Will Wilson’s Portraits of Reynolds Price

Reynolds Price (1933-) is an esteemed American novelist, poet, and playwright who is also a Biblical scholar. For the last fifty (50)years he has taught at Duke University, where he is the James. B. Duke Professor of English. An episode of cancer of the spine left him paralyzed in 1984; he chronicled the four years of his illness and partial recovery in A Whole New Life: An Ilness and a Healing (Simon&Schuster, 2003). Addressing anyone who is in the throes of cancer, paralysis, or pain, he wrote:
“Your chance of rescue from any despair lies, if it lies anywhere, in your eventual decision to abandon the deathwatch by the corpse of your old self and to search out a new inhabitable body.”
Among Price’s many books are
A Long and Happy Life (1962), Love and Work (1998), Tongues of Angels (1990), and The Good Priest’s Son (2005).

Will Wilson has painted five portraits of Reynolds Price; three are shown here. Wilson began the process of these portraits by moving in with Price for three 10-day visits.

I already knew a little about Reynolds because I had read his autobiography, A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing. It was an invaluable preliminary resource that filled me with ideas.

The smallest of the portraits, R.P. (1997, oil on linen, 13×11) was painted as a warm up, to familiarize myself with Price‚s features and expressions. I noticed him lapsing into a contemplative pose, and it seemed to reveal the activity of his mind, as if one could see the gears working as he developed a character for an upcoming novel.

R.P. (1997, oil on linen, 13×11) by Will Wilson

For the largest painting, Portrait of Reynolds Price (1998, oil on canvas, 43×39) I was inspired by his working environment and thus incorporated various objects, some to act as symbols and lend greater meaning to the artwork. His wheelchair is a potent sign of his illness and recovery, for example, as is the icon directly above his head, depicting the raising of Lazarus. The Christ figure in the icon signifies to me his long career as a university professor (it also alludes to his study of the Bible and to a dream he had while he was suffering from spinal cancer). Also included are some of the books Price has written, his prayer beads, and a yellow sticky-note with a favorite saying of his written on it, “I only regret my economies.”

Portrait of Reynolds Price (1998, oil on canvas, 43×39)

The most recent portrait of Reynolds, A Year With Reynolds Price (at top of article; 2002, oil on linen, 23.25×22.5) is my favorite,” says Wilson. Reynolds is depicted in a naturalistic way, seated in his kitchen, as he reads aloud to his assistant Jon.

In these portraits of Reynolds Price I believe I have captured some of his outstanding qualities: his intelligence, compassion, and his inspirational courage. For me the most successful portraits are comprised of more than just a likeness and work on many levels. In the end I hope the there is a complexity that invites the viewer to contemplate the portrait’s meaning beyond the identity of the sitter.

All pictures are courtesy of John Pence Gallery in San Francisco.

Will Wilson studied at the Schuler School of Fine Arts in Baltimore and the New York Academy of Art in New York City. To see more of his work, visit his Web site, www.willwilsonstudio.com.

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