A Consummate Cultural Provocateur

Kansas City artist Don Wilkison (right) has been collaborating with his daughter Sarah Star Wilkison since 2014 on multi-faceted projects including “Social Tension” (2021), which looks at the current state of communication in the world, especially as it relates to political discourse in a pandemic. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Kansas City Artist Don Wilkison Has Dedicated His Career to Disrupting the Status Quo

In an era of political paranoia, propaganda and literal armed uprisings, never has it been so essential for the people to have an ally in the arts. And in Kansas City, the people are fortunate to have a champion in artist Don Wilkison.

Using the alias Minister of Information, or M.O.I., Wilkison is a consummate cultural provocateur — part eco-warrior, part scientist and part artist. His ideas embody logic and a relentless optimism in humanity’s potential to find redemption for its many injustices.

With the zeal and unsparing eye of a 21st-century Upton Sinclair, Wilkison believes it is incumbent upon all artists to create art. “You need to make work. When you don’t have money and resources, still make work, whatever it is. You can make bad work, and that’s okay. But keep your brain going.”

And putting this mantra into action has resulted in an extensive body of work for the Minister of Information, who describes himself as an interdisciplinary artist. His media include sculpture, painting, film, performative art, printmaking and photography. In addition to public outdoor spaces, his artwork has been exhibited at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute in Morrilton, Ark., and the Charlotte Street Foundation in Kansas City. Wilkison also participated in the Santa Fe Art Museum’s Water Rights Residency and the Troost Neighborhood Residency in Kansas City.

Trained as a hydrologist, Wilkison described how his early scientific career begat the M.O.I. pseudonym. Wishing to separate his work in the arts and sciences, the secret identity allowed him to compartmentalize the two roles. The Minister gained further notoriety when Wilkison and his friends entertained the idea of creating a write-in candidate for a Kansas City mayoral election. If all had gone according to plan, Wilkison would have served as the serious front man on behalf of the phantom candidate. But ultimately, Wilkison admits, “the acronym M.O.I. is kind of making fun of being an artist. Try not to take yourself too seriously.”

Wilkison’s humility and whimsical approach to his role as a disruptor of the status quo belie the gravity of his work. “I prefer to approach art as solving problems,” he explains. “And that’s how I look at things.” Like any good artist, the Minister entices his audience into asking themselves uncomfortable questions, and although he does not revel in their torment, he is unrelenting in the view that constant self-reflection is a healthy imperative. “We all have to continuously ask ourselves — what are we doing? Why are we doing it? Let’s think about that.”

Back in 2016, during the twilight of the Obama administration, the word socialism returned to Americans’ public dialogue. Wielded as a destructive specter by conservative politicians, the term brought with it the attendant baggage of Red Scares from the 1920s and 1950s. The extent to which socialism has been rhetorically weaponized makes informed discussion about what it actually means fraught with difficulty, which is no doubt by design. To quell the miasma of misinformation, Wilkison and his daughter, Sarah Star, forged an alliance — the Father-Daughter Confessional (FDC). With a mandate to “examine the sins of middle-class America through the lens of age, gender and middle-class economics,” FDC created an interactive experience in the finest traditions of civic discourse.

“Cut Your Hair in the Socialist Style” (2016) included a performance component (right), in which guest speakers sat in barber chairs and received haircuts from Sarah Star as they engaged in discussion of sociopolitical topics. The provocative poster represents another dimension of the project. (from the Artist)

Funded by a Rocket Grant from the Charlotte Street Foundation and the Spencer Museum of Art, “Cut Your Hair in the Socialist Style” was a work of art and a functional barbershop that the FDC duo established within the old Katz Drug Store on Main Street. “I’m most proud of the work my daughter and I do together. True collaborative work. We get along well, and we’re not afraid to critique each other.”

An irreverent reference to the short-lived North Korean television program “Let’s Trim Our Hair in Accordance with the Socialist Lifestyle” (which instructed viewers on how to groom themselves in a way that did not reflect capitalist values), the FDC project featured propaganda-style posters that espoused the virtue of a well-kept head of hair.

