Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Portraits capture essence of Kat Wilson’s subjects
In the portrait, Mark Landon Smith, Fayetteville actor, comic, playwright and director of Arts Live Theatre, is surrounded by the things he loves — toys, luggage, souvenirs of his travels, his signature hats, an album cover featuring Randall Shreve and a pillow reflecting the golden age of Hollywood.
Photographer Kat Wilson described “the stuff people choose to put in their portraits as a new ‘iconography,’ because we read the objects in the photographs to learn about the sitter.”
Smith said what viewers will learn about him is that his tastes are “eclectic.”
Wilson said she hopes viewers of her two shows — “Habitats,” which includes the portrait of Smith, and “Portrayals,” photographs of artists from around the state shot in their studios — will learn that “Arkansas has great artists, and we’re growing and
getting bigger and better.”
Wilson, originally from Fort Smith, has been shooting the “Habitats” series for about a decade. It was born of an effort to “elevate the status” of her photography to the realm of fine art. She was challenged, she said, by professors at the University of Central Arkansas during her undergraduate work there. One of them told her photography wasn’t really art. The other said: “Well, your photographs are nice, but I only want to look at them for a second.”
She set out to fix that — but the concept for the photo series was pure serendipity.
“My sister was helping me move back in the early 2000s, and she dropped a bowling pin out of a box,” Wilson remembered. “She said, ‘Oh, let’s not break one of Kat’s treasures,’ and I thought, ‘What if I went to people’s houses and looked at all the stuff they had and how they’re showing it off?’
“They were well received, so I just kept doing it.”
It wasn’t always easy — and sometimes it didn’t even feel safe. One shoot was in Perryville, population 1,460.
“It was so remote, and I didn’t know the people at all — it looked like something straight out of a ‘Jason’ movie,” she remembered. “And they wanted this wheelchair in it …”
In the end, she said, “I ended up drinking PBRs with them, and it was all OK.”
Although the “Habitats” series got her into graduate school at the University of Arkansas — 10 years after she finished her undergraduate degree — Wilson had to find something new for her thesis project. Thus was born “Portrayals.” The idea was to shoot artists in their studios but, she said, “it was boring. How many paint brushes can you look at?”
The series evolved from portraits to “portrayals, examining the subject’s relationship to his work, his public persona and his private realities” — or, as Wilson described it, “gossip” about him.
By way of explanation, she pointed to the portrait of artist Kevin Arnold, portrayed strapped to a mattress that he’s painted.
“He feels like he’s stuck doing this because it’s successful, so he’s really tied to his work,” she said. “Plus, he kind of uses his art as a seduction tool, so I included that ‘gossip’ in the narrative.”
Wilson wants people beyond the university art department to come see her work, but right now, much of her focus is on her thesis defense, which will take place today. If all goes well, she’ll be looking for work as an art professor.
“I’m waitressing right now and teaching one class, and I’m ready to be an adult again.”