Late last year, Eric Wilson opened the doors to ERG Gallery (10438 Avenue Florissant West), one of the only black-owned galleries in northern St. Louis County. He began selling his own mixed media artwork and that of community artists. “Art lives, wherever you are,” says Wilson. “If you take pride in what you do, you can be creative, and that creativity sets you apart, giving everyone their own eclectic flavor to add to the world.”
Wilson’s belief in the need for eclecticism is evident in the gallery’s name, Eclectic Retail Gallery. This can also be seen in his journey towards opening up the business. Unlike many in the art world, Wilson did not formally study art as a practitioner or as a historian.
Instead, for the past eight years, he’s been a successful entrepreneur and mentor to young men. He has also been in prison, serving a decade on federal drug charges.
Throughout it all, art has been a constant for Wilson. “It’s just my spare time thing to do,” Wilson says. “My refuge whenever I got upset or things weren’t going well.”
Now 46, Wilson grew up in Mark Twain, a historic neighborhood in the city of St. Louis. He has always been attracted to art. He remembers that he was eight years old and that he had visited the Statue of Liberty in New York. It was the last trip as part of his father’s efforts to expose his children in all 50 states. Wilson remembers being in the car with his sisters and drawing the details of the statue from memory. His father, Aaron, looked at Wilson’s work, the latest in a series of landmark sketches from these travels.
“Dad was like, ‘You’re really good. We can do something with this,'” Wilson recalled.
From then on, art became Wilson’s thing, and his father’s words repeatedly prompted him to focus on it.
In 2002, when Wilson was 27, he was arrested and charged with intent to distribute a Schedule II narcotic.
“It was just one of those things, you know,” he said. “Out, wandering the streets, doing this, doing that, at some point you all have consequences behind it. And unfortunately, my consequence was that I had to go to prison for 10 years.
In prison, Wilson focused on improving his life or himself, as he puts it. He learned the trade of electrician and went to school, earning an associate’s degree in construction management from Ashworth College. He also focused on art.
“[I wanted] all the education I could possibly get,” he says, “all the creative juice I could absorb.
When Wilson got out of prison, a friend who was a nursery school found him a job washing dishes at a Cracker Barrel. Wilson saw the contractors come to dinner and discovered that they were making a lot of money. His friend told him to learn how to do remediation work, get mold and lead certification fast, and start a contracting business. Wilson did, starting Wilson Enterprises around 2014.
In 2017, he joined Dream Builders 4 Equity, a St. Louis nonprofit that employs minority youth and contractors to complete community projects to help repair retirement homes and nursing homes. rehabilitation for housing. He started by working as a subcontractor, then became a partner/project manager. During his nearly five years there, Wilson worked on projects such as the STL Art Place Initiative, which helps artists in St. Louis build capital by providing them with affordable homes to buy.
During this time, Wilson focused on sharing his experiences by being a mentor to younger members of the community. Last December, Wilson launched a mentoring group, AMEN, which stands for Articulation, Mentoring, Education and Networking. They meet on Sunday morning at the ERG gallery. “My life is mostly my testimony,” Wilson says, adding that AMEN is also an outlet for him. “[I don’t tell them] how to do things. I usually inform them of the mistakes I made in order to teach them. i am an expert [at] spoil. I graduated summa cum laude for my mistakes.
“I spent a decade in prison,” he adds. “I’m just telling you what not to do.”
Things might have continued in this vein had it not been for Wilson’s father, who died in August last year. In the months leading up to his death, Aaron encouraged Wilson to embrace his art. Wilson viewed art as if it were a hobby. But suddenly he realized it could be more than that.
“That started the quest,” he says. At the time, he remembers thinking, “Man, I want an art gallery. I want to devote more time to art. But a lot of times we wait until we lose someone or it’s too late…it’s become, like, a mission in honor of my dad.
He began looking for space for the gallery, not seeing many in North County. Wilson wanted to change that and landed on a space in Dellwood where he had previously invested in property. Getting things done wasn’t the biggest headache, he says, but the pandemic has complicated the issues. He also had to figure out frustrating details like fine zoning distinctions.
At first, Wilson felt he had to justify his presence in the artistic community. But over time, as he produced work, he found himself satisfied and happy with his place in the world, artistic or otherwise.
A mixed media artist, Wilson produces images with literal texture. “My photos have depth,” he says. “You can touch it, you can feel it, you know. It’s not just a flat picture.
Wilson and ERG Gallery share this real depth.