Eric Wilson opened ERG Gallery in Dellwood last year.
Late last year, Eric Wilson opened the doors at ERG Gallery (10438 W Florissant Avenue)
, one of the only Black-owned galleries in north St. Louis County. He began selling his own mixed-media artwork and that of community artists. “Art lives, wherever you do,” Wilson says. “If you take pride in what you do, then you can be creative and then that creativity sets you apart from other people, which gives everybody their own eclectic flavor to add to the world.”
Wilson’s belief in the necessity of eclecticism shows up in the gallery’s name, Eclectic Retail Gallery. It also shows up in his path toward opening the business. Unlike many in the art world, Wilson hasn’t formally studied art as either a practitioner or as a historian.
Instead, for the last eight years he’s been a successful contractor and a mentor to young men. He’s also been to prison, serving a decade for federal drug charges.
Throughout it all, art has been a constant for Wilson. “It’s just my free time thing to do,” Wilson says. “My refuge whenever I got upset or things weren’t looking right.”
Now 46, Wilson grew up in Mark Twain, a historic neighborhood in St. Louis city. He was always drawn to making art. He recalls being eight years old and visiting the Statue of Liberty in New York. It was the latest trip in his father’s effort to expose his children to all 50 states. Wilson remembers being in the car with his sisters and sketching the statue’s details from memory. His father, Aaron, looked at Wilson’s work, the latest in a series of monument sketches from these trips.
“Dad was like, ‘You really good. We can do something with this,’” Wilson recalls.
From that moment, art became Wilson’s thing, and his father’s words have driven him time and again 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 says. “Out, wandering the streets, doing this doing that, at some point, you got consequences all come behind that. And unfortunately, my consequence was, I had to go to prison for 10 years.”
In prison, Wilson focused on improving his life or “homing in” on himself, as he puts it. He learned the electrical trade and went to school, earning an associate degree in construction management from Ashworth College. He also focused on art.
“[I wanted] all the education I could possibly get,” he says, “all of the creative juices I could absorb.”
When Wilson got out of prison, a friend who was a manger found him a job washing dishes at a Cracker Barrel. Wilson saw the contractors coming in to dine and found out they made good money. His friend told him to learn how to do remediation work, earn a quick mold and lead certification, and start a contracting business. Wilson did so, launching Wilson Enterprises around 2014.
In 2017, he joined Dream Builders 4 Equity, a St. Louis nonprofit that employs minority youth and contractors to do community projects to help fix up seniors homes and rehab houses for habitation. He started out doing contracting work and then became a partner/project manager. In his nearly five years there, Wilson has worked on projects such as the STL Art Place Initiative, which helps St. Louis artists build equity by offering them affordable homes to buy.
Meanwhile, Wilson focused on sharing his experiences by being a mentor to young community members. Last December, Wilson launched a mentoring group, A.M.E.N., which stands for articulating, mentoring, educating and networking. They meet Sunday mornings at ERG Gallery. “My life is mainly my testimony,” Wilson says, adding that A.M.E.N. is also an outlet for him. “[I don’t tell them] how to do things. I typically inform them on the mistakes that I made in an effort to teach them. I'm an expert [at] messing up. I've graduated summa cum laude of messing up.
“Spent a decade in prison,” he adds. “I only tell you what you shouldn’t do.”
Things might have continued on in this vein if it wasn’t for Wilson’s father, who passed away in August of last year. In the months before his death, Aaron encouraged Wilson to embrace his art. Wilson had been looking at art like it was a hobby. But suddenly he realized that 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 put more time into art.’ But a lot of times we wait until we’re losing somebody or it’s too late … it became, like, a mission in my dad’s honor.”
He started looking around for a space for the gallery, not seeing many in north county. Wilson wanted to change that and landed on a space in Dellwood where he’d invested in property before. Getting things going wasn’t the biggest headache, he says, but the pandemic complicated issues. He also had to figure out frustrating details such as fine zoning distinctions.
At first, Wilson felt that he had to justify his presence in the arts community. But over time, as he produced work, he found himself satisfied and happy with his place in the world, arts or otherwise.
A mixed-media artist, Wilson produces images with literal texture. “My pictures 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 that real depth.