Frank A. Wyley: The Art of Living Simply

“I thought the world was a place where you educate yourself and go out, and if you have the necessary talent you can do something wonderful. I used to read Thoreau where he says he goes about his business. I accepted that and thought I’d just go about my business of painting.”

These are the words of New Orleans painter FRANK WYLEY (1905-1978), my Grandfather and one of the city’s lesser known yet most intriguing artists. A self-taught artist who supported himself by working as a porter, Wyley himself never ventured any further than Mississippi. His work, however, would be exhibited in Atlanta and New York alongside that of Aaron Douglas, Hale Woodruff, Lois Mailou Jones, James Lesesne Wells, Hughie Lee-Smith, Ellis Wilson, James A. Porter and other prominent African American artists.

Wyley first taught himself as a sign painter and expected to make his living at it, but that would not be the case for a long while.  African Amercian sign painters, window decorators or commercial artists “need not apply” for work in New Orleans eighty years ago. So Frank Wyley would teach himself to paint in oils on canvas. Frank began to explore his art ability at the Marigny School of Art. He recalled, “They gave me a box of primary watercolors-the first box of watercolors I ever saw in my life. Mixing them fascinated me: red and yellow, yellow and blue, blue and red. One teacher used to buy me drawing paper and the other used to tear me to pieces because I drew. Professor Blanchard and Professor Long, at McDonogh 35 where he finished eighth grade, wanted to send me through school, but I had too many responsibilities.”


Frank Wyley left school in the seventh grade to help support his aunt, who raised him from the time he was orphaned at five. Later he would finish eighth grade at McDonogh 35. After a short stint working in an F.W. Woolworth drugstore, Frank worked for 37 years at the Henderson Sugar Refinery, where he trucked sugar, pushing it around in a wheelbarrow-like hand truck. Later he would be promoted to head porter for the company. Henderson would sometimes send its head porter out to its vendors outlets, to decorate grocery and drugstore windows with crepe paper or paint promotional signs. Thus would Frank finally attain a long denied goal.

“They used my talent, they exploited me to the limit.” He said, “I encountered a lot of remarks and insults decorating windows, but you can accept those things. You know what you’re putting down and you can ignore it, you know how to hit the rhythm and do your job and depart. You have to work to survive, so even though you cannot paint pictures every day, the same creativeness you use to paint pictures with applies to your daily work. At Henderson I used to mop and everybody could tell where I mopped: I made a line, a neatness about it. In shipping and receiving they wondered how I can do so much work. It’s easy, you hit the rhythm and it’s there, it’s just like a work of art. The creativity is in you, and whatever you touch or do, it emanates out of you. When you squeeze a lemon, you don’t expect to get orange juice; when society/technology squeezes an artist, they’re going to get his creativity.”

There were (at one time) paintings tucked behind the sofa and under beds in the two-story house Frank built with his own hands in the Ninth Ward. A multitude of oils and watercolors, drawings and prints, landscapes and portraits, still lifes and abstracts, could be found hanging on the walls, stashed behind the furniture or stowed away in a backyard shack in which Frank, wife Dorothy, and their three children had all formerly lived before he completed building the neat little white house on the same lot.

He would say, “I figure all this was done in about seven years, I started painting when I was twenty some odd years old, but I only painted on Sundays. Then when they got the forty-hour week in, they gave me an extra day off (half a day on Wednesdays, half a day Fridays) So I painted half a day on Wednesdays, half a day on Fridays, went back to work on Saturdays. Seven years’ worth of painting. When I painted I had to be positive of what I was painting, color, composition, everything. If I made a mistake, the paint would dry and I’d lose the canvas. It was too expensive to lose.”

Painting materials were a luxury and he had a family to feed. So, he said, “I used to take beaverboard and cut it to the size I wanted and give it three coats of white paint, and then I’d take and stipple it with a cloth bag to give it texture. Then at the refinery, I got an old Boy Scout tent made of canvas. I made stretchers for it and painted it with white paint. As time went on I realized I wasn’t doing the right thing. I bought two books, The Enjoyment and Use of Color by Walter Sargent and The Permanent Palette by Martin Fisher, and they taught me what I wanted. If a person’s got those two books and got talent, he can probably become a painter.”

