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In the Literary Kentucky section of the museum’s Cool Kentucky exhibition, there’s a selection of books by and about Kentucky figures stored on Snead Iron Works bookcases. In Frazier Weekly’s Off the Snead Shelves series, staff members spotlight different books from the collection.—Simon Meiners, Communications & Research Specialist

Even though I’m surrounded by stories of amazing Kentuckians every day during my work at the Frazier, I’d never heard the name of Kentucky artist Ellis Wilson until I attended a social studies conference at the Kentucky Historical Society this past summer.

When I looked up some of his paintings afterwards, I was immediately drawn in by his style and choice of subject matter. Born in Mayfield, Graves County, in 1899, Ellis showed talent and determination from a young age. Due to segregation laws, few art schools accepted Black students, but Ellis persisted and eventually landed a position at the Art Institute of Chicago. He moved to New York after completing his degree and became part of the thriving arts community of the Harlem Renaissance—later becoming one of the first African American artists to be awarded a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship.

Wilson’s art has been shown in galleries and museums throughout the country, including in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and even right here in Louisville at the Speed Art Museum.

Jamaican Paysans, painted c. 1950, by Ellis Wilson. On display at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville. Credit: Frazier History Museum.

Kentucky author Jayne Moore Waldrop shares Wilson’s story in her children’s book A Journey in Color. A native of western Kentucky, Waldrop discovered Ellis Wilson and his remarkable work through a retrospective exhibit of his art organized by the curators at the Clara M. Eagle Gallery at Murray State University in 2000. We are excited to incorporate the book, and Wilson’s artwork, into upcoming educational programming here at the Frazier!

In another twist of fate, I recently discovered that not one, but two, Frazier Museum staff members are from Mayfield, as well. King of camps Zach Bramel in the education department and grant writing superstar Kent Klarer both grew up in the area! Zach recently informed me that Mayfield has also produced another talented artist, Helen LaFrance. There must be something in the water! I can’t wait to find out more.

To learn more about Ellis Wilson and his work, you can view the KET documentary titled Ellis Wilson: So Much to Paint or read The Art of Ellis Wilson, which University of Kentucky Press published in 2000.

If you’d like to alert us of another talented artist from Kentucky history, please email

For more interesting Kentucky history content, subscribe to the Frazier Museum’s free newsletter “Frazier Weekly.”

Megan Schanie

Megan Schanie is the Sr. Manager of Educational Programs at the Frazier Museum.