Professor’s pastime—drawing at art museum—makes him viral sensation

Photo of CWRU professor Ron Wilson drawing at the Cleveland Museum of Art
Case Western Reserve University professor Ron Wilson works on a graphite drawing at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Professor Ron Wilson has received praise throughout his career as an actor, director, playwright, fight choreographer, musician and teacher. Now, he’s gaining fame—or infamy, as he calls it—as an artist, due to the recent attention his drawings received on the popular website Reddit.

Work by Wilson, the Katherine Bakeless Nason Professor of Theatre and director of the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program, went viral two weeks ago when a man snapped a picture of him doing a graphite study of a painting at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Without Wilson’s knowledge, the man posted the picture on Reddit, and within a few days, the post had more than 400 comments from people in awe of his precise, detailed work.

“Grumpy. That was my initial reaction to finding out about my drawing on the Internet because I had never given the man permission to post my image,” Wilson said. “But it has been gratifying to hear from people who have enjoyed the drawings.”

Shortly after the explosion on Reddit, Wilson was contacted by an editor from The Huffington Post, who had been on the lookout for artists to profile outside the New York art scene. Wilson agreed to an interview and shared his thoughts on his work and the overnight fame.

“Receiving instant attention online is certainly not the reason I was at the museum that day drawing,” Wilson told The Huffington Post. “Doing studies of masterpieces at the museum for me is a form of continued study.”

Wilson attended college at Wichita State University with the intention of obtaining a degree in art, but his course of study turned toward theater, where his focus has been ever since. It wasn’t until seven years ago that he decided to try his hand at drawing again.

“My artistic eye had gotten stale and I wanted to learn how to see again,” Wilson said of his return to drawing.

He studied in the states and also in France with the highly competitive Studio Escalier’s First Paris Drawing Program in 2007. Since then, he’s returned a number of times to the Paris studio as well as two other realistic figurative ateliers in the states.

He tries to take advantage of drawing at the Cleveland Museum of Art whenever he has free time.

Though he works on neoclassical statuary and paintings, Wilson prefers to draw the live model because it allows him to connect with the reality of the human figure and all its complexities; it’s all about translating the human experience.

“People fascinate me,” he said. “They always have.”

Each of his drawings takes about 50 to 60 hours and each is done in graphite, as he says “the black and white subtleties make the drawings more dramatic.” He believes his work on masterpieces to be a translation of the artist’s work as opposed to a copy.

Wilson said he uses drawing to study how a “particular artist problem-solved elements in form, gesture, perspective, composition and light. … It’s never about just making a drawing, it’s about understanding,” he said.

Understanding these elements connects with his teaching of movement for the actor. As a stage director, he has to understand space and how to place figures to tell the visual story within the context of space.

But for Wilson, who started teaching at Case Western Reserve in 1999, the arts are about searching for understanding, constantly learning and never stopping—not fame or instant Internet success.

“I was a 24-hour virus,” he said of his short-lived “infamy” on the Web. “In and out. Nothing real has happened [out of it], and I didn’t expect there to be anything.”

So, back to his regular day-to-day life, Wilson continues his passion—making and teaching theater—and heading back to the art museum regularly to hone his newest craft, drawing.

“There’s a joy that comes from having art in your life and keeping it in your life,” he said. “It enhances your existence and people that do it love it for that reason.”