“The average person looks at artwork for seven seconds or less,”
Kat Wilson explains, “so I wanted more engagement.”
This was the first goal of the artist Kat Wilson when she began developing her Habitat series in 2004, a goal that remains true as the series continues today. Habitat is comprised of digital photographs that explore the lives and personalities of each subject through elaborate orchestrations of their possessions and everyday environment. The result is a revealing reflection on the subject’s self, which, like the artist who created it, is presented strong, unabashed and unafraid.
In 1411 Towson Avenue (2004) Wilson depicts her father and two friends seated in an automobile shop. The objects that surround them, shovels, chains, and various car parts elude them to be hard workers that use their hands. They meet the viewers gaze straight on, pridefully. Although the subjects are elevated in the center of the frame, their objects artistically arranged in perfect composition around them, they do not look like the over-esteemed typical artist portrait. They feel like real people.
Wilson is able to truthfully capture the essence of the sitters for each of her photographs because they are often people who she knows and lives around. She reiterates this by saying, “You know when you live in a certain demographic, you’re just living, and you’re just documenting the life around you and… [It changes] as your life changes and you change as a person.” As an artist based in the ever-growing art scene in northwest Arkansas, part of whom Kat Wilson documents, are, in fact, other artists. Her Portrayal series, which features artists such as Kevin Arnold and Sam King, provides a unique look into a specific group of artists all connected within the NWA area. However, along with these artist icons, she also highlights groups of individuals who have long been overlooked, such as women, the poor, single mothers, and minority members. It is those from these groups who champion the frames of the artist’s Habitat series. When asked what drives her to go beyond portraiture in her artwork, and into the realm of tackling social issues, Kat Wilson responds:
“I am a lesbian in Arkansas…It was terrible in the 90s being a lesbian in Arkansas. But you know, it’s gotten so good now. I didn’t stand up for being gay at all and I just hid in the closet and I didn’t fight for any of the rights that I am now allowed to have.
Like being married. I never thought I’d get married. And so, when women started to really get treated better, when finally we were paid attention to, it was really important to add social practice to my work. But also, I felt empowered. I was no longer feeling like a chicken. I’ve gotten older. I’ve been around people that have stood up. I want to give a shout out to John Rankin, for example, a fellow fine art photographer; he’s fought for gay rights his whole life. Thank you for making it so I can get married. So, it’s my duty, I believe, since I didn’t stand up for that then, to stand up for it right now.”
One of Wilson’s most recent Habitats, The Baptism of Shannon McGill, is one such work that delves into the realm of social practice. Looking at the photograph, you can see a poised African-American woman, her hair and shirt damp from rising out the waters of the tub beneath her. Like many of Wilson’s Habitats, the work employs the Renaissance triangle, a strong and steadfast compositional method that catches and leads the viewer’s eyes. While items such as a typewriter, red converse, a blanket, and sketchbook sit at the base of the visual triangle, Shannon McGill crowns it with confidence. The objects serve to tell a story about the subject. The typewriter states that she is a writer or reporter, while the record on the floor says that she is a fan of the Wu-Tang Clan. Additionally, a stack of notebooks, textbooks, and a laptop says that McGill is definitely a student. However, there are some objects that are not so clearly narrated, such as the significance of the bathtub as well as the small urn that rests on the blanket.
“Shannon McGill, she has that podcast, Shannon Out Loud and she fights for social justice…” Kat Wilson begins, “Somebody dressed up as a Klan member for a Halloween costume at one of the local bars and Shannon went and interviewed the owners and the bartenders and got the whole story for a podcast the next day… she’s a black woman that was scared. Sure. So that’s power. She just looks powerful. Her portrait, I call it the baptism of Shannon McGill because she has recently lost a baby in utero. She had twins and one baby died while still in the womb… [and] she’s getting a divorce now… She went back to school and… She’s living her best life now…. She went through that dark period… So, she’s in her bathtub and she dipped down and came up. And I just thought as a baptism, that’s a rebirth, a new start to life… kind of rising up against everything that you’ve been through.“
The power of Kat Wilson’s work does not go unnoticed. From October 2018 to March 2019, photographs from Kat Wilson’s Habitat series can be seen in Personal Space, a focus exhibition at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. In addition, YEAR OF THE KAT, a solo exhibition at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith Windgate Art and Design Gallery, featured Wilson’s Habitat, Selfie Throne, Warrior Women, and Emoji series. YEAR OF THE KAT was on display throughout the entire month of March at the university.
“Right now, my work is hanging at Crystal Bridges between an Andy Warhol and a Georgia O’Keefe” Kat Wilson begins, “It took me a long time to get here.”
Like all artists, Wilson first had to make a choice, that is, to pursue art.
“It’s so crazy. I remember the first time I saw a black and white photo was at this art thing at the [UAFS] campus. I was in high school, I was in the art department, and somebody was showing me these black white photos they had taken…and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God black and white photography you could do that? I think I might try that out’ So I borrowed my camera, I think I was 15 or 16, and I got some black and white film and I worked as a lifeguard…and I started to photograph the lifeguards who would model for me right. And I just kind of fell in love with it.”
It wasn’t long after, that Kat Wilson was studying photography at UCA in Conway under Maxine Payne. During that time, some artists and even professors still had a hard time viewing photography as fine art. Despite this, Wilson took a stand and pursued her passion, and even fell more in love with the medium. It was this determination that led the artist to the acclaim she now sees today. Along with having her artwork on display at Crystal Bridges, Kat Wilson has won awards at the Annual Delta Exhibition as well as been voted the “Best Fine Art Photographer” in Idle Class Magazine for the years of 2016 and 2017. She has also had numerous group and solo exhibitions across Arkansas.
Wilson does not rest on her laurels, her aspirations are set ever higher. Her future plans include opening up what she calls “the MFA Store” near her studio in Fayetteville, where she will be selling her art and art prints. In addition, Kat Wilson’s ‘next big project’ is a photo tour with artist and mentor, Maxine Payne. “I can’t give too much away” Wilson states, “…but this project, the trailer, and camera, will be used for ‘art magic’. There will be a major performance art aspect and we’ll basically play exaggerations of ourselves pulling out all the Ozark folklore, magic, and medicine for the sake of art.” While new projects are always on the agenda for the artist, Wilson’s Habitat series is here to stay. “I’ll never stop making Habitats,” she says, an affirmation stating that taking a stand for social change will always be the artist’s to-do list.