Artist Wilhelmina Grant is a woman of many talents and a wonderful example that you should never stop growing and acquiring new skills. Previously a fashion model, an airline attendant, and a two-time breast cancer survivor and awareness advocate, today she’s renowned for her mixed media assemblage art, a skill she picked in her 50s. She takes discarded objects and turns them into beautiful art pieces, notably incorporating many pieces from her neighborhood in Harlem into her work.
Through her work she gets to use her creativity and is also somewhat of a cultural preservationist and historian. “It’s funny because to young people, they don’t know what some items are, take for example, vinyl,” says Grant. “They’re like ‘what’s a record?’ It’s nice to show young people what you used to have.”
We spoke to Grant about how each of her pieces comes to life, the unusual ways she’s gathered materials for her art and learn about how she got married for the first time at 63 years old.
How would you describe your art work?
Wilhelmina Grant: It’s called assemblage, I use found objects and put them together artfully. You can also call it painting with objects. I’m not classically trained, I never went to art school. My work is a combination of my own creativity and my desire to keep things out of landfills, as well as preserving some of my culture, some historical things. By putting them in art they won’t be destroyed.
Do you think that your work preserves pieces of Harlem?
Yes, whenever I come across something that I consider quintessentially Harlem, I like to use it. There’s been a lot of construction here in the past few years and when they renovate, they leave pieces in the street. I like to use things like doorknobs, hinges, wood that came out of these houses. I grab that stuff and say I make pieces out Harlem brownstones. I tell people “you can own a piece of Harlem.”
What's your craziest sourcing story for your art?
It’s all kind of crazy because I pick up things that most people just consider garbage. I find value in things people have thrown away — things that are rusted or misshapen — there’s something about them.
My craziest experience happened one morning when I left my house and there was an underpart of a car, a long pipe with an attachment, maybe five feet tall just lying there. I dragged it to the studio and I made a standing piece of art out of it, a standing statue. I put a little hat on it, used a portion of electric fan to make a skirt for it to wear.
Your art pieces have names like Bow Legged Lou. Do you get emotional when they sell and leave you?
I do! Every time I sell a piece of art, I kiss it goodbye. Some things I’ve had for a long time, as some things took a long time to make. The longest I’ve worked on something is three years. I work on about six to seven pieces at a time and the piece will tell me when it’s finished. I love my pieces and that’s why I kiss them goodbye.
You’re a breast cancer survivor, how do you inform and encourage others through your story?
I have done some grant-funded projects, related to awareness. At the end of the grant, I would have a public display of the art the participants created. They invited friends and neighbors and helped spread the message of early detection. That also extended to men getting information about colon and prostate cancer. It’s worked very well and started a non-profit to get grants. Initially everyone poo-pooed my combination of art and early detection but now everyone does it, so I don’t need to do it as much. I’ve moved on to the next thing which for me is the senior and aging population. I want to help keep their minds occupied and network with others.
You just got married for the first time at 63. What message do you have for people who think they're too old to fall in love?
They’re missing out! I didn’t get married before because I hadn’t met the right person yet. I waited all this time and I knew I would end up with the right guy eventually and never gave up hope.
We met accidentally and it was such a coincidence meeting at this festival in South Carolina. I decided to go at the last minute, so that was one coincidence. When we met, he assumed I was married and I assumed he was married so we both ignored each other. As we got to know each other, we had so many people in common. We have the same habits, good and bad and we’re just a great match.