To fully capture how interesting R. David Wilson’s life has been, you'd need a very long non-fiction novel illustrated with world maps.
After growing up in Whitefish, Wilson graduated from high school in Brazil before living in Spain, teaching in Chile on a Fulbright exchange, living in Mexico and traveling to impoverished agricultural villages in Honduras during a decade of work as a translator for a group of volunteers called Missoula Medical Aid, which delivers medical care to thousands of people in urgent need.
And those are just some of the highlights of Wilson’s life.
He also adopted an infant daughter in Chile who has now made him a grandfather. He ran a drywall company and worked in the historic Many Glacier Hotel after the tourists left. He taught Spanish for many years at Big Sky High School in Missoula. He’s an accomplished painter. He's traveled to Cuba. And he spent many summers teaching the children of migrant cherry orchard workers in the Flathead Valley for the federal Migrant Education Program.
This month, Dudley Dana is featuring Wilson as the Dana Gallery’s first-ever Artist Humanitarian of the Year. There will be a formal ceremony and open house on Saturday, Jan. 20, from noon to 5 p.m. at the downtown gallery on North Higgins Avenue.
“David has given freely of his time to encourage, teach and inspire any number of artists in the Missoula community,” Dana said in a statement next to the area where Wilson’s works are displayed. “We have represented and known David personally for 14 years. In that time he has routinely showed us in working and interacting with other artists and gallery staff the primary characteristics of a humanitarian individual.
"He is certainly one of the most compassionate, generous, kind and least self-serving persons in the art world and the world in general.”
Now retired, Wilson lives near Missoula’s Hip Strip neighborhood and takes long walks with his dog Coco on the Kim Williams Trail almost every day. Often, he spots a scene that strikes him and sits down for a plein air (outdoors) painting session. About half of his paintings are done that way, while some are done from his apartment window or from photographs of families he took in Honduras.
He uses heavy oils, and likes to make quick, unplanned motions as he paints to create a more “unpredictable” look to his art. His work has a lot of texture and color, and his eye is attracted to the natural beauty of Missoula, especially the river and the fall colors.
“My mother was an artist, and I was an only child,” he explained. “So I started when I was very young.”
Wilson was known as “Senõr Wilson” to his high school students at Big Sky, where he still donates paintings for raffles to support Aerie International, an award-winning literary arts magazine for students around the world that is edited exclusively by students at Big Sky High School.
He still has a very special place in his heart for Guanajuato, Mexico, where he spent a year on sabbatical working as an artist.
“Artistic life in Mexico can be a 24-hour roller coaster of workshops, gallery openings, animated discussion and artistic interchange that leads one to believe it is a bona fide existence,” he said.
Wilson also has a whole series of paintings from his time traveling with Missoula Medical Aid. That group formed in 1999 as a response to the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which killed 11,000 people and left 2.7 million people homeless in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
“I was one of the translators,” Wilson recalled. “The goal was to create self-sustaining public clinics for people to come by the hundreds.”
The group performed both routine care and critical surgical procedures, and continues to help countless thousands of people every year.
Wilson said the indigenous communities have been hit hard by gang culture and other factors, but he has a great fondness for the people and culture in Honduras.
“It was a life-changing experience,” he said.
Wilson was surprised this month when Dana informed him that he was featuring his work at the gallery. But for Dana, it was an easy decision to make.
“David is one of those rare individuals who make all around them better,” Dana said.