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Russell Simmons' Gallery to Host Harlem's Art Basel Winner

By Jeff Mays | December 28, 2011 6:41am
Harlem artist LeRone Wilson with his work 'Golden Triumph'
Harlem artist LeRone Wilson with his work 'Golden Triumph'
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — It's an ancient art form that was used by the Egyptians to create hieroglyphics, but Harlem artist LeRone Wilson has taken the skill and given it a modern twist.

Using what is known as encaustic, or working with heated beeswax, Wilson creates sculptural paintings by melting the wax with heat and using palette knives to build up texture. The result is a combination of sculpture and painting that can weigh up to 50 pounds.

His work, "A Path Through the Sky," beat out more than 4,000 other artists to win the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series earlier this month at Art Basel Miami. He shared the title with fellow New York City artist Miguel Ovalle, and both will display their work starting in February at Rush Arts, the Chelsea gallery owned by hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons and his brother Danny Simmons.

"It's a huge platform," said Wilson, 43, a married father of three whose work is in the permanent collection of the African American Museum in Dallas and has been shown in galleries in New York and Chicago and featured in Architectural Digest.

"I was the only one working in this medium" in the competition, said Wilson. "I'm a sculptor and I want to incorporate a sense of touch in my work."

It's the sort of medium that requires control but also the ability to let go, said Wilson. To create his pieces he melts wax, resin and powdered pigment in a skillet and then applies them to a canvas, using heat to manipulate the material. Many of the pieces rise an inch and a half or more off the canvas.

"You can't control the wax 100 percent. It takes its own course. That's part of the technique. You should be aggressive enough to have some control, but I often want the work to show me how to improve it," said Wilson.

The winning piece has ridges that protrude and resemble rough terrain. A thick band of wax two-thirds of the way down ripples across the work. Wilson said he created the piece in January 2010 when he was facing some rough family situations. He leaned on his deep faith for guidance.

"My back was against the wall and the Lord spoke to me and said: 'I've dealt with that already.' I looked up and saw a path through the sky and light was coming through the path," said Wilson who incorporates his faith into all of his works by signing "In His Name."

Andre Guichard, national curator for Bombay Sapphire, whose parent company Bacardi is a co-sponsor of the competition along with the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, said the contest is about finding artists that are not getting the attention they deserve from the mainstream art scene.

"An award like this is about opportunity. By competing with the best and coming out on top it says it's not about who is on the radar. There are art systems happening outside of the normal system of who critics have in line," said Guichard, owner of Gallery Guichard in Chicago.

The judges were also impressed that Wilson was able to take an ancient medium and give it his own unique spin while issuing an inspiring message.

"You won't often see a lot of artists spending time with encaustic because of the complexities and difficulties it presents. It doesn't allow for a lot of mistakes," said Guichard.

"We all go through tough times and struggles and find ourselves in a place where we want to quit. But the moment his work emphasizes is believing in faith and your dreams. You keep trudging and moving and pushing through."

Jennifer Post, an interior designer who has used Wilson's work in designs that have appeared in Architectural Digest, says his pieces make her clients happy.

"My clients fall in love when they see the work because its got movement and spirituality. No one else works with beeswax. It's abstract but has tons of energy," said Post. "It's finally his time."

Wilson became interested in art at an early age. His mother was an artist and his father a mechanical engineer. Wilson studied sculpture and architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

He always liked drawing from an early age but began thinking about the two together after working with his father, helping to weld postal shipping containers, to help pay for college.

WIlson started working with the beeswax almost accidentally 16 years ago because a friend had some wax that he no longer wanted.

"It had sculptural form but was like welding. If you put too much heat, it folds and breaks," WIlson said describing the delicate balance of his work.

After the show, which kicks off Feb. 9, Wilson said he is interested in producing larger scale works and exploring the human relationship to space and the ocean. The show runs through March 16, 2012.

"This is an ancient technique, it's history that I'm taking from the past and making work in the 21st century," said WIlson. "Art is about expressing emotions and who you are. It's a way of creating history."