In artist Faith Wilson’s enchanting cosmos, chairs wander aloft in space. Silhouetted blackbirds stand solo or in rows, sometimes upside down. It is a world in flux and a heartening one, where bright stars hover and uplifting words glide by—love, joy, be alive. It might be a metaphor for our own topsy-turvy times. In fact, Wilson has been arranging such elements in painted floorcloths for more than two decades.
“My work has always been intimate, expressing my own life experiences or my thoughts,” says the artist, who has spent most of her years in or near Chestertown, Maryland. “I have a romantic vision of the past and the lives we have led. Certain leitmotifs have carried through.”
In her personal lexicon, a simple chair becomes a comforting place to eat, work, talk to others or daydream. Common blackbirds take their cue from Maryland poet Susan Argo, who called them the punks of the bird world. “Having grown up with a punk background in my 20s,” Wilson fondly recalls, “I love that comparison.” Like the swaying grasses and gentle waters in her work, birds signal “our spiritual connection to nature,” she notes, adding, “All of these images are almost waking dreams, transitions between here and there.”
It may seem a paradox that the artist’s universe of wistful reverie inhabits humble floorcloths—utilitarian and highly durable coverings intended to be walked on. Yet that practical blend demonstrates the importance she places on handcraft in our lives. “Your grandmother’s quilt or a bowl someone carved aren’t just objects, they’re objects with meaning. Someone touched them,” explains the self-taught artist. “I’m trying to make something functional and interesting. You can’t
help but put yourself into that.”
Wilson’s intuitive style is grounded in her early years. Raised in Latin America and California, she was surrounded by art. Her father, Lex Wilson, an abstract-expressionist painter, was also a potter and photographer. Her mother, Katherine, a docent at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, collected paintings mostly by contemporary Latin American artists.
After graduating from high school at 16, Faith Wilson was presented with two choices: go to college or get a job. “I wanted to think of a third alternative—that turned out to be weaving tapestry. I fell in love with the materials,” she remembers. Hitchhiking around Europe and in Central America, she gravitated to places where weaving was happening. When she returned to the U.S. in 1975, Wilson decided to join her sister, who was living in Chestertown. As it turned out, that sibling, Marilee Schumann, became a potter and sculptor. Both now show their art at Create Gallery in Chestertown. In recent years, Wilson also has exhibited at the Philadelphia and Smithsonian craft shows.
Along the way, the artist worked with mixed media on wall pieces. She transitioned to making floorcloths almost by chance. While married to a decorative painter, she recalls, “I learned a lot of decorative techniques and started experimenting with materials we had on hand. My first pieces were actually painted drop cloths.”
Wilson still applies those same techniques, which bring depth of color and nuanced pattern to each one-of-a-kind piece. To start, she stretches heavy canvas over plywood and covers both sides with a base coat of paint. Several layers of color mixed with translucent glazes are brushed on. Typically, five layers are built up and then partially removed with rags, folded paper or possibly the artist’s own hands. “That process is always fun and interesting,” says Wilson, who may place images on a subsurface, meant “to be barely seen, to be subconscious.”
In addition, she sometimes paints circles freehand, or stencils on moons, grasses or words. “I make all the stencils myself, so I can repeat the motifs and have a clean-edged look,” she says, observing that the words are less about their meaning than that she finds text “visually beautiful.” Her newest floorcloths introduce bold color fields that revisit her early appreciation for the paintings of post-World War II artists, especially Mark Rothko and Jasper Johns.
“Part of the satisfaction in making floorcloths,” Wilson says, is “they really can transform a space.” One recent commission proves the point. That large piece, designed for the dining room of Haitian-art collectors living in Charlottesville, references work by developing-world artists as well as her own motifs—from its central emblem, inspired by a Haitian bowl, to its checkerboard border of marching birds.
Asked how she felt about covering up that charming artwork with furniture, Wilson responds without hesitation: “That’s what it’s all about. Go ahead and put your table and chairs on it.” Calling floorcloths “one of the really true American crafts,” she describes how in Colonial times in Chestertown, floorcloths were made from the canvases of leftover sails, to replace expensive rugs imported from Europe. “At the end of the day, what gives our lives and our homes meaning?” the artist ponders. “I want to make something beautiful. I want to make something original. And I want to make something useful.”
Faith Wilson’s floorcloths are available at Create Gallery in Chestertown (createartcraftdesign.com) and through her website: faithwilsonart.com.