Arts & Culture

Iowa artist creates WWI homage through great-uncle's lens

Michael Wilson’s 2018 painting “In Flanders Fields,” oil on linen, 24 inches by 30 inches, depicts the U.S. mother figure known as Columbia holding her dead son, a World War I soldier, in a pose inspired by Michaelangelo’s “Pieta” sculpture of Mary holding the body of her crucified son, Jesus.
Michael Wilson’s 2018 painting “In Flanders Fields,” oil on linen, 24 inches by 30 inches, depicts the U.S. mother figure known as Columbia holding her dead son, a World War I soldier, in a pose inspired by Michaelangelo’s “Pieta” sculpture of Mary holding the body of her crucified son, Jesus.
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In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row that mark our place, and in the sky, the larks, still bravely singing, fly, scarce heard amid the guns below. ...

— “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, 1915

This beginning phrase from an oft-recited poem inspired one of the most soul-stirring works in Urbandale artist Michael Wilson’s homage to World War I — “One Man, One War, One Hundred Years" — on display through Dec. 30 at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

The exhibit is told through the life and memorabilia of his great-uncle, the late Herb Thordsen of Persia in western Iowa. A U.S. machine-gunner in the 321st Machine Gun Battalion sent to fight in his parents’ native Germany, he survived the war. But so many lives were lost that among Wilson’s paintings depicting his uncle is another one he titled “In Flanders Fields.”

Building upon the imagery of Michaelangelo’s “Pieta” sculpture, Wilson’s painting shows Columbia — the female symbol of the United States at the time — holding the body of her dead soldier son.

“Mary with Jesus is the quintessential mother sorrow over a son who had sacrificed,” said Wilson, 56, of Urbandale. “I parlayed that into Columbia and her sons, the doughboys of World War I, and the sacrifice of those soldiers.”

Red poppies in the foreground and white crosses in the background help set the scene. Poppies show up in more of Wilson’s 11 sepia-toned works. “I decided to incorporate poppies like a scarlet thread going through the paintings,” he said. “Poppies are remembrance — a remembering flower.”

Eleven was a deliberate choice for the series, honoring the 100th anniversary of the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice that ended the war on “the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.”

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A bonus final work, “Swords, Pens & Plowshares,” brings together female symbols from the United States and Europe, including one for Peace next to Lady Liberty. They are flanked in the foreground by a young Wilson studying history and his soldier-uncle writing history in the journal that sparked Wilson’s three-year WWI labor of love.

“The whole thing is about writing and remembering history,” he said of this particular painting. “It’s kind of a cycle there. ... The theme is learning from history, remembering history, do not repeat mistakes. ...

“It’s not a sermon or lecture,” said Wilson, who joined the National Guard at age 17, while still in high school. “I wanted people to engage it.”

His great-uncle was more of a grandfather figure to Wilson growing up, since his mother lived with Thordsen and his wife during her high school years. The couple’s three children died in infancy, and Wilson’s grandmother died of polio when his mother was 6. So their ensuing relationship became paternal.

Up until his teen years, Wilson was close to Thordsen, who died in 1977. He had his great-uncle’s battalion photo in his bedroom and drove his 1938 truck to school. Then in 2012, a cousin called saying he had some of Thordsen’s World War I memorabilia, and if Wilson wanted it, he could have it.

The treasures included a small datebook in which the young soldier chronicled his war years. He sailed out of New York on May 3, 1918, on the cruise ship Carpathia, which rescued Titanic survivors in 1912, then sank July 17, 1918, after being torpedoed by a German submarine.

Thordsen returned in March 1919, and never discussed his war experiences with his great-nephew. Seeing the datebook, however, as well as a diary kept by a Minnesota soldier from Thordsen’s unit, conjured up images which Wilson captured in oil, from his uncle standing on the ship’s deck to moving through vermin-infested trenches at night and a graveyard in the woods, to sitting hollow-eyed after the armistice.

“Mike Wilson’s series of paintings is a moving tribute not only to his great-uncle, but to all who have served in any war,” Sean Ulmer, the museum of art’s executive director, said in a prepared statement. “Using the vehicle of World War I, Wilson’s work speaks to multiple generations simultaneously.

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“Anyone who has served, or has a family member who has served, will see in Wilson’s work their own story.”

And that was the artist’s goal — to bring an all-encompassing war down to a personal level.

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

If you go

l What: Michael Wilson: “One Man, One War, One Hundred Years”

l Where: Cedar Rapids Museum of Art

l When: To Dec. 30

l Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

l Admission: $7 adults; $6 ages 62 and over and college students; $3 ages 6 to 18; free under age 6 and museum members

l Programs: 7 p.m. Thursday, “The Artist-Soldier Experience during World War I,” free lecture with Ranelle Knight-Lueth, assistant professor art history and director of galleries and collections for Coe College, Cedar Rapids; 12:15 p.m. Oct. 3, Art Bites: Inside the Exhibition with Michael Wilson, free; 2 to 3 p.m. Nov. 11, “One” artist meet-and-greet with Michael Wilson, free with paid gallery admission, but free for veterans

l Artist’s website: Michaelwilsonart.com

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