As his name might suggest, sculptor, architect and art professor Alexander Wilds is not one to have his position in life nailed down. The free-spirited South Carolina native, who spent more than 20 years living as a rural agrarian artist near Mt. Fuji, will exhibit many of his sculptures and paintings one last time in the U.S. in St. Augustine’s Amiro Art & Found gallery before again making Japan his home. The Jan. 3 opening is part of St. Augustine’s First Friday Art Walk.
Wilds, who earned a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota and a master of fine arts at Tulane University, says it’s “time to get back to life” in Japan, his adopted home from 1985 to 2007. He’s taught sculpture at Benedict College, a historically black college in Columbia, S.C., since 2008, after moving back to care for his mother, but plans to return with his family to Japan next summer as a founding faculty member of the International College of Liberal Arts in Yamanashi.
“This is a very rare chance to be an art professor in Japan,” he says. “There aren’t many opportunities like that, so I’m taking it, by golly!”
Wilds is friendly and upbeat, without a hint of the sort of jaded pessimism you might expect from a late-career artist and academic who spent more than two decades working in near solitude in a remote foreign village.
“I’d get up and go to my studio that I built out of an old Buddhist temple and make sculptures all day long, and didn’t talk to anybody about anything,” he said. “I could be happily silent all day without a word leaving my lips, and be very content.”
These days, Wilds likes to chat it up and even play a little blues guitar, which he plans to break out for a jam session during the Jan. 3 show opening reception.
Ginny Bullard, one of six all-women co-owners of Amiro Art & Found, says she’s excited to host Wilds’ collection during First Friday Art Walk.
“Aviles Street gets really busy in a fun way on First Fridays,” Bullard says. “It’s sort of like a block party there, because we generally get permission from the city to close off the street to traffic so it becomes a pedestrian-friendly art walk, which is fun.”
Although Wilds shies away from labels — including choosing not to name pieces in most cases, at least initially — he works mostly in wood, bronze and other cast metals. He says he naturally thinks like a sculptor in everything he creates.
“People who are painters, they tend to think in terms of color and light, and graphic designers tend to draw sort of flat designs. But for me, I look at a piece of paper as one piece of empty room, so when I draw objects, I create the illusion that you’re looking through a window at an object. If you look at drawings by sculptors versus drawings by painters, there’s a physicality to their drawings that is not intentional. That’s just how they see things,” Wilds says.
Included in the exhibit are several of Wilds’ abstract paintings of the St. Johns River overlooking Anastasia Island, which he says he was inspired to create after an extended visit.
Most of the pieces featured in the exhibit are sculptures of what he calls the principal subject of art and sculpture — the female nude. Wilds says he is less interested in the human figures he creates, however, and more interested in the interrelationship between the sculpted materials.
“I make figures so that people don’t ask, ‘What is it?’ I only want them to ask, ‘Do you like the way it looks?’ And I could make guitars, or cars, or cowboy boots — it could be a different motif, but I don’t want people to concern themselves about what it is. I want to know if they like the shapes, the colors,” he says.
The show will also feature several sculptures and drawings by Wilds’ Japanese-native wife, artist Yukiko Oka, whom he calls his greatest inspiration and muse.
“She’s the absolute opposite of me. I’m 59; she’s 34. I have a Ph.D.; she’s a sixth-grade dropout. I speak English; she speaks Japanese. We’re a perfect match,” Wilds says.
Japan is also the perfect home for Wilds, and he says he’s eager to spend the next chapter of his life back in his happiest place.
“I wanted more than America had to offer, and I found it! I went over looking for the great Zen quiet happiness, and it’s there. You can find it,” he says. “Of course, you can find it here in South Carolina too, or in Florida. You don’t have to go anywhere – but adventure is good for you!”