The Watercolors of Mr. Risley

Risley watercolor 1974

In the October 8 issue of The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl talks about the art created by Bill Traylor, an artist who was born a slave in Alabama, died in 1949, and was buried in a pauper’s grave in Montgomery. Much of Traylor’s work is lost; what remains does so only because a collector pulled together a Traylor show in 1940 at which nothing sold and the artist fell into obscurity. Now, Traylor is the subject of a “stunning retrospective” at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. This reminds me of George Risley and his art that was lost some 40 years ago.

George Risley was the first curator of the National Automotive History Collection at the Detroit Public Library. I worked at the library when Mr. Risley was there (we were all Mr., Mrs., or Miss at the library in the 1970s), and I remember him as a kindly and modest older man who said little and worked hard at maintaining a major collection of materials related to the automobile industry.

When Mr. Risley died, he left, much to everyone’s surprise, a pile of paintings behind, and they were given to the library’s Fine Arts Department. I remember clearly that a memo was sent to the staff to come up to the stacks and pick through the paintings, all unframed, and take whatever we wanted.

I rushed up to the stacks and rifled through the drawings, dozens of them, some black-and-white sketches, some portraits, many watercolors. I thought they were stunning. Who knew that Mr. Risley was such a wonderful artist? It led me to wonder why his life’s artwork was being treated with such disregard by his family and his colleagues. I remember one librarian in particular who was in charge of the donation; she warned us to grab whatever we wanted because the rest was “headed for the trash.”

I pulled six pieces from the pile; I wish I had taken them all. I have one highly detailed sketch of the Detroit Public Library, a portrait of “Miss Ladd” who worked in the Language and Literature Department, and watercolors of a floral arrangement, an elevator operator, a cluster of buildings, and a delicate self-portrait that seems to capture him mid-word. Through the years I have come to admire those paintings more and more. They may not be as original or remarkable as those of Bill Traylor, but they are all quite lovely.

The fate of Mr. Risley’s art is a painful reminder that the work of many artists and writers is available to us today only because a collector saved them from the incinerator. A sensitive art librarian would have had all of Mr. Risley’s work framed, mounted an exhibit, and sold them all at an art auction with proceeds to the library. Neglect is also often the friend of preservation, and another alternative would have been to stick them in an attic somewhere so they could be “discovered” as were the brilliant photographs of Vivian Maier, which lay for half a century in undiscovered boxes.

Who knows? Maybe there is another pile of Mr. Risley’s paintings somewhere waiting to be discovered. Right now, however, I cannot find a single online reference to his art, not even in an obituary.

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