GREENVILLE — Many people are changed forever when they have unexpected brushes with greatness.
Local artist Richard Wilson has redefined the very meaning of that notion, transforming his own ideas and inspirations, and a few chance meetings, into enduring works of art.
In April 2016, one such chance meeting at an art show in Baltimore ultimately brought Wilson to be sitting across the living room from the great Hank Aaron, the Hall of Fame baseball player who broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. The recent passing of Aaron had a unique impact on Wilson, a former SouthWest Edgecombe High School grad, Barton College attendee and Pitt Community College graduate and teacher, who ultimately set out on his own as an artist in 2014.
Wilson, who recently showcased his works in Elizabeth City as one of Arts of the Albemarle’s Artists of the Month, met the baseball great in Atlanta after having already painted a renowned depiction of the slugger. That meeting gave rise to Wilson creating portraits of each of Aaron’s grandchildren.
Wilson was working the show in Baltimore in 2014 when a woman approached him after noticing the piece he had previously painted of Aaron as part of his “Legendary Series” that also included works of Muhammad Ali and golf great Charlie Sifford. After a short conversation began, the woman said, “You know that’s my uncle, right?” as she pointed to the image of Aaron.
“I would love to meet him,” Wilson, a Robersonville native, told the woman.
Two years passed, and it seemed the unexpected meeting with Aaron’s niece would end as just that. But the two saw each other again in April 2016 at a show in Atlanta. The woman again walked by Wilson’s booth and asked, “Aren’t you that guy?”
He was that guy, and this time, they were in Aaron’s hometown, where he starred for the Braves. Wilson reiterated that he would still love to meet Aaron. At the end of the weekend, and as Wilson prepared to leave for Texas and another art show, the woman called and asked, “Are you still in town? Hank would like to meet you.”
Later that day, Wilson sat in Aaron’s living room, and the Hall of Famer emerged from a back bedroom.
“It was surreal,” Wilson said. “He came out and shook hands with me, and I kept thinking, this man is a legend. Talking to him, it was like talking to my grandfather. He said he loved my work.
“It was really amazing. It was almost like we already knew each other. He was so gentle. Really, I was expecting something different. He really appreciated my work.”
Aaron requested his niece retrieve pictures of his grandchildren and asked Wilson if he would craft portraits of them. Needless to say, Wilson jumped at the chance.
When he learned of Aaron’s death a few weeks ago, the artist said it affected him in almost the same way as losing a family member. He said he had just spoken about Aaron and his plan to do another rendering of him as part of his “Shadow Series,” which includes works of boxing greats Joe Louis and Jack Johnson along with NFL trailblazer Jim Brown.
“It hit me hard when I got the news,” said Wilson, adding that it inspired him to finish the new piece of Aaron for the series. “It was like someone had punched me in the chest. I had just spoken his name. It was only that one time that I had spoken to him, and I’m grateful I got to meet him and that he saw my work. That interaction meant a lot. It reminds you that tomorrow is not promised.”
A few years ago, when the Braves put on a celebration of Aaron’s birthday, they used Wilson’s portrait of the slugger as the cover of the program, and even included the picture taken when the two met inside. Aaron later signed five copies of the program brochure and sent them to Wilson for him and his family.