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Oklahoma Arts CouncilOklahoma Arts Council

Discovery and Exploration

by Charles Banks Wilson

Oil on linen
Dimensions: 13' x 27'
Commissioned by the Oklahoma Legislature in 1970
Dedicated on November 16, 1976
5th floor Rotunda

Discovery and Exploration by Charles Banks Wilson
Photo by John Jernigan

The Artwork

The Oklahoma Legislature commissioned Charles Banks Wilson to create four murals depicting the history of Oklahoma from 1541 to 1906. The first of the four historic murals, Discovery and Exploration, depicts famed Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado atop his armored horse as he led a cavalry of soldiers into the panhandle of present-day Oklahoma in search of the city of Quivira and its mythic riches of gold.

Summing up Oklahoma's history from 1541 to 1820, the mural shows Coronado and French explorers discovering the land coveted by many as a key for control of the region. Wichita Indians represent some of the Native American tribes who already inhabited the area in the 16th century. Wilson shows the Antelope Hills, important to travelers who followed the many major trails across what would become Oklahoma. Large deposits of salt on the Cimarron River were written about in early accounts of the first travelers to Oklahoma. The painting is symbolic in that it does not only represent Coronado's exploration of Oklahoma, but it also depicts symbols of all the early explorers of region.

The Artist

Charles Banks Wilson
Charles Banks Wilson
Charles Banks Wilson was born in 1918 in Arkansas and grew up in Miami, Oklahoma. Educated at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1936-1940, he was given an award from the Chicago Society of Lithographers and Etchers, and his work was added to the Art Institute collection. While at the Art Institute, he also began a project whereupon he sketched portraits of numerous members of Oklahoma's American Indian tribes – a project that would soon become a lifelong artistic journey. 

Wilson completed his education in Chicago and later returned to Oklahoma in 1943, where he established a permanent studio in Miami. Two years later, he began teaching night classes in drawing at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College. Eventually he became head of the art department, a position he held until 1960. During this period he continued to illustrate books and produce lithographs from his own press.

In 1957, he completed his first portrait commission for Tulsa oilman and collector Thomas Gilcrease. Perhaps one of Wilson's greatest achievements came when the U.S. Senate selected four of his paintings to be shown in 20 world capitals. In 2001, he was named an Oklahoma Cultural Treasure and is a member of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.

The Series

In 1970, Charles Banks Wilson was commissioned by the Oklahoma Legislature to complete four major murals in the three-dimensional triangles of the Rotunda piers. Wilson was given the challenge of depicting Oklahoma's history from the earliest recorded expedition in 1541 to the iconic scenes of settlement in 1906, the year before statehood.

Wilson spent years gathering research about Oklahoma before beginning the process of producing the murals. The research created the foundation for his preliminary sketches, of which he completed 75 for each mural. Each individual in the murals was illustrated from life. From the sketches, he created a 15-inch working drawing, which he used for reference. Wilson then built small three-dimensional clay models of each detail in the drawing, which he used for a reference of how the light would fall on each object. From there, he created several black-and-white paintings of the entire scene before finally making color choices and completing a 37-inch color painting. Then, he began work on the final product, a panel stretching 14-feet wide at the base, 25-feet wide at the top, and 13-feet high.

Upon completion in 1976, the murals were mounted on Fiberglas with hot wax resin adhesive and then placed approximately 36 feet above the 4th floor.

See the other murals in the series:
Frontier Trade (1790-1830)
Indian Immigration (1820-1885)
Non-Indian Immigration (1870-1906)