Even in an apartment whose four rooms and long, narrow hallway are chock-full of art and affirmations, Kathy Y. Wilson stands out as a work of art herself. Still frank, profane and hilarious after coming close to death last year, she remains Your Negro Tour Guide, as was the name of her popular CityBeat column as well as the title of a resultant book and stage adaptation.
And now your guide is leading you through a gallery.
Sanctuary: Kathy Y. Wilson Living in a Colored Museum opens Friday at the Weston Art Gallery downtown. Curated by Emily Buddendeck of Northside’s NVISION vintage shop, the exhibit recreates the salon-style feeling of Wilson’s apartment in East Walnut Hills, where the longtime writer and educator has amassed a floor-to-ceiling array of racist objects, locally made art, family photos and other black memorabilia.
With its mammy figurines and grinning watermelon eaters, the exhibit could create a backlash. But rather than calling attention to Wilson’s provocative art, Buddendeck’s mission is to showcase the provocative woman she calls an artist.
“This is a way to show another dimension of her that provides a lot of context to her writing,” Buddendeck said during a recent interview in Wilson’s living room retreat.
In this room, Wilson can gaze upon a print of struggling brothers by the late Cincinnati artist Thom Shaw, who was a friend, or smile at a wiry-haired sculpture of a sister in a swimsuit by Kentucky folk artist LaVon Williams. Whenever she is feeling rage as a black citizen in America, “I come in here and look at a painting or something and calm all the fuck the way down,” Wilson says.
But why would someone who’s been so outspoken about racism also seek out buffoonish coin banks and bugged-eyed bobbleheads? How can a home that houses such offensive objects still be considered a sanctuary, a place of refuge?
“These things are comforting to me when I get them. I call it liberating them because they have been enslaved,” Wilson says. “It’s also me saying I am not afraid of anything America thought I looked like.”
The uglier the caricatures, they more beautiful the pieces are to her.
The 52-year-old Wilson has lived in her apartment for 15 years and has been collecting for twice that long. She especially enjoys the thrill of the hunt for Jim Crow remnants at flea markets, estate sales and antique malls.
“I actually have a physiological response in my body when I’m coming up on one,” she says. “My limbs get hollow. I start sweating. The hair stands up on my arms. I’m like, ‘There’s a nigger. There’s a nigger.’ And I’ll tell (my partner) Kandice, ‘There’s a nigger around here somewhere. I’m getting close.’ ”
Wilson keeps a black lawn jockey outside her door, next to her Get Out of My Caucasian House mat. She wanted a jockey ever since she was a little girl in Hamilton. One of her father’s jobs as a child was to paint the statues and their coal-colored faces at a cement business run by a white man. Her dad understood the weight of that indignity even as a little boy, Wilson says. So one night he sneaked in to the business and used a sledgehammer to damage as many jockeys as he could.
Though she’s been weakened in recent years by diabetes, end-stage renal failure and congestive heart failure, Wilson grows animated and zigzags an arm to punctuate her story of finding the jockey at a booth inside a huge Springdale antique mall.
Wilson was shopping with her friend JJ when she picked up the unmistakable feeling that there was a racist object nearby that needed to be liberated. Then Wilson spotted the top of the jockey’s head, “back over behind a partition, in the corner, with something in front of it,” she says. “And I said, ‘AAAHHH-hahhhh-HAH!’ ”
Wilson ran to get a cart for her treasure. Then she and JJ, a white woman, struggled to lift the jockey into the basket. “And everybody is looking,” Wilson says. “People want to say something. They’re not sure. They’re looking at me like, ‘Is she sane? Does she know what this is?’ Exactly I knew what this is.”
Wilson has sacrificed to build the salon that she dreamed of since she was a young woman looking at pictures from the Harlem Renaissance. Every big piece in the living room represents rent money, Wilson says.
“That Thom Shaw was rent and Duke (Energy),” she adds.
A Victor Strunk/Tim Schwallie collaboration included in the Sanctuary exhibit originally was shown at the old SSNOVA gallery, which Buddendeck ran. The painting cost $500. Wilson gave Strunk $100; the Cincinnati artist told her to give him the rest when she could.
“I was unemployed. I was becoming ill. I had no source of income,” she says. “But I would come in here and sit and look at that piece of artwork — knowing that I had to still pay for it — and it made my heart feel so good.”
The painting on wood features a woman wearing a crown aboard a flaming ship. Strunk left the meaning open to interpretation.
