At 24, David Wilson, director of the School of Art, had only just begun thinking like an artist. His investigations began as social interactions both in the environment and buildings slated for demolition by “setting things up and leaving them,” potentially for others to happen upon them or to disintegrate over time. It was only after picking up an art book that he discovered a context to what he had been creating intuitively.
After an initial misfire at higher education, Wilson re-enrolled part-time in a second chance program at a local community college. He completed his associate degree and transferred to the University of California, San Diego, where he earned both his BA and later his MFA degrees. At UC San Diego, Wilson was mentored by well-recognized artists Allan Kaprow, Italo Scanga, and Manny Farber and focused his activities on video, performance, and installation.
During his master’s thesis project, Wilson began including drawings in his artistic practice. He experimented with projecting miniature drawings onto walls, referencing Persian miniature paintings.
“It was exciting for me to create something really small but then to see it blown up really big,” Wilson said. “I took that motivation and started creating large scale drawings and have continued to work large scale and environmentally.”
Wilson learned carpentry and manual skills and worked as a specialty fabricator for his professors and local artists to pay for his education. He was hired as studio assistant for Farber, a position that continued after graduation.
“I never expected to get a job in academia, and that was part of the reason I learned a lot of skills. If there was ever a job I could learn something in, I would volunteer and try to learn a new skill.”
Nevertheless, he applied to the positions across the county.
“I’d been a graduate teaching assistant for a couple of classes at UC San Diego, but I’d never had my own class like our graduate students do at UT. I really liked working with the students, and being a shy person, it really drew me out. When I was offered the job at UT, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity.”
For his earned teaching sabbaticals, Wilson actively sought and was accepted for artist residencies in Australia, New Zealand, and Switzerland. These were formative experiences for him as both an artist and a teacher.
“I think having that experience away, out of my element, gave me confidence and a belief in my own abilities and a validation in what I was doing, in terms of being accepted as an artist,” Wilson said. “Being on residencies gives you a much wider perspective. It was very exciting and stimulating to be interacting with and learning from artists whose perspective and frame of reference are so very different from your own. To have had those cross-cultural experience that opened me up, I could talk about this with students and provide them with my insights and encourage and help them make the similar connections.”
Wilson has shown his work internationally at Kunsthalle Basel and Kunstlerhaus Boswill Switzerland, the Experimental Art Foundation and Performance Space in Australia, the Robert McDougal Gallery in New Zealand, and the Center for Icelandic Art, Reykjavik. His solo exhibitions in the United States include the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Old Dominion University, Auburn University, the Florida Center for Contemporary Art, and the Dietrich Jenny Gallery.
In addition to active creative research, Wilson served as chair of numerous school committees and as the school’s director of graduate studies. Administrative roles were not what he had aspired to, that was until Wilson was asked to serve as associate director under Dottie Habel in 2009 and later was appointed director following Habel’s retirement in 2016.
In his service as director, Wilson has overseen the establishment of unified graduate studios, the move of the cinema studies program to the School of Art, and the hiring of many invaluable faculty members.
His interest in growing the school’s community relations led to the first School of Art Development Council, a group of committed alumni and friends who serve to promote excellence in art and art history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxvillle. Wilson invited long-time friends Oliver and Sarah Smith to join the council.
“David’s interest in helping the faculty and students is so genuine, so when he asked us to join the council, we couldn’t say no,” Oliver Smith said. “We’ve been lifelong collectors of art and we wanted more people in Knoxville to know about the School of Art and to meet these extraordinary students and faculty.”
After serving a year on the council, the Smiths began to discuss ways to be more involved with the school. The couple decided the announcement of Wilson’s retirement was the right time, and they established the David C. Wilson Community Outreach Endowment.
“At the last council meeting, Sarah and I look and each other and we knew it was the right time to give” Smith said. “It was always our intention to give in David’s name. Chris Cox from the college’s development team helped us to choose an endowment because of its benefit over time and allowing others to donate.”
The endowment focuses on engaging the Knoxville community and providing the students and faculty with opportunities for exposure.
“It was a huge surprise,” Wilson said. “I am so glad to have Oliver and Sarah involved in the School of Art. I appreciate their passion to put students in front of a larger community of people and having that moment where people can start seeing themselves as being active supporters.”
Wilson is succeeded by Christopher McNulty, former department head of art and art history at Auburn University. For more information about the David C. Wilson Community Outreach Endowment and other School of Art funds, visit art.utk.edu/support.