If you’ve ever seen the giant blue robot guarding over downtown Birmingham on Morris Avenue, or the three little monkey friends climbing around his legs and shoulders, then you’ve seen the work of John Lytle Wilson. We sat down with the artist to talk about what inspires his work and why he loves what he does.
John Lytle Wilson (Photo by Kate Delgreco)
Can you talk about your path to becoming a professional artist? When did you know you wanted it to be your career?
I started getting really into art in late elementary school and knew it was what I wanted to do since 8th grade. I majored in art at Birmingham-Southern and got an MFA from Florida State University. I thought I’d have to teach to earn a living and I did teach for 15 years, but now I’ve been doing art full time for going on five years now.
Are you from Birmingham originally? If not, what brought you here?
I’m originally from Rock Hill, South Carolina, a Charlotte, North Carolina suburb. I moved here the first time for BSC. After graduating and marrying my wife Liz we moved away to teach English in Shanghai for a year. After stops in New Orleans and Tallahassee we moved back in 2008. The rebirth of downtown really drew us back. Artwalk, Sidewalk, Pepper Place and Bottletree—the nine years we were gone saw all those things spring to life.
How would you describe your style as an artist? What mediums and subjects do you like to work with? And what interests you about them?
I paint in acrylic. I switched from oil in grad school because as my style distilled, I wasn’t blending colors anymore. I really like flat areas of color. I have two main bodies of work; my corrected paintings, where I add stuff to existing paintings, and my original acrylics, where I paint the whole thing. I also love to do murals. I guess my style is a sort of Pop Art. It’s definitely influenced by animation.
Your work has a pretty big presence in the city through murals, exhibitions, etc. What’s it like seeing your work around town and knowing it has such a big impact on Birmingham’s art scene?
Birmingham has been wonderfully supportive. It’s all very gratifying.
Where do you find inspiration for your work?
All over. I like to say the genesis of it was a childhood spent in front of 80s cartoons and movies. But I’m inspired by any number of random things, often due to color. I’m on the lookout for colors and color schemes that catch my eye.
How did you get the idea for your corrected painting series?
The studio I moved into after finishing Florida State had some old work left behind. I was just playing with them as backgrounds.
Are you working on a series or collection now?
Nothing too far removed from my usual, although I’ve been getting very interested in lush landscapes and botanicals in the originals (and hopefully soon murals). I go wandering around the Birmingham Botanical Gardens or Ruffner.
Are there any recurring themes within your work?
The robots, definitely. To me they are versatile symbols. They can stand for technology or the future, or when paired with the monkeys, they suggest a sort of pre- and post-human intelligence. I like thinking of religion. What kind of religious ideas do robots have? Animals, too. I think we are more like animals than we admit.
What do you love about what you do?
It’s really a dream come true getting to do this. My favorite thing these days are murals. I’ve always thought of my robots as being several stories tall and to get to paint them that size is awesome.
What can you say about Birmingham’s art scene and the community of artists here?
Birmingham in general is so friendly and supportive and the arts community is no different. It has been a wonderful environment to work in.