“When I was building this house, in 1947, I stopped painting, the family lived in a cramped little three-room shack in the back of the lot while I built the front house and I thought: What was I going to do? Would I be able to paint again? And one morning I put up my easel and painted a picture. I had to go through that to get this. By living in the shack, I saved money. If I’d been into the homestead, l’d have had obligations.”

“The neighbors used to ask Mrs. Wyley how long the family was going to live in that cramped little three-room shack, and she’d say: ‘When Frank’s ready to build, he’ll build.’ Some of my best paintings were done back in that shack. That was pretty close quarters for a family of five. I’d paint anywhere. I’ve often wondered how I’d feel if I could leave my easel in one particular place and come to it every day and work at it. But I don’t think it’s necessary to have all these things. It’s nice to have ’em to work with, but if you don’t have ’em and you want to work, you’ll work. You go and do what you want to do.

Most of these paintings were done in the kitchen. The kids never bothered me, I shut the noise out completely. So you see, it don’t make no difference. You can paint anywhere. But sometimes I think about the life I might have lived as a full-time artist. I used to go in the Quarter when I was young and watch the painters. Those guys live to paint. That must be terrific, when you get up in the morning, eat and paint. Nothing to do but paint. Fabulous!”

Frank was a handsome man. Strong and lean-muscled with large hands, his head was crested by a tuft of curly black hair, contrasting his golden bronzed skin, looking as if it were forever being blown by some unseen wind. Frank recalled, “A painter, a friend, watercolorist and teacher named Charlie Bein, got me to strip naked once to see if I could pose for the [ all white] Arts and Crafts Club and get close to art, that way, get close to students and see what was going on. But I didn’t pose, I was too skinny.”

He started a correspondence course in art once, “But I didn’t like it, I quit – after paying $200 of my hard-earned money.” Except for that, he was entirely self-taught. He taught himself techniques of the ‘master’ painters through reading only. “All the Frenchmen, Matisse, Dufy, Roualt. I don’t think the art world has gotten much beyond Cezanne yet. Those landscapes – the movement you have in them is one of the most important things. Others get movement with perspective, (Cezanne) gets movement with juxtaposition of forms and color. There are certain painters,.. they’re the relay, the fellows that carry the ball. The others are on the side of them. But Cezanne is not the end of art, he’s just the beginning”, Frank stated with confidence equal to any art scholar.

“Picasso’s done some great things, everything he touches turns to gold, but there’s some bad things a person does . … I laugh when I think of the Picasso exhibition at Delgado in the early forties. Those paintings drove ’em crazy. A lady told me, ‘These paintings are nothing but trash, trash.’ Time will tell on Picasso.”

From the late 1930s through the 1950s, Wyley received critical acclaim and awards in various group exhibitions, such as the Texas Centennial Exposition’s Hall of Negro Life and at national exhibitions of African American art at Dillard University and Atlanta University. Several of these exhibitions were sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a program begun by Franklin D. Roosevelt in conjunction with his New Deal employment project.

Wyley’s subject matter during this period included French Quarter courtyards, women with children and at bath, portraiture, beggars congregating, arrangements of fruit and flora, nighttime cityscapes, family groups, gossiping women, and other images of the city’s residents at work, rest and play. During the 1960s, Wyley continued exhibiting his works nationally. In 1963, he won an award for his painting entitled The Family at the Emancipation Proclamation Centennial National Art Exhibition, held at Xavier University. This would qualify him for a later exposition in Chicago.

