Detroit artist, professor ‘was exceptionally inspiring’

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
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Robert Wilbert left a striking, unforgettable image in the Metro Detroit art scene.

From teaching to creating bold works, the noted painter and longtime Wayne State University professor inspired scores of students and colleagues as well as enthusiasts.

“There are so many of us who were influenced by him directly as a professor and an artist,” said Fred Ward, a painter and former pupil. “He’s like the dean of the art world.”

A memorial service is planned at a later date for Mr. Wilbert, whose works have graced such spots as the Detroit Historical Museum and Susanne Hilberry Gallery in Ferndale. He died Monday, Aug. 22, 2016, at age 86.

During nearly 40 years instructing in Wayne State’s Department of Art & Art History, Mr. Wilbert colored his critiques, lectures and demonstrations with an extensive knowledge and passion for the craft.

“He could talk about all kinds of paintings and color and composition and structure,” said Michael Mahoney, a former student and longtime friend who also became a painter.

That expertise tinted everything from the illustrated materials lists he distributed to his honest appraisals of students’ efforts. “He could be a very demanding teacher, but also a very nurturing teacher,” said Jeffrey Abt, a Wayne State art professor who knew him since the late 1980s. “Students usually came away, even if they were struggling as a painter, feeling as if they learned a lot.”

Between teaching techniques, Mr. Wilbert also insisted on exploration. “Robert was very alert to seeing a student’s actual originality and encouraging it,” said Ellen Phelan, another student who became an artist and educator. “He was exceptionally inspiring.”

Mesmerized by the professor’s mastery, student and admirers welcomed his honest appraisals of their output. “He really had high standards,” said Julie Mahoney, another former student.

Sophistication was a touchstone of Mr. Wilbert’s artwork, as well. A biography showed the artist’s pieces have been exhibited at galleries across the region as well as collected by the Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan State University’s Kresge Art Center and the American Medical Association in Chicago. Commissions included designing the 1987 U.S. postage stamp commemorating Michigan’s sesquicentennial and the official portrait of Michigan Gov. James Blanchard, associates said.

Whether dabbling in oil or watercolor, portraying acquaintances or depicting landscapes, Mr. Wilbert earned renown for skillfully casting images in a fresh, captivating light.

“Robert Wilbert had a unique vision of subject matter, creating the mystical out of the ordinary, yet retaining such great subtleties,” said Linda Mendelson, a former student who went on to teach both at WSU and the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.

Ward recalls the artist advising him “to take chances with colors” and embrace “mysticism,” which mirrored Mr. Wilbert’s approach to the easel. “When you’re looking at a Wilbert painting, you’re looking at a world that is an approximation of our own, yet it’s a bit different,” he said. “If you look hard enough, it draws you in. … There’s a magic to them.”

Mr. Wilbert sought that creative outlet for most of his life.

Born Oct. 9, 1929, he started taking classes through the Art Institute of Chicago as a child, said his wife, Gretchen Wilbert. He later earned fine arts degrees from the University of Illinois.

After a brief stint as an educational assistant at the Flint Institute of Arts and instructor at what later became Mott Community College, Mr. Wilbert accepted a teaching position at Wayne State in 1956, relatives said.

Retiring in the 1990s, he kept busy at his studio and in the arts for many years — finding muses in myriad settings, his wife said. “He didn’t have any preconceptions about what was paintable. I have a painting in my back hall here — they’re just weeds.”

As such a major figure in the regional art world, he prompted a book about his career, “Robert Wilbert: Ennobling the Ordinary.” Mr. Wilbert also was honored in a 2010 exhibit at Detroit’s Scarab Club that featured his paintings as well as those from former students, said gallery director Treena Flannery Ericson. “You could really see the influence.”

From galas to outings, Mr. Wilbert remained devoted to his many friends and colleagues. “He had such long, meaningful relationships with so many people,” said Hazel Blake, who directs the Susanne Hilberry Gallery. “... He was so beloved and really was a lifelong mentor to many artists.”

Besides his wife, other survivors include three children, Matt Wilbert, Laura Griffin and Benjamin Wilbert; and 10 grandchildren.

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