If you’re looking for a bit of culture, take an artistic break and check out the new ‘Keep an Eye on the Prize’ exhibition featuring the work of Gregory Wilkins at the Hutchinson Center for the Arts.
Wilkins, associate director of student activities at Mankato State University, describes himself as “an artist, educator, and world traveler living in Minnesota.” The self-taught artist who grew up in a multi-ethnic, multinational family shares his thoughts on his work in this Leader Q&A.
Tell me about your show, “Keep Your Eye on the Prize,” at the Hutchinson Center for the Arts. What do you want people to know about your work?
I was inspired to name this exhibit “Keep Your Eye on the Prize” from a folk song that became influential during the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It is based on the traditional song “Gospel Plow” , from Alan Lomax’s 1949 book “Our Singing Country”. the song was also known as “Hold On, Keep Your Hand on the Plow” and various permutations of it dating to the early 20th century and attributed to the African-American community.
This exhibit is more than the Black Lives Matter movement and those dismissed as insignificant; it’s about racism and oppression, lynching and murder, and the healing and conversations our nation has about rights and privilege. This may make some viewers uncomfortable; while for others it will be an acknowledgment of our collective past, which must not be forgotten. This is our story. As Americans, we must acknowledge our historic past and work towards a more inclusive and equitable future.
The art in this exhibit is a tribute to black and brown people as well as those left behind in our collective history. As Americans, it reminds us that we have a long way to go before we can truly honor the ideals of the United States Declaration of Independence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. May we never forget our past as we continue to strive for a more perfect and equitable union.
Your work is described as a mixed technique. What medium do you prefer to work in and why?
One of my favorite mediums in my mixed media work is the use of fiber. I love how it can be shaped to express an idea or shape – sewn, braided, appliquéd, woven, interwoven, twisted, felted, laced, flocked, crocheted, knitted, crocheted, etc. In my current practice, I use dot as a way to create layer and texture to draw the viewer into my work, which I think is more expressive than a single media source. Fiber in its many forms can inspire the viewer to rethink traditional methods of artistic expression and lead an audience to celebrate and appreciate its many applications.
How do you work? What is your process?
As an artist, I am shaped by an experience, a movement, an image or a vision. George Barnard Shaw said, “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you want what you imagine, and finally you create what you want. In this context, I jump into a room to find meaning and often to reflect and contemplate. It is rare for me to sketch out a concept. On the contrary, the ideas come to me in my sleep by dreaming or by placing paint on a canvas or paper and observing which images evolve through the process of creation and creative play.
How does your work comment on current social or political issues?
As an engaged participant in a global community, I cannot separate myself from the world around me. The old adage, “The personal is the political” is true in my creation. In my philanthropic work around the world, I have spent time in communities on issues of social injustice – water and land rights, human trafficking, reforestation, indigenous rights, landmine proliferation land, food and housing insecurity, etc. These experiences are reflected in my art through my mixed media pieces. By bringing these questions to the fore, I hope that those who have not had the opportunity to witness these first-hand experiences can become more aware while educating themselves and others on matters of social and political significance.
Are you inspired by other artists? If so, who and why?
I am inspired by cultural carriers through traditions that are passed down from generation to generation – basket weaving, painting, weaving, ceramics, music, visual and oral storytelling, etc. It is through their creative work in arts and crafts that I find inspiration. Works like these bear witness to the present and honor the past. Through these artifacts, consciousness is transmitted and expressed through artistic means.
What gives you the most joy?
I find my greatest joy when I travel and engage with people and cultures different from me. Walking the streets, getting lost in the alleys and woods, breaking bread with a new friend, visiting other creatives and alumni, or sowing seeds and reaping their bounty gives me a sense of connection while walking more intentionally and gently on the earth. There is truth in the will “the best things in life are free”.
how do you define success? According to your definition, what do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
Success is about overcoming an obstacle or finding a solution to a vision while leading to the next moment. Minutes matter and moments matter; how you engage in these moments shapes the person you could become.
One of my greatest moments of success was realizing that I could shape my destiny through my words and my actions. By believing in myself and loving myself unconditionally, I could accomplish great things. I am the protagonist, an advocate and a champion of how I want to engage with the world.
How do you see your art evolving in the future?
It is my desire to find new opportunities to collaborate with other creatives. For example, “Black Lives Matter: Keep Your Eye on the Prize” (which is in this exhibition and the show’s namesake) was one of nine works selected in January 2022 from nearly 400 submissions from around the world for be part of “Portraits”, a musical work commissioned through the Federal Performing Arts Association in partnership with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. I will be collaborating with a composer, lyricist and choreographer to express through these art forms my visual image, which will be projected to the public. The world premiere will take place at the Kennedy Center in June 2024 and may come to Minneapolis in July 2024. An upcoming coffee table book will also be created to feature the top 150 images, including the nine chosen for “Portraits.”
I would like to continue deconstructing and recycling found objects that may have gone to landfill to be remodeled and placed into my artwork. As the green movement continues to take shape, I want to be part of the solution while raising awareness of issues of global significance in my art.
And finally, I would like to develop my “Water Color” series. This collection pays homage to how water in its many forms impacts the lives of all sentient beings.