A 1974 appearance on ABC’s The Reasoner Report, a nationally syndicated television program, brought Frank increased attention during the 1970s, and in 1976, renowned artist and scholar Hale Woodruff noted Wyley’s work in Black Art: An International Quarterly. Wyley’s works, tinged with the influences of Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse and Raoul Dufy, evoke the decadent beauty of New Orleans’ past and present. “No, I never had a one man show,”, he said, “…not yet, I’ve given some prints to Harvard, I think it was Harvard. One of the universities”.

Of his work he said, “ I had no desire ever to sell one.” Wyley’s body of work would range from Impressionism to Cubism, from Realist portraiture and prints of social protest to the venerable theme of Mother and Child.

“I don’t think of the things as money. I think money has played little part in my art, other than buying books and materials to work with. I know the value of a linen canvas, good paint, good books: art caused me to appreciate their real value. I’ve had a tendency to hate money. I saw what money was doing to people, because people wouldn’t put it in its proper place. They don’t realize that what they’re spending is part of their life. You spend part of your life to earn it, and if you throw it away, you’re throwing part of your life away.”

Frank Wyley on the Harry Reasoner Show

Frank Wyley on the Reasoner Report.

Posted by Frank A. Wyley on Monday, February 27, 2012

Wyley lived in a time with few educational options for Blacks, yet seemed to always find a way to educate himself, “The public libraries were for whites only, but I found money to buy books. You consider a book like a brother or father, talking back to you. When you acquire one book, it recommends another and that’s how you acquire good friendship with books.”

“Whitman, I like Whitman.” He smiled, “Whitman gives you the energy to walk the great earth. Plato, Schopenhauer, it’s good but it’s not good for this world. This is not the world to use philosophy; you have to coin your own. I like Thoreau better, he tells you how to be poor and rich. Thoreau has a lot of things in there, And I met Thoreau in the trash barrel. I did.

Mr. Henderson used to get annual reports because he owned a whole lot of stock, and the paper used to be nice, banker’s paper. I’d tear the covers off and run prints on it. I used to get a kick out of that. But one day, I met Thoreau when I was looking for annual reports and came across a New York Times Book Review and an article on Walden in it. Thoreau was an exceptional man, and he’s coming into his own. He’s got to be a holy man, he’s got to be good. He’s got a message for youth today. But I ask ’em sometimes: ‘ever read Thoreau?’ And they say no. What are they teaching these days?” Then he said, frankly, “Thoreau said to listen to the music that is in you. Next to the bible, for me, there is Thoreau.”

Henry David Thoreau lived for two years, two months, and two days by Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. His time in Walden Woods became a model of deliberate and ethical living. His words and deeds continue to inspire millions around the world who seek solutions to critical environmental and societal challenges. Published in 1854, ‘On Walden Pond’ this love letter to self-sufficient living, was known as the cornerstone of Transcendental Movement.

Out of a handmade wooden box stuffed with exhibit programs and photographs and other mementos, Wyley took a carefully matted paragraph by Thoreau. It is cut and preserved from a magazine as Wyley liked to do.

‘To be calm, to be serene: there is a calmness of the lake when there is not a breath of wind. There is a calmness of a stagnant ditch. So, it is with us. Sometimes we are clarified and calmed healthily as we never were before in our lives, not by any opiates but by some unconscious obedience to the all-just laws, so that we become like a still lake of purest crystal and without an effort our depths are revealed to ourselves. All the world goes by and is reflected in our depths.’

His eyes glistened a bit at that, then he said, “Those are the things they should tell’em about. Those are the things that leave the imprint. Sometimes I think our education is starting backwards. They don’t place any emphasis on art or living. They’re teaching these people how to make money, but after they make money, what’re they going to spend it on?”

He shook his head, “There’s a receptiveness born in every child, you know, and it’s killed out of ’em,.. it’s destroyed. I picked up a toy book, and there were toys in there for youngsters about two or three, and there was this musical toy: you look at it and you feel it and you touch it and you listen to it. That’s for color, that’s for texture, that’s for music, and the simple thing that that is, that’s art. You bring these things up, and then through the process of education it’s killed out through the years. People tell you they have no use for art, but each thing they touch, a fork, a piece of cloth, their shoes, that’s art. Take it away and they’re nothing. Why can’t they feel this art, this creativity that’s all around them?”

