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Portrait of Maud Mellish Wilson

Mayo Clinic pioneer Maud Mellish Wilson gets immortalized in art

Rochester MN, USA painter Mike King created the painting based on one of the few existing photos of Maud Mellish Wilson, the early Mayo Clinic editor and librarian. Mike tributes to the portrait course he took from Angel Academy of Art last year, that was instrumental in his gaining this commission.

Thousands of words are worth a picture, and a local artist’s newly completed portrait of Maud Mellish Wilson is proof. Rochester-based painter Mike King was recently commissioned to complete a large portrait of Mellish Wilson to hang on the 14th floor of the Plummer Building in the Mayo Clinic’s staff library.

King’s large portrait of Mellish Wilson, measuring 61 inches tall by 43 inches wide, now hangs directly across the reading room from a similar portrait depicting Mayo founders Dr. William Mayo and Dr. Charles Mayo.

“Part of the idea behind the pose and the positioning of the piece was to emphasize her stature and her relationship with the physicians,” says King. “She looks directly across to them at more or less the same literal and figurative level,” he adds.

Mellish Wilson played an integral part in nurturing Mayo Clinic’s academic spirit by establishing its first library and serving as an editor for the publication now known as the Mayo Clinic Proceedings. She first joined the Mayo practice in 1907, and in 1914 she became director of its division of publications, the library and an art studio.

“In an era when women were viewed more as subordinates, she was well respected by physicians and researchers,” says King. He adds that Mellish Wilson was chosen as an exemplary figure to memorialize by the Mayo Clinic in an effort to recognize the contributions women have made to the institution. “I saw her as elegant, feminine, and with a strong and determined character,” he says.

King, who says he’s been drawing since childhood, majored in art and art history.

“After college, I spent a couple of years drawing portraits and figures and simply sketching from life,” he says. “I decided that studying medical illustration might satisfy my interests (which) lead to some fine arts discoveries, and, importantly, allow me have a professional career using artistic skills.”

King earned a master’s in fine arts in medical biological illustration and moved to Rochester in 1992, accepting a position as a medical illustrator at the Mayo Clinic. He’s worked for more than 30 years in the field of medical illustration, and he currently also works as a painter.

“Throughout my professional life,” he says, “I’ve tried to focus on self-improvement,

I’ve tried to focus on self-improvement, continued learning, and staying open to opportunities.”

Most recently, King expanded his knowledge of portraiture by studying his craft in Italy. “Last fall I spent six weeks in Florence at the Angel Academy of Art. They offer an intensive portrait course,” he says. “I studied with (notable artist and principal instructor at Angel Academy of Art) Jered Woznicki.”

Some of King’s large format illustrations for Mayo Clinic brought him to the attention of Sharon Erdman who works in the department of facilities at Mayo Clinic as a Mayo Clinic exhibit manager and in patient experience design. Erdman played an important role in the Plummer Library Historical Suite redesign. “After seeing some of my recent work in oil, she reached out to me about this commission,” says King.

King based his portrait on a photograph taken by Mellish Wilson’s husband. “There are only a few existing photos of Maud in the historical records,” says King. The photo King chose to work from shows Mellish Wilson wearing lace, vest and dress and seated looking straight into the camera with a faint smile.

“Because the sepia photo was shot with strongly contrasting split lighting, her face is half in light and half in shadow, there was little visual information in the half tones and shadows,” says King. “With a few of the other existing photos of her, I was able to discern more of her facial features.”

King says Mayo Clinic library staff found a letter written by Mellish Wilson’s husband, Dr. Louis Wilson, that described her hair and eye color.

King says he worked hard to avoid anachronism in his portrait. He worked to create a portrait in the classical realism style. He says he also studied the portraits in the Mayo Clinic collection created by Louis Betts to inform his style.

Before working on the large portrait, King made adjustments to his photographic references, made mockups, created small pencil sketches and painted two color studies. The portrait itself started with a detailed charcoal drawing directly on linen. King says he built up the painting in several passes letting early layers dry before using a “wet into wet” technique for the top layer. In all, King spent several months completing the portrait.

“I found this to be a challenging and rewarding project,” says King. “As someone who’s familiar with Mayo’s culture and history, I was especially honored and thankful to have been considered for this project.” King says he hopes that the portrait serves as an homage to Mellish Wilson’s legacy. He also hopes it helps its viewers reflect on other lesser known pioneering women “whose unsung accomplishments have aided in the advancement of medicine.”

To learn more about Maud Mellish Wilson’s life, watch this biography: