklace that’s her signature work and regularly hangs around her neck (see photo). These primarily involve lost-wax casting or metal fabrication in silver and bronze.

The Sumi-e styling of Wilson and her cohorts can be viewed at the government center through Jan. 17.