Living with Artists: A Visit with Ann Wilson, part 2

“I went to Carnegie Tech for one year, for Bauhaus training,” Ann Wilson says. “But my parents wanted to know where I was every night.” Of course they did: this was in the early 1950s. Seated at one end of a long table in ICA’s auditorium, the painter and performance artist describes how she finally persuaded her parents to let her move from Pittsburgh to Elkins Park, outside of Philadelphia, to attend the Tyler School of Art: “I had to cry for two days and lock myself in my room and not eat!”
Wilson painting plus Thek

Ann Wilson painting and Paul Thek sculpture in Feelings Are Things / The Other Tradition (1966). Photo: Aaron Igler/Greenhouse Media

In the last Miranda post, I wrote about Ann Wilson’s visit to ICA, together with Peter Harvey, to talk about their friend, artist Paul Thek. We were delighted, in the course of that conversation, to get to hear about her own life as well.

Even as a student at Tyler, Ann got to New York whenever she could. “There wasn’t much in Elkins Park,” she says.“Philadelphia was sin city for us.” After graduating, she moved up to Greenwich Village, living first in Patchin Place, the cul-de-sac known as a home to many writers. “E. E. Cummings lived across the street,” she recalls. “Djuna Barnes lived at the other end. But I wanted to live with the artists. I used to go to the Cedar Bar, and someone there said I should try Coenties Slip. The first person I met [at Coenties Slip] was Bob Indiana. Ellsworth [Kelly] was on the top floor, and Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns lived at the end.“

Robert Rauschenberg: Graphic Art, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania.

“I lived under Agnes Martin. I cleaned houses, I babysat. You could get by with little pieces of money then.”

Someone asks a question about Agnes Martin. “Is it true she used to blow up telephone booths with cherry bombs to get the change, because she was so poor?”

No, Ann says, that’s apocryphal. Fondly, she recalls Martin’s bare loft, and the old cast iron Acorn stove in which she used to bake blueberry muffins. “Agnes was a farm girl from Saskatchewan,” Ann says. “One should never forget that. She made her own furniture.”


Ann herself is best known for her quilt paintings, two of which hang in ICA’s galleries now as part of ICA@50. She tells us how she came to do that kind of work.

She and her husband, Bill Wilson—along with Bill’s mother, artist May Wilson—had gone to the Eastern Shore and done some exploring in a little rowboat. Coming upon a dump, they found some quilt scraps there and, liking them, Ann threw them in the boat. She knew she would do something with them, though at first she wasn’t sure what.

“I was interested in geometry,” she says. “And in the colors of nature. Remember, I learned from Agnes Martin and [fiber artist] Lenore Tawney. It was just gardening, making a quilt.”

What about the performances she did at ICA in 1975?

“I did a lot of performance pieces. I worked with twins here. Young men. They were on a track around the audience. But the quilts were Western Pennsylvania.”

Did she see ICA’s Amish quilt show?

“Yes, they were fantastic! I grew up under quilt frames,” Ann says. “With my aunts and grandmothers and my mother stitching. A quilt is a sensible use of cloth to make a blanket.” She pauses a moment:

“Everything in Western Pennsylvania was sensible. Except me.”

—Rachel Pastan

Works by Ann Wilson are on view now as part of ICA@50, the constantly changing exhibition marking the museum’s 50th birthday.