But central to the exhibition were a pair of barber chairs to be occupied by guest speakers, each of whom would receive a haircut as they engaged with visitors and gave public programs. These discussions addressed sociopolitical topics like urban decay, alternative economies, and the role of art in a social democracy. Reflecting on his goals for “Cut Your Hair,” Wilkison explained that by sitting in a chair for a haircut, the presenters would be at the same level as their audience, and the former’s vulnerability would create an equitable, fluid environment — one that facilitated the free exchange of ideas.

For last year’s “Unsolicited Proposals” project, protest signs addressing the role of white privilege and discrimination at institutions such as The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. (from the artist)

A Commitment to Social Justice

A longtime resident of Kansas City, Wilkison finds it an easy place to live and work, and he appreciates the opportunities the community affords for people to take risks in their art. “You can do pretty much anything in this town. Whether or not anyone takes notice of it is one thing, but there is a lot of openness to experiment in this city.”

And although the political element of the Minister’s work can pose challenges, he insists, “if you’re a contemporary artist, your work really has to be aware of social justice issues.” It was the pair of intersecting crises in the summer of 2020 — a pandemic and entrenched institutional racism — that led Wilkison to conceive a new undertaking, “Unsolicited Proposals.” As communities throughout the nation grappled with histories and symbols of racism, Kansas City reckoned with its own legacy of oppression. For example, some public spaces bearing the name of J.C. Nichols, a city father and avowed racist, have since been renamed.

For last year’s “Unsolicited Proposals” project, Wilkison created 22 protest signs addressing the role of white privilege and discrimination at institutions such as The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. He mounted the signs on the chain link fence surrounding a construction site at the Nelson-Atkins, where they were soon removed by museum security. (from the artist)

But there are exceptions. During the summer phase of the city’s pandemic experience, the Minister of Information, like many people, found solace in taking a socially distant outdoor stroll. He recalls that despite construction at the north entrance plaza to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, it remained a popular destination for pedestrians. It was here that Wilkison observed a courtyard still bearing the name of J.C. Nichols, one of the museum’s original trustees and a champion of exclusionary property development. According to Wilkison, Nichols’ true legacy is that of a man who “built an empire on white privilege and wealth concentration.” As the artist delved further into the history of Kansas City, he saw the ways in which Nichols created parks and affluent neighborhoods to insulate places like the Nelson-Atkins from people he found undesirable. Such decisions contribute to the marginalization and discrimination that people of color in Kansas City endure to this day.

For “Unsolicited Proposals,” the Minister of Information’s response to this injustice, he decided “I should just make my own signs,” an art form he notes is “inherently socially distant” and reflects the spirit of protest that defines our times. Relying primarily on re-purposed material, Wilkison created 22 signs, and on Indigenous People’s Day, he adorned the chain link fence surrounding the Nelson-Atkins’ construction site with them.

For last year’s “Unsolicited Proposals” project, protest signs addressing the role of white privilege and discrimination at institutions such as The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. (from the artist)

The signs bore messages that were political, provocative, and challenged the idea of whom museums exist to serve with declarations like “Community / Not Policing” and “Yes, Your Racially Insensitive Neighborhood Should be Eliminated.” In explaining that his efforts were a legitimate exercise of free speech, he said, “the work is installed in a common space completely outside the purview of (the museum’s) control. The Nelson does not own the city right-of-way, the air above it, nor the fence upon which the art is installed.”

Nonetheless, the art museum had the signs removed within hours and kept them.

“It took them a while to figure out what to do with it,” Wilkison said. “Some of it was pretty political stuff. I kind of expected them to take it down.”

Undeterred, he sent the museum an invoice for the artwork. “We don’t work for free. Pay me or give me the work back.”

And while the debt remains unpaid and the questions about the institution’s fealty to J.C. Nichols go unanswered, the Minister of Information will continue to do what he does best — bringing impactful and thought-provoking art to the people.

For more about Wilkison, visit his website at warriorantpress.com.

Matthew Thompson

Matthew Thompson is an educator, historian, and writer who has lived in Kansas since 2005. His research interests include Progressivism and the Socialist Party of America, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War. He enjoys studying visual arts to help make the world and its history accessible and exciting to others.

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