Making Art Matter

Oil painter takes work from hobby to career

By Jessica Laskey
July 2020

There are three things that have happened to Dennis Wilson in the past few years that have changed the trajectory of his art career.

“Winning awards in the 2015 and 2016 KVIE Art Auctions, meeting (fellow painter) Bob Miller and joining an art critique group changed things,” Wilson says in the kitchen of his Rosemont home, where dozens of his striking oil paintings share wall space with family photos. “Meeting people and making contacts are key for me.”

Considering the 78-year-old’s endearing affability, it’s no surprise that once people meet him and see his extraordinary paintings—depicting everything from celebrities and buildings to furniture and farmscapes—they want to work with him in whatever way they can. That’s what happened when Wilson landed a booth next to celebrated local watercolorist and adman Bob Miller at a pop-up art show hosted by Dunnigan Realtors.

“Bob is the sweetest person,” says Wilson, who hails from Compton but has called Santa Cruz, Monterey and now Sacramento home. “He invited me to lunch with a bunch of other artists who meet at OneSpeed Pizza regularly and now I’m part of that community.”

Community has always been big for Wilson, both personally and professionally. After attending college and serving as an officer in the Airforce during Vietnam, Dennis Wilson decided to go to graduate school and earn a teaching credential. Since he’d already been painting as a hobby, he figured he would teach art. When the only position open at the time was for a special education teacher, Wilson took it—and taught for the next 34 years.

Dennis Wilson continued to paint in his free time and even entered a few contests. He won $100 at a competition held at a Fresno shopping mall, as well as various awards in shows for the Central California Art League, Santa Cruz Art League and Society of Western Artists. But his life took an unexpectedly familial turn when he met and married Janet in 1996, bringing her three school-age children into the mix.

“With a bunch of little wild ones running around, I figured I probably shouldn’t have expensive art supplies sitting out,” Wilson laughs.

He happily took a break from painting for the next 15 years as the kids grew up, but recently returned to his calling after retiring and moving with Janet to Sacramento, where he now has a whole room to himself to make art every day. He joined the Sacramento Fine Arts Center and Northern California Arts, and began entering juried art shows, which is when the recognition started rolling in.

In 2015, Wilson won first place in contemporary painting at the KVIE Art Auction, followed by an award of merit in the 2016 California State Fair’s Fine Art Competition. He also won a juror’s award at the 2016 KVIE Art Auction (doled out by nationally recognized muralist Esteban Villa), which convinced Wilson that perhaps his art was “good enough to take things further.”

Other artists also took note of Wilson’s abundant ability to paint things that “strike me, stop me in my tracks and make me record them,” and he was soon invited into an art critique group with the likes of prominent artists Steve Memering and Sandy Delehanty.

“Critique is invaluable,” Wilson says. “Everyone understands it’s not personal, and it’s amazing to have such good eyes looking at your work from a fresh perspective.”

Last April, Wilson was given his first solo show at The Brickhouse Gallery in Oak Park, which featured approximately 38 paintings that range in subject matter from portraits to landscapes to slightly surreal images of figures juxtaposed against sharply defined architectural elements. But no matter what he’s painting, Wilson knows that there’s really only one reason he’s doing it.

“When I paint, the information and knowledge that’s in my brain just comes forth,” he says.

“Words can never accurately describe what I’m doing—I think they actually diminish it. They can’t capture the feeling behind a painting. Ultimately, I don’t put anything out there I don’t like. I have to be inspired.”

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Jessica Laskey can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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