When Jim Richard Wilson was busy running the Opalka Gallery, he promised himself that some time down the road, when he was retired, he would go back into the studio and make art again.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, before he started working at The Sage Colleges in Albany, Wilson was an active artist and showed his drawings and paintings in more than 100 exhibits.
But life’s path is not always straight.
In May 2012, Wilson was diagnosed with advanced cancer at age 60. In March 2013, weakened by chemo and with his life threatened, he retired from Sage.
In November 2012, at a event celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Opalka, Wilson was honored for his 21 years at Sage as an art-history lecturer and director of the Rathbone Gallery and then as founding director of the $3 million Opalka.
As a curator, Wilson is best known for his exhibits on post-World War II American Art and Jewish history and culture.
Several months ago, Wilson starting making art again.
On Friday, during Troy Night Out, his work will be part of a group show opening at Clement Art Gallery, 201 Broadway, Troy. The Opalka’s director emeritus has also been invited to another Troy group exhibit, at Martinez Gallery. That show opens in July.
Before he was at Sage, Wilson worked for the State University of New York as assistant director of university-wide programs in the arts.
Earlier in his career, he was director of the Peter S. Loonam Gallery in Bridgehampton, Long Island, where he worked with prominent artists, including abstract expressionists Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner.
Wilson, who lives in Troy with his wife, Celia Murray, recently talked with The Gazette by phone.
Q: How is the Capital Region doing when it comes to galleries and museums?
A: It’s such a mixed bag. We saw quite an expansion at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century in resources being committed. Now, in the last number of years, we’ve seen a contraction of those resources. On one hand, we had within a few years, the Tang, the Opalka and the Massry all come on line. But we also saw Center Gallery go from 8,000 feet to a tiny little place. It went from having enthusiastic support from the city of Albany to having no support from the city of Albany.
Q: And the art community?
A: Ten years or so ago, pretty much all the gallery and museum directors knew each other. We ran into each other regularly. In recent years, that’s been less the case. In the sense that there really is an art community, it seems much more fragmented.
Q: Why is it fragmented?
A: I don’t know. It’s hard for me to have a perspective on it because I’m one of the old guys now. I’m not in contact with the younger people coming in. It seems like the last blast of enthusiasm to maintain an arts community was the start of First Friday and Troy Night Out and all of that.
Q: How about the artists? The Mohawk-Hudson Regional and Photography Regional continue to draw large numbers of submissions.
A: Yes, and the Regionals have been very strong in recent years. There is a strong community of artists. We have both the artists who have done very well and elected to stay here and the continuing influx of artists.
Q: What gave you the most satisfaction or sense of accomplishment at Sage?
A: There were so many things.
Q: The Jewish history exhibits that started at the Rathbone Gallery?
A: It was the first time we got national attention. For a tiny, humble space with such limited resources, that was extraordinary.
Q: How about the construction and unveiling of the Opalka?
A: To have the Opalka happen was probably the biggest thing. To have that sort of vote of confidence happen, that was really amazing.
Q: And an exhibit that was a major accomplishment?
A: I think the New York School show, because that was a show that I wanted to mount for my entire professional life. We did get Sunday New York Times attention for it. Colleges were regularly sending school buses with students to see the show. It was no longer that Albany was out somewhere in the woods. After that, whenever I needed to borrow something from a New York gallery, it wasn’t a problem.
Q: What has been the impact of the Opalka on Sage and the Capital Region art community?
A: It has drawn more attention and respect for both. For Sage, it exists to enhance the reputation of the institution and it has done that. Because of the quality of the facility and of the exhibitions, it has helped elevate how Albany is thought of. It has helped integrate the college into the community.
Q: Was it your idea to make the Opalka’s Photo Regional an invitational show?
A: Yes, it was my idea. I have a basic problem with a show that is restricted to artists only who are paying to have their work considered. To me, a curated show is a stronger show than a juried show.
Q: Will the Photo Regional continue at the Opalka?
A: The Opalka will remain in the cycle. I don’t know if Elizabeth [Greenberg, the new Opalka director] has decided whether to run it as a juried show or a curated show. It will be up to her how to do it.
Q: How did you get involved in the Jewish history exhibits?
A: It kind of happened initially by accident. The very first one we did was on Emma Goldman. It was either UCLA or UC-Berkeley that put it together and it was touring. And then I think the next one was on the Jewish farming communities. That was from reading the article that Chris Ringwald wrote for The Times Union about that community.
Q: And the exhibit about the Jewish community of Troy?
A: That was very much an intense personal interest. I live in what was the Jewish Quarter of the city. There was no information available about the community. The first book that Don Rittner had put out about Troy, no Jews exist in that book. That really became a personal labor of love. I was finding out about my own neighborhood and really making more visible something that was not visible.
Q: What was the reaction to these shows?
A: They had so much community support. By the time we were in the Opalka, we were borrowing from the New York State Museum. We were showing clothing as well as small artifacts. To this day, some of my favorite installation photos are people pointing things out to each other in those shows.
Q: Early in your gallery career, you worked with big artists like Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner.
A: By the time I met Bill, he was considered the most important painter alive in the world, he and [Jackson] Pollock being the two most important of the abstract impressionists. This would be in the late 1970s and early 80s. He was an artist who could do anything he wanted at that point. But all he cared about was painting.
Q: How about Krasner?
A: She was the only artist that I was afraid to meet. She was known to be difficult. We became fast friends. If you were straight with her, you were fine. She was just a real direct, down-to-earth person.
Q: And the Russian painter Val Telberg?
A: He had a really profound impact on me. Val was the only person that I’ve known who lived through the Russian Revolution. Val grew up in Shanghai in a Russian exile community. He lived the entire 20th century. And he was an avant-garde artist who happened to know the entire pre-war European avant-garde. It was astounding who he knew; he traveled in those circles. He was just a wonderfully alive man.
Q: Did you see the movie “The Monuments Men”?
A: Yes. It was an enjoyable film, but I really enjoyed “The Rape of Europa.” It’s a documentary about basically the same thing. What I enjoyed most about “Monuments Men” was recognizing the artwork. It was a feel-good film. It could have been meatier.
Q: How has your life been since the cancer diagnosis?
A: I was diagnosed with stage four inoperable stomach cancer in May 2012. The best studies gave it a projection of six to 11.7 months. It’s April 2014 and I’m still here.
Q: You did chemotherapy?
A: The cancer was too widespread for any operation to be effective. So the only treatment has been chemo. I was on the most aggressive regimen for about a year and a half, and in January, they switched to a different regimen. I’m basically in chemo until I’m in hospice.
Q: What have you been doing?
A: I get to spend more time with Celia. I frequently attend concerts, classical and jazz. I attend talks and presentations. I do go to see exhibits both in the region and in New York. I’ve read the most I’ve read in years. I have lunch or dinner with friends. We go to the Spectrum to see movies often.
Q: And you traveled to Chicago?
A: When it seemed very possible that I would only have a few months, I decided what was most important to me. Celia and I took the train to Chicago, and spent a week and a half, because my mother’s family is there. I hadn’t been to Chicago in a long time. My earliest memory was waking up on the train in Chicago with my mother and brother.
Q: How did you get back into making art?
A: For the first number of months, it was so long since I made art, it wasn’t on my mind. And then a friend gave me a couple of small sketch pads, some pencils and odds and ends. And finally, this autumn, I got back to making art.
Q: Tell me about your work.
A: It’s mostly drawing. In pencil mostly. And they are abstract. And they are small. I didn’t plan to do anything with them, just make them. But I put one up on Facebook and within a short time, I got an invitation from Clement Gallery in Troy. Then Laudelina Martinez heard I was making art and asked if I would participate in a show this summer. So I’m back to making art and it’s being exhibited.