Former art teacher dies

Carl Wilson, a former art teacher who started the Harvard art program in 1970, died this morning of cancer. He was 68.

Wilson was hospitalized in late December and subsequently returned to his Pasadena home, where he died. He attended the school holiday party Dec. 19 with his partner, Dan Gumbleton, before he was diagnosed.

Wilson retired in 2006. The art teacher was known for his devotion and his sense of humor: Wilson would don a tall, sparkly silver hat to demonstrate to his AP History of Art class the pinnacles structurally necessary to counteract the pressure of flying buttresses in a cathedral tower.

“He was free of the pomposity that frequently afflicts master teachers and he was a cultural omnivore if ever there was one,” President Thomas C. Hudnut wrote in an e-mail to the faculty this morning. “He was also, and more importantly, a great friend and colleague if ever there was one.”

Wilson was hired by Harvard headmaster Chris Berrisford in 1970 to start an art program at the then-military school. He told people that when he arrived, there wasn’t a crayon to be found.

Wilson already had some experience in founding art departments. When he accepted a teaching post at a school in Iran, he thought he would be teaching English as a second language. However, Wilson had a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Redlands, and the headmaster of the Iranian school asked him to start an art department instead.

He grew up in Garden Grove, California, but he was a man with an international background. Wilson served in the Peace Corps as an elementary school teacher in the Philippines and worked in England before he moved to Iran.

Wilson earned a master’s degree in theology from Union Theological Seminary in 1966.

When he retired, Wilson told a Chronicle reporter, “I have an absolute screaming passion for art history. It is the most exciting subject I can think about because you get so much of the human mind and the human soul and the love and the hate and the agony. It’s just right there in front of you.”

A memorial service in the chapel is being planned.

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