Trust Magazine

When Art Is a ‘Necessity’

Philadelphia artist Wilmer Wilson IV discusses why art must have ‘contact with the everyday.’

In this Issue:

  • Summer 2020
  • The Impact of the Coronavirus
  • The Art of Science
  • Focusing on Facts
  • Planning, Preparation, and Purpose
  • Seagrasses are Vital to Ocean Health
  • A History of Progress and Results
  • Noteworthy
  • Did That Drone Just Tell Us to Stay 6 Feet Apart?
  • New Reforms for Over-the-Counter Drugs
  • 15 Facts About Oysters and the Need to Protect Them
  • Informing Public Debate
  • When Art Is a 'Necessity'
  • Will the COVID-19 Pandemic Reverse Philadelphia's Progress?
  • Return on Investment
  • 10 Points About Race and Policing in the U.S.
  • View All Other Issues
When Art Is a ‘Necessity’

Visual artist Wilmer Wilson IV works across mediums, including performance, sculpture, collage, video, photography, and installation, to explore the nature and social value of ephemera and bodily presence in public spaces. Appropriating everyday objects that constitute, in his words, “the marginal shadows of collective life’s grand narratives,” Wilson works with materials such as paper bags, staples, stickers, postage stamps, and discarded lottery tickets. Based in Philadelphia, he was named a Pew arts fellow in 2017, and his work has been presented at the National Portrait Gallery; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Barnes Foundation; and other notable venues. This interview was conducted with the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

Courtesy of the artist

How did you become an artist? Is there a particular experience that drove you to this choice?

Art came to me at a time when other modes of communication had failed me. It gave me permission to do gestures that might be able to hold the contradictions of embodied experience. I had casually made art here and there before, but it wasn’t until I took a photography class in high school that I was able to understand its usefulness, and that happened almost instantly. It really felt like a necessity to make art, rather than a choice, and it still does.

What is your daily art-making routine?

I organize my routines by week more so than by day. I am not very good at multitasking, so having long blocks of time is the only way I can productively engage with a particular thing. I will do a full week of reading, or spend a week in the studio, or take a week to synthesize thoughts into language, or take a week to have conversations with friends and strangers. Perhaps the one consistent routine is walking, around the city or elsewhere. It’s a time when I can let things process internally and also take in things happening outside of my controlled space that couldn’t be imagined or anticipated. It helps me get out of my own ruts of thought.

"The most exciting, urgent, and relevant works are the ones that can be on the fence about what they are—maybe they’re art, maybe they’re not."

Your work often engages with bodies and objects in public places. How do you think about your work, and the viewer’s experience of it, in public spaces versus in a gallery/museum setting?

I think art, which includes its historical institutions, is a useful framework for generating gestures that diverge from everyday patterns of being. But I feel strongly that in order to retain any destabilizing social potential, art then has to re-establish contact with the everyday. The most exciting, urgent, and relevant works are the ones that can be on the fence about what they are—maybe they’re art, maybe they’re not. Outside of art institutions, it is easier to access the moments, however short, where a work of art is not perceived as such. How else might such gestures be used or interpreted, beyond being art?

Wilmer Wilson IV’s iconic large-scale photographic prints, made with staples and ink on paper (above and below), as well as a billboard-style installation comprise “Slim … you don’t got the juice,” the artist’s first solo exhibition in Manhattan showcased at the Susan Inglett Gallery.
Courtesy of Susan Inglett Gallery

What images or things keep you company in the space where you work?

I don’t like to valorize the spaces in which I work, because I want to stay flexible and disciplined enough to continue working even in places or times that don’t seem ideal. I will say that I enjoy being surrounded by the right amount of clutter. Both my cleaner workspace and my studio are basically filled with publications, paper, prints, tools, wood, fabric, salt blocks, dishwashing racks.

Wilmer Wilson IV
Courtesy of Susan Inglett Gallery

What was the first work of art that really mattered to you? Did it influence your approach to your work?

My mom, Holly Seon-Wilson, has consistently made and shown work for as far back as I can remember. During my childhood, she employed a spare compositional sensibility and an unusual application of watercolor on canvas to interpret the performances of her favorite jazz musicians. We would always have a good laugh when the occasional viewer would see her work and indignantly walk away remarking, “My kid could do that!” Some people just couldn’t make sense of the abstracted ways she painted her figures. Being immersed in her innovative style growing up, I never acquired the belief that the most literal representational modes inherently created a richer or more objective experience of their subjects than those that were less direct. This mistrust of icons is one of the animating tensions in my work.

Spotlight on Mental Health

Trust Magazine
Trust Magazine
Trust Magazine

In Philadelphia, a Wellspring for Artistic Creativity

Quick View
Trust Magazine
Trust Magazine

How Ken Lum Became an Artist and What Motivates Him Most

Quick View
Trust Magazine

Philadelphia visual artist Ken Lum, who works in a variety of media from painting and sculpture to photography, was selected as a Pew art fellow in 2018.


Ken Burns: 'America's Storyteller' on His Creative Process

Quick View

Ken Burns is known for his expansive documentaries on American history and culture. With 33 documentary films to his name, what is the secret to his creative process? We travel to the New Hampshire barn where he works for a conversation about how he tells old stories in a new way and what inspires him to create.


Will the COVID-19 Pandemic Reverse Philadelphia's Progress? Informing Public Debate
Composite image of modern city network communication concept

Learn the Basics of Broadband from Our Limited Series

Sign up for our four-week email course on Broadband Basics

Quick View

How does broadband internet reach our homes, phones, and tablets? What kind of infrastructure connects us all together? What are the major barriers to broadband access for American communities?

Pills illustration
Pills illustration

What Is Antibiotic Resistance—and How Can We Fight It?

Sign up for our four-week email series The Race Against Resistance.

Quick View

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs,” are a major threat to modern medicine. But how does resistance work, and what can we do to slow the spread? Read personal stories, expert accounts, and more for the answers to those questions in our four-week email series: Slowing Superbugs.

Explore Pew’s new and improved
Fiscal 50 interactive

Your state's stats are more accessible than ever with our new and improved Fiscal 50 interactive:

  • Maps, trends, and customizable charts
  • 50-state rankings
  • Analysis of what it all means
  • Shareable graphics and downloadable data
  • Proven fiscal policy strategies


Welcome to the new Fiscal 50

Key changes include:

  • State pages that help you keep track of trends in your home state and provide national and regional context.
  • Interactive indicator pages with highly customizable and shareable data visualizations.
  • A Budget Threads feature that offers Pew’s read on the latest state fiscal news.

Learn more about the new and improved Fiscal 50.