“But I tell myself that is Lady Liberty, and she is rendered as a saggy-breasted old hag surrounded by Muslims, with a faint image of the real Statue of Liberty in the distance,” Wilson says. “The boat is on fire — maybe representing the peril that immigrants withstand to come here and that the notion of ‘liberty’ is old and bedraggled and that, anyway, don’t we take freedom with us wherever we go?”
To have Buddendeck see her as an artist, on par with friends like printmaker/ceramicist Terence Hammonds, whose work brightens a corner of the apartment’s Blue Room, is a mind-blowing, validating compliment, Wilson says.
“I see some weird shit and I bring it home, and I think it’s art,” she says. “Then one of these artists will come in and say, ‘Damn! What you did with that, that’s incredible.’ And they start talking to me about artistic principles and shit, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know. I just did it that way because it looks good to me.’ ”
Of course, doing her own thing is Wilson’s thing. As evidenced in more than nine years of CityBeat columns (2000-05 and 2012-16), Wilson resists letting anyone else, white or black, determine her identity.
“When you are black, and also an out lesbian who also claims the love and redemption of Jesus Christ, that fucks people up,” she says. “Also, when you are articulate and smart and you have a platform, people regress all the way back to ‘Who does this nigger think she is?’ ”
Wilson trusts Buddendeck to create a version of her “colored museum” apartment at the Weston, complete with window frames, doors and mantels. The women have known one another since 2006, when Buddendeck joined the now-closed InkTank writing nonprofit as creative strategist and Wilson was a board member.
Buddendeck, who is white, had proposed the exhibit during the Obama presidency, when a segment of America wanted to believe that racism was over. The project was put on hold when Wilson got sick. In the current sociopolitical climate, Sanctuary is an even better reminder that some people aren’t as “woke” as they thought, the women say.
One of Wilson’s first memories is seeing three Klan members coming down her Hamilton street on horseback while she was all alone on her porch. She ran inside and when a frightened Wilson ran back outside with her family, the men were gone. But she knows she didn’t dream up the hateful episode at just 4 years old.
“It’s been in my life all my life,” Wilson says. “And this is what I will say to white America: If you want us to shut up about his shit, stop showing it to us.”
A news crawler about the Trump White House will set her off. “If you give me a crazy situation, I’m going to respond in a crazy way,” she says with a laugh. “I’ll give you what you gave me — insanity!”
Fans who have missed Wilson’s columns will see her writing on the walls of the exhibit. When she was a child, her mother let her scrawl on her bedroom walls in crayon. In her own apartment, she records her thoughts and inspirational words from friends, rappers and the Bible on window frames, doors and any other blank spot. Next to a photo in her Blue Room of a black youth who is learning to box, she has written a note pondering whether he’s since been killed by cops.
Wilson’s words disappeared from CityBeat last year as her health issues left her unable to work, or even walk. These days she’s driving again and no longer needs insulin for diabetes, but she doesn’t have all her stamina back after her body shed 125 pounds of fluid. She’s been on at-home dialysis and is going through screenings to get on a list for a kidney transplant. A GoFundMe campaign and benefit this summer raised $12,000 for living expenses and an attorney who can challenge a denial of disability coverage.
“I’m coming out of a lot,” a grateful Wilson says as she reflects with Kandice, her partner. “This is a very difficult country to live in, so, yes, this is my sanctuary. We come in here and close the door and we forget about all of that shit.”
They’ll turn off the news, put on music and look at their art. Then Wilson will tell her partner about the latest thing she has put on layaway — the next item she must liberate.
“And she’ll be like, ‘Baby, where are you going to put it?’ And I’m like, ‘That’s not the point. We just gotta get it in here.’ ”
Sanctuary: Kathy Y. Wilson Living in a Colored Museum opens Friday with a 6-8 p.m. reception at Weston Art Gallery, 650 Walnut St., Downtown. On view through Jan. 28. Free. More info: westonartgallery.com.
Why Racist Memorabilia Still Matters
David Pilgrim is the founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., and one of the nation’s leading experts on race relations. In conjunction with Sanctuary: Kathy Y. Wilson Living in a Colored Museum, the Weston Art Gallery has invited him to Cincinnati to speak in January about using objects of intolerance to teach tolerance.
The size of the Jim Crow collection — 10,000 pieces on display and 4,000-5,000 more in storage — shows how prevalent racism was and is, