Wilson, a Calloway County, Kentucky, native, wanted to be an artist from the get-go. He studied at the Western Kentucky State Normal School in Bowling Green while also teaching art in rural schools in his home state and in Tennessee. During World War I he was stationed at Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville. Back at Western in the 1920s, Wilson taught art while still a student. He also studied at the School of the Chicago Art Institute in the early ’20s and went on a European study tour in the 1930s.
Wilson became a complete devotee of watercolor in the ’30s. He graduated from Western Kentucky University in 1931 and received a master’s degree from George Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee. His career at Western, including a stint as art department head, lasted until his retirement in 1958.
As his career waned, he became interested in developing a market for his watercolors. The Studio Guild of New York circulated 30 of his paintings in the 1950s, and, thanks to a former student, Kentucky artist and expatriate Joe Dudley Downing, Wilson had a one-man show in Paris, France, at the Raymond Duncan Gallery in 1961. Wilson’s work was shown throughout the United States, at colleges, art museums and galleries. In 1973 the Ivan Wilson Center for Fine Arts was dedicated at Western.