OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Charles Banks Wilson was just a boy when he saw Will Rogers for the first time, but the encounter led to a lifelong fascination for the artist who created a variety of portraits of the American humorist.
That experience at the historic Coleman Theatre in Miami, Okla., in February 1931 led to Wilson's first sketch of Rogers. The sketch later became the basis for a portrait Wilson completed that is on permanent display at Smithsonian's Institution's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Wilson continued to create portraits of Rogers, until his death last May in Rogers, Ark., at age 94. Several of Wilson's portraits of Oklahoma's favorite son will be on display at a permanent exhibit set to open by next month at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, Okla. An exact date for the opening has not been set.
"Charles Banks Wilson was always a big fan of Will Rogers. One of his favorite topics for his art was Native Americans, and he always kind of described himself as a storyteller," said Jacob Krumwiede, business manager at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum. "Of course, with Will Rogers being kind of a Cherokee folk hero ... he was very proud of his Cherokee roots during a time when it was not widely accepted and there was still a lot of bigotry in the country."
While attending the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1930s, Wilson sketched faces of more than 100 people from 65 Native American tribes. Fulfilling a promise that he would not capitalize on the sketched, Wilson donated the works to the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa.
The display at the Will Rogers Museum will consist of several original Wilson works, including a life-size portrait called "Welcome Folks," and another portrait of Rogers created for the cover of Southwestern Bell phonebook in 1979, to coincide with Roger's 100th birthday. Another work depicts a small scene of cowboys, one of them Rogers, gathered around a campfire, Krumwiede said.
Wilson was a fan of the museum who stopped by several times when he had exhibits in display, and he even acted as the grand marshal of the annual parade honoring Will Rogers in Claremore in 2008, Krumwiede said.
He was also generous with his talent. The Oklahoma Press Association once commissioned Wilson to create a portrait of Rogers for their building, but the association only had $1,500 in its bank account. After some back-and-forth, Wilson agreed to make the piece and get paid in installments, said Pat Reeder, Will Rogers Memorial Museum spokeswoman.
Though Rogers played an important part in Wilson's creative work, he wasn't the artist's only subject. Wilson also created portraits of other famous Oklahomans, including Cherokee Indian Sequoyah, Olympic gold medalist Jim Thorpe and Congressman Carl Albert, among others. Several of the artist's portraits adorn the state Capitol.
IF YOU GO...
Will Rogers Memorial Museum
1720 West Will Rogers Blvd.
Claremore, OK. 74017
Open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Children 17 and younger are free
Oklahoma State Capitol
2300 N. Lincoln Blvd.
Oklahoma City, OK 73105