Frank looked genuinely puzzled, then continued, “If you could teach people how to love their avocations, something they could do all their lives, and they could transfer that love to their families, that would be beautiful. That’s why I (say): as a kid grows up, he should be exposed to these things more because they teach him how to live, how to live a deeper life.”

Then he said, reflectively as if speaking of himself, “I guess most people never really stop to analyze hate, what it does to a man and what he misses in life. You can’t just reach in there and bring him back to the starting point. Only he can try to gather up the pieces – if the light is still there, if he can still feel it. But if he goes on without it, he’s the loser, and he suffers … When a man constantly hates, he changes the chemistry in his body. But when he loves, something beautiful happens to him.

Art produces empathy, ways of seeing. It has made me lead a rich life, independent of everybody else. Everything I touch, smell, see, I appreciate it. You paint things that you love, you paint things that you hate. You pass a place a hundred times and suddenly you pass and it all belongs to you. It opens up like a flower. My subjects tell me to paint them and I don’t try to force my personality upon the subject but find the beauty in it. An old man asked me once, ‘What you doing, there ain’t no beauty here.’ There’s two kinds of beauty, a raw beauty and a beautiful beauty. Like a waterlily that comes out of the muck and hits the top of the surface and spreads its white glory. Two beauties: the lily is one and the scum is another. Sometimes you get so powerful within yourself that you forget. I’m ashamed to say that one time I thought that I was the one who was doing these things, and it looked like my talent begin to slip and I had to go back to my source. There’s moments when I’m painting when there seem to be three people,.. another person besides myself and the painting. When that happens, everything is in coordination, everything is just right. When that happened, and my wife was there, I’d just squeeze her.”

Wyley produced countless paintings and drawings of Dorothy Minor, the woman he married in 1942. Frank refers to a painting of his wife that he was painting while she was sick. She’d had a stroke and could no longer speak. That frustrated her a lot. He “watched her for over two years dying”, he said. She was his staunchest critic.

“With my wife it was a fabulous thing. Something that lived. Matured. We knew what it as all about. we sang our song, we went on our way. I want to pay homage to her, cause she was a part of my life, a part of everything that I have done. The whole thing was drama, art, and love. We understood it all completely.”

He then began to paint an unfinished leg in the painting he was working on. “If I finish this like I want to,” he said, “I can go on. I have to get this out of my way. Sometimes I pick up a brush and it feels like I’m holding a brick. It tells me, ‘You don’t want to paint.’ Other times it feels like a feather. It comes and goes; it’s a normal process.” Wyley said, “I may not have the answer, but the answer I have found for myself have served me well. You have to live a lifetime to prove something, When your life is over, you’ve won the game.”

Frank A Wyley died October 5, 1978. “I’m glad I didn’t give my paintings away. I knew someday they’d be in the proper hands.” Frank Wyley said this to me in an interview, and thankfully his legacy lives on. In that same cottage on Congress street that Frank built (dubbed by New Orleans Magazine as “Walden Pond in the Ninth Ward”) Frank’s grandson (Iam bennu) has come to embrace the simple, self-sustainable artist lifestyle that Frank so greatly desired but never fully achieved.

Iam has worked as an artist for over 25 years, most notably for his Zulu Mardi Gras Posters and acting. His granddaughter Deneen Tyler and her own daughter Devyn are carrying the creative seed on as stage and film actors. Together they have plans to find a permanent home for Frank Wyley’s originals and make prints that will be available to the public. You can keep up with the legacy of Frank Wyley on Facebook or see his work in person at the Amistad Research Center which holds a treasure of his papers, prints, and works.

*Quotes taken from “Walden Pond in the Ninth Ward” published in New Orleans Magazine, and putted from the Reasoner Report both done between 1973 and 1975.

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