Gilbert Wilson Murals: Multi-faceted Liberation

cdaum_wilsonmural_1200 Photo by C. Daum

Gilbert Wilson completed his first public mural at Woodrow Wilson in one month. He had covered 504 square feet with colored chalk and pastels rubbed into the rough finish of the wall with his fingers. Later, Wilson claimed he had used a lot of white because a kindly janitor had brought him broken pieces from the classroom. Although the work includes the word “Liberation”, Wilson captioned it “The Machinery Mural” in his first published book. In various letters, he describes working “18 hours daily, hardly coming down from the scaffold,” as if he himself were some kind of mural-producing machine.

Wilson writes of his mother and sisters bringing “warm meals” to him, but he also reports “eating apples secured in a nearby orchard, or raw cabbage, which [he] got out of some large truck gardens.” In either case, he ate on the scaffolding. He slept on a cot at the school.
By Wilson’s own admission, his feverish activity can be attributed to romantic passion as easily as to as his passion for creating art. In Wilson’s mind, they amounted to the same thing. Reading his letters from the time, one gets the impression that Gilbert Wilson was suffering the classic pangs of an unrequited adolescent love; unfortunately, he was already twenty-seven years old.

The object of Wilson’s affection is the major figure in the mural. Obviously, in real life Dr. Fred Donaghy did not have six arms, but he did use a microscope in his work teaching biology courses and doing cancer research at Indiana State Normal College. And he did loom larger than life for Wilson, who portrays himself in the mural as a small figure that is somehow reminiscent of the Oscar statuette, largely due to the treatment of the pectoral muscles and the rigid stance.

The machinery motif of the work was related to a stint Wilson spent helping Terre Haute photographer Kenneth Martin take industrial shots at Columbian Enameling and Stamping Mill. In his journal entry of May 8, 1933, Wilson wrote, “I come to feel a foreboding toward the way machines have been allowed to run away with men. I have seen a worker bound with wristbands fastened to the machine, presumably to protect his hands from being wrongly inserted beneath the ton-like chomping jaws.”

When asked for an explanation of the mural, Wilson gave the male figures symbolic import (and accounted for the single word in the mural) writing that he meant to convey how “SCIENCE – the sum of universal learning – liberates YOUTH from the danger of mechanics gone mad.” He elaborated on the nature of that madness, claiming, “Machinery cannot be a great benefit to mankind as long as it is used for selfish profit – the machinery in the background looks like a monster because it symbolizes the mad and selfish greed of a few men to make money. Death, suffering and reckless destruction can be the only result of machinery used unwisely.”

This is a reasonable interpretation, which fits with Wilson’s own opinion of the capitalist system, and with the tenor of murals being produced at the time. However, there are definitely more Freudian ways to see the picture, particularly in light of the Wilson-Donaghy relationship. For one thing, there’s clearly a phallic element to some of those machines. For another, that hand on the young man’s arm could be taken as restraining rather than protective. The scientist may be pointing forward, but he isn’t allowing the youth that he dwarves to move ahead

And Wilson was having a hard time getting past his desire. Throwing himself into work was a way to escape the “constant torment” of Donaghy’s refusal to clearly respond to his feelings.

Wilson says in a letter to Donaghy dated March 22, 1934, “I assure you this is written with the utmost reluctance because I am thoroughly aware how my writing to you jeopardizes both of us. […] I must get things definitely settled, one way or another, because so much of my future depends on weathering this storm with as little disruption of my spiritual temperament as possible. […] I cannot help but feel certain that you wholly appreciate the extremely delicate nature of my problem.
I want you to know that I have long been conscious of the true nature of my problem. I have talked confidingly with our family physician a number of times since the first four years ago, and with his help and suggestion, tried to adjust myself to normal but without success.”

Subsequent letters continued in the same vein; some are marked unsent, but others are carbon copies of what Donaghy received. Wilson repeatedly declared his feelings and urged Donaghy to respond. He made it clear that he would not give up until he received a response. He promised that he would accept a Platonic relationship; he offered his murals as evidence that he “was successfully sublimating his regard,” he defended the nature of his love as “inspiring and just as high and fine as any love that ever existed” and as “deep and chaste and spiritually stimulating.”

Over the course of five years, Wilson attempted to convince Donaghy that there was nothing wrong with homosexual love. He even included a letter he had received from Havelock Ellis, British physician, psychologist and social activist who wrote extensively on homosexuality.

After Donaghy’s death, Sallie Dawson, his high school biology teacher, wrote Wilson a note of sympathy. In his response, Wilson said, “His policy of silence toward my letters held fast my hope so that I could not get away from the thought that if persistent I might someday be able to break thru the formidable barrier with which he walled in a really lonely heart.”

The chains in Wilson’s mural may well have had their origin in the man Wilson saw bound to his machine, but surely they also represent this held-fast hope. Wilson wanted liberation from his obsessive love, and from the need to “adjust to normal.” His mural can thus be read as radical in multiple ways.

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