An Eye for Art: Taneytown artist honed her considerable skills in Japan

Gail Wilson is pictured with her hand painted screen called torinoko. The screen is banded with silk and the back is paper. Her chop, Japanese style signature, is the red square mark in the bottom right corner.
Gail Wilson is pictured with her hand painted screen called torinoko. The screen is banded with silk and the back is paper. Her chop, Japanese style signature, is the red square mark in the bottom right corner. (Courtesy Photo)

Gail Wilson is a local Taneytown artist. When she was 10 years old, she drew figures of ladies. She designed their dresses and made paper dolls.

She drew collies when she was in junior high school because she read both "Lassie Come Home" and "Lad a Dog" plus as many dog stories she could find.


"I love animals. I would have a zoo if I could. If I were rich I would have a farm for cats and dogs," Wilson said.

Wilson studied art through Frederick High School. After graduation, she attended the Washington University School of Fine Arts in St. Louis, where she studied studio art. She preferred clay to other mediums. The school is an all-around art school where the students study all types of art from ceramics to figure drawing to clothing design. Classes were three hours long and the students had an 8-hour day of classes and half-day on Saturday.


If students became ill it was almost impossible to make their classes up. When Wilson was in her sophomore year she lost six weeks of school due to illness. She had to go home for medical treatment and because she had fallen too far behind.

She later attended a semester at Frederick Community College and then entered University of Maryland where she again majored in art and specialized in sculpture.

"Clay is great therapy. There is no feeling as good as having your hands in clay," Wilson said.

In her senior year, her sculpture instructor asked her to do a student exhibition in Baltimore and to come back for her master's degree. That was not possible because she married and had a baby before she graduated.

Wilson also learned how to do fresco. It is a process in which the artist paints on wet lime plaster or newly laid plaster so that the paint merges with the plaster. "It is the technique Michelangelo used for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel," she said.

One of the best and most helpful classes to her was "Color Theory."

"It is a really difficult class. It is like taking medicine but it helps you align colors," Wilson explained.

Wilson graduated from University of Maryland in 1966 and stayed home to raise her children. She did a lot of volunteer work until her husband was transferred by IBM to Tokyo.

"You cannot imagine what it is like to leave a town of 3,000 people, Damascus, Maryland and arrive in a city of 11 million people," she said.

Wilson decided to take doll making classes when she was in Tokyo. She constructed Japanese style dolls in kimonos. The Kyoto style was a doll made of all silk. The face and hands were constructed of stuffed silk fibers over an armature of wire. The other style was made with a ceramic face and hand made of crushed oyster shells. Then the shells were made into a paste called "gofun."

She decided to take a sumi-e painting class. Sumi-e means "sumi picture." It is Japanese black ink brush painting. It can be very detailed or very loose. It is related to the calligraphy done by Japanese and Chinese. Sumi-e painting is an interpretive art using a brush and ink. There is also a sense of meditation as you grind the ink stone. Certain brush strokes are used to make such things as an iris, bamboo tree and even animals. On top of that, some artists learn to paint on small boards called sukishi — small panels covered in rice paper.

The class also painted on big screens usually made of a gold leaf paper with a silk border surrounded by a black lacquer frame. The screens can also be made of silver gilt. Most are backed with paper.


In Japan, whether you are a master or an amateur artist, you transfer your image onto the silk or paper using a grid. Wilson did her images freehand to the amazement of her teacher. Her teacher never spoke English and always wore a kimono/yukata, a traditional Japanese robe. She was a highly regarded sensei, "teacher" in Japan.

In Japan there are Living National Treasure Artists in 16 categories selected by Living National Treasures by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. In the craft category, craft persons include flower arrangers, doll makers, painters or carvers as well as others.

Apprentices are expected to emulate the sensei's style so when the sensei dies, the apprentice then takes on the name. Wilson's teacher thought she had what it took to become her apprentice and was upset when Wilson moved back to America.

Wilson lived in Japan for four years and became fluent in Japanese. Before Wilson left Japan, she purchased art supplies and a screen made of two, 2-foot by 2-foot panels that are gilded with silver leaf and backed with silk. "I want to paint Mount Fuji in the winter on the panels."

According to Wilson, "Most screens people paint are gold paper and not gold leaf. There is one other kind of torinoko screen made of paper. It is difficult to paint on because it is not forgiving. If you make a mistake you cannot repair it."

Since she has returned to the United States, Wilson took more art classes at the University of Maryland, including interior design and drawing.

Wilson has pursued her art interest at home. She has carved a wooden Civil War-era style doll. She has also connected with a friend who has a pottery studio in Thurmont. Wilson hopes to find a class in sumi-e here in the United States so she can study the art further.

"You can lose yourself in art and I do," Wilson said. "Art is like therapy but it is more. The more you do it the more you get fed by it. Hanging around other artists is the best thing. You get fed."

Lyndi McNulty is the owner of Gizmos Art in Westminster. Her column appears on the first and third Thursday of each month.

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