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Detroit artist tells his mother’s story in black and white at first solo exhibition

It's funny how the smallest details about someone we love can stay with us.

For example: a scent. Any whiff of Shalimar instantly makes host Cynthia Canty think of her great-Aunt Verne because it was her signature perfume.

For artist Carl Wilson, it's the memory of the chewing gum his mother always had in her purse — and that led to the title for his first solo museum exhibition.

“Carl Wilson: Her Purse Smelled Like Juicyfruit and Other Tales” ran through March 11 at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Wilson's linocut prints and writing tell the life story of his mother.

This Detroit artist is a former autoworker. He's received a Kresge Artist Fellowship, and he's been an artist-in-residence at the famed Yaddo artist community in Saratoga Springs, New York.

He joined Stateside to talk about his work and life story.

Listen above for the full conversation or check out highlights below.

On his relationship with his mother

“I can only tell you a very little about my mom. She was so secretive, I just gave up early. I would ask her questions like, one of the first things I can remember is, ‘Hey, Mom, how old are you?’ And she would glance around the room to see if there was anybody there, and she’d say, ‘Can you keep a secret?’ and I’d say, ‘Yeah, sure I can.’ She’d look around again and say, ‘I can too.’”

“Mom and I never talked a lot, never did. But when I got the call she was in the hospital, she’d had a massive heart attack — in fact a series of them — and that she wasn’t going to make it, I should come to the hospital. So, I rush to the hospital.... And Mom was very uncomfortable — really uncomfortable, really squirming. She was in tremendous pain from these heart attacks and I was determined I’m not going to well up right now. I went over to her, and I held her, and she looked at me and said ‘I love you, son.’ She’d never told me that my entire life, and I told her I loved her too, and then she passed.”

On his motivation

“There are too many people that go through life thinking, ‘I’m inconsequential. I don’t matter.’ We all have something to say. My artwork is about telling other people’s stories. Now, this time, I guess I told my story, but it’s really [my mother’s] story. But we need to listen to each other. We need to notice what we all feel and care about that. More than ever, people have just turned off our fellow human. We’re so insensitive to what happens to our fellow human and that is the cruelest thing you can imagine.”

“These unheard voices need to be heard, and it’s my humble mission to try to do this.”

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

*Stateside originally aired this story on Nov. 22, 2017.

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