TROY — Equine and landscape artist Ken Wilson has a knack for making a scene come to life.
Whether it’s a chilly winter’s day in Brunswick or the powerful profile of a commanding thoroughbred, his work transports the viewer.
More than 20 of his paintings are on display at Pause Gallery in Troy in a show called “Earth and Shadow.” Some of his paintings are also featured at Clement Frame Shop and Art Gallery in Troy.
He works in a variety of styles; some paintings are strictly representational, while others come from a more abstract perspective. Much of his work is done plein air, and he says he’s one of very few African American plein air artists in the country, as well as the first African American artist to paint and retail equine art at a major race track in the United States, namely at the Saratoga Race Course.
While he’s been a full-time artist since 2013, when he first set up a boutique at the track, art has always been a part of his life. Growing up in Albany’s Arbor Hill, he remembers drawing all through grade school.
“I was always intriguing my teachers with the level of skill I had for that age and I just developed from there. I had a kindergarten teacher that really encouraged me,” Wilson said.
Throughout grade school, he checked out books from the school library about the works of masters like Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci and he remembers teaching himself to draw using their works.
In his teens, he got into oil painting and, though he spent the last few decades working for the New York State Police and then in the corporate world, he continued to paint.
Wilson said it gives him “the peace and catharsis of just getting out there and creating something.” There’s certainly a sense of peace in “Hour Before Sunset,” a verdant work on view at Pause Gallery. It features a lush green tree-dotted landscape, with a winding path through the center. Nearby is “Rolling Front,” an impasto work with a heavily textured sky bursting with clouds hovering over the vibrant green landscape beneath.
While landscapes are the focus of the Pause Gallery show, it does feature one equine work. “Morning Gallop” shows a foal doing its best to keep up with the horse next to it.
“I’ve always been intrigued by horses and horse physiology. Just the majestic beauty and power of horses, in particular, racehorses because they’re true athletes, the way they train,” Wilson said.
During racing season, when his boutique is open, he often goes to the track at first light to sketch the horses.
“Horses are like dogs, they know when someone is kind and someone is a human they can trust,” Wilson said. “. . . horses that would give other people a hard time, they’d just come over and put their head right on my shoulder and I would talk to them and pet them.”
His favorite to depict has been California Chrome, who was named the 2014 and 2016 horse of the years. One of his portraits of the thoroughbred is now in the collection of a Queensland, Australia collector.
Unfortunately, because of the coronavirus pandemic, he couldn’t return to the track last season.
It was also tough last summer to find places to exhibit since so many galleries were temporarily closed. While exhibit spaces have since opened up, he still faces a different kind of challenge.
“There are very few Black plein air painters in the United States. It’s very rare . . . [I’m] having to be more conscious now, with everything that’s going on in this nation politically with all the unrest, of me going out to a remote location by myself as a Black man and be out there painting,” Wilson said.
Two years ago, he remembers police were called on him twice for plein air painting in Galway.
“It’s obvious what I’m doing. I’m not broken down on the side of the road, I’m there I’ve got my van, and I’ve got my easel set up. I’m painting a picture. But going out there now … all it would take is for that one person to come by or see me there and see me as a target,” Wilson said.
Aim is to help kids
Nevertheless, he continues to work in plein air around the greater Capital Region, Vermont and beyond. In the future, he hopes to give kids living in urban areas the opportunity to paint plein air as well.
“I’m a kid that grew up on Arbor Hill, I grew up on Second Street in Albany and if I had just locked myself into my environment then I would have done just that very parochial thing where you only paint what you know,” Wilson said.
Working with a corporate sponsor, he’d like to invite students who are interested in art to landscapes like June Farms in West Sand Lake, somewhere they could set up their easels and paint what they see.
“Just try to open their eyes to art and that there’s a big world outside of that which they live and it gets them in nature and out of that environment for a little bit,” Wilson said.
“Earth and Shadow” is on view through February at Pause Gallery located at 501 Broadway #106, Troy. For more information visit pausegallery.com.