Tom Wilson lived the high life for a few years in New York and all over the world in the 1970s, becoming an in-demand fashion model photographed by the greats, including Francesco Scavullo, Fred Eberstadt and Richard Avedon.
But he never forgot his home in Delaware — he grew up in Georgetown and at his grandparents’ farmhouse in Prime Hook.
In 1981, he returned to the First State, living in Lewes, creating works of art and touching the community in ways still felt today.
Mr. Wilson’s art and the support system that surrounded him will be celebrated in an exhibit at the Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover July 1 through Oct. 16. It’s titled “Tom Wilson: Super-Realist/Surrealist.”
The artist was perhaps best known for his portraits, pastoral scenes and architecture that combined everyday locations with surreal elements. While in Paris, he experimented with a form of pointillism with dots of different colors and abstract patterns.
Mr. Wilson’s first instruction came from Dorothy Lewis, a painter and potter, as well as the wife of one of Delaware’s most famous painters, Jack Lewis, and then from Howard Schroeder, the Lewes-based expressionistic artist and teacher.
After attending St. Andrew’s in Middletown and then another boarding school, Moses Brown in Rhode Island, Mr. Wilson graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1969. He then moved to New York to paint, starting a career as a model when he was invited to a party given by famed artist Andy Warhol and often traveling to Paris and Milan, Italy.
In 1981, he left that world and returned to Delaware to pursue art full time, until he died at the young age of 49 in 1995 due to complications from AIDS.
At that time, restaurateur Keith Fitzgerald was co-owner of the Back Porch Cafe in Rehoboth Beach. It was there that Mr. Wilson would find a home for his art and a 13-year life partner. The eatery became known for showing works of art from local painters, which caught Mr. Wilson’s eye.
“Tom and his mom came to dinner one night, and he loved the food, and he loved the restaurant and the fact that we were displaying art. He wanted to meet the chef, which was Leo (Medisch), and after they met, that was kind of it. They were a lifelong couple,” Mr. Fitzgerald said.
Mr. Medisch was also co-owner of the Back Porch.
“Tom asked if we could have a show here. I said, ‘Look, you’re hooked up into the local art community. Why don’t you become our art director? And that way, you can have a show every summer at whatever time you want to.’ And that’s basically how things got started here,” Mr. Fitzgerald said.
Mr. Wilson was represented briefly by the Marvel Gallery in Lewes and the Art Barn Gallery in Washington, D.C., but his greatest success came from exhibiting at the beach restaurant.
“Every summer at the Back Porch, he had his own work (exhibited). We call it during the money part of the season, like August, September, when people have a little bit more money than the June crowd. They were into buying art, and he did quite well. At one point, he was getting $20,000 for commissions for paintings,” Mr. Fitzgerald said.
Though there was little in the way of promotion, Mr. Wilson’s work was supported by a large group of friends.
Mr. Fitzgerald, who sold the cafe in 2020, said the artist, who was a music lover and enjoyed entertaining guests, was “very charismatic.”
“I don’t know anybody that didn’t really like Tom once they met him, and they wanted to be around him. He was a very likable person and funny and intelligent. He was the whole package really,” Mr. Fitzgerald said.
“His physical beauty was stunning. He could have (modeled) probably the rest of his life and been a model into old age if he’d wanted. He was handsome, but he really didn’t like modeling. It came to him.
“He didn’t go to it, and he made fabulous money for two or three years, was sent all over the world by some of the biggest fashion houses, and he was in every fashion magazine and stuff like that. But when he saved up enough money, he just stopped doing it and came back to Lewes and went to work in this little studio on Indiana Avenue.”
Mr. Fitzgerald said there were a few reasons Mr. Wilson returned to Delaware.
“His family had a farm where he spent his summers growing up, and then, they had the beach house, which became actually their house in later years when his father retired. He and his mom lived in the beach house. Tom went away to school, and when he came back, his father had passed away, and his mom was there by herself. And I think that was part of it,” he said.
“The last seven or eight years of her life, she was on dialysis. And once Leo and Tom met, it didn’t take long before Leo moved into the house, and Tom and Leo took care of her and administered her dialysis for years before she passed away. But I think ... having traveled the world and seen so many exciting things, I think it may have given him an appreciation for where he came from and what a beautiful place Sussex County is between the ocean and the farms, and he always talked about the special light here in Sussex County.
“It was just a lifelong love affair with Sussex County, and that’s what he knew, and that’s where he was comfortable. I think when he had enough money in his pocket to do what he wanted to do, he wanted to do it here.”
Both Mr. Wilson and Mr. Medisch were diagnosed HIV-positive around 1990. Mr. Medisch passed away due to lung cancer 18 years after Mr. Wilson died.
The illness took a toll on Mr. Wilson’s final years when he wasn’t able to create the art he used to.
“One of the things, unfortunately, that went with Tom was his eyesight. He didn’t go blind, but he couldn’t do what he used to do in front of an easel for hours,” said Mr. Fitzgerald, who now owns a climate-controlled storage unit full of Mr. Wilson’s art.
“There came a point where he was so ill that it was difficult for him to sit up in a chair, but he would sit up in a chair for as long as he could and draw with colored pencils because he can no longer hold a paintbrush, but he could handle pencils. But they were very, very dark pieces.
“They were like the woods or the edge of the woods, but that wasn’t Tom’s normal style. But I finally realized, once we came across these last four things he ever drew, they were dark like that because that’s what Tom was seeing at that time.”
Mr. Wilson passed away May 25, 1995, surrounded by his family and friends.
“He didn’t talk about it, but it was sort of my impression that he was sort of accepting everything, and he was trying to be grateful for the life he had. That’s just my take. I don’t know. We never had that discussion. But that’s how it seemed to me,” Mr. Fitzgerald said.
An opening reception for the exhibit is set for July 1 from 5-8 p.m. Register here or by calling 302-674-2111. The Biggs Museum is at 406 Federal St., Dover.
Each year, the Biggs Museum, in partnership with the Delaware Division of the Arts, exhibits the work of the state’s Individual Artist Fellows. The “Award Winners XXII” exhibition recognizes the Fellows’ combined artistic accomplishments and will be on view until July 23.
It will also be displayed at CAMP Rehoboth from Aug. 1 to Sept. 5, with an opening reception Aug. 5, as well as at Cab Calloway School of the Arts in Wilmington from Oct. 1 to Nov. 1, with a reception Oct. 7.
In 2022, the division received work samples from 132 Delaware choreographers, composers, musicians, writers and folk, media and visual artists.
The pieces were reviewed by out-of-state art professionals, who considered the demonstrated creativity and skill in each artist’s respective medium.
Twenty-five artists were awarded fellowships. They reside statewide, including in Dover, Georgetown, Hockessin, Lewes, Magnolia, Middletown, Newark, Smyrna, Townsend and Wilmington.
‘That’s America to Me’
Tickets are on sale for the Modern Maturity Center’s Dinner Theater production of “That’s America to Me.”
The show, a look at the music of the country through the years, is set for Tuesday through Thursday. A buffet dinner is served at 6, followed by the show.
Directed by Carolyn Fredricks, all the performers are volunteers for the event, which benefits programs for older adults.
To purchase tickets, contact the center at 302-734-1200, ext. 167.
The cost is $35 per person for the dinner and show. No tickets will be sold at the door.
The Modern Maturity Center is at 1121 Forrest Ave. in Dover.
New in theaters this weekend is the highly anticipated “Elvis” and Ethan Hawke in the horror film, “The Black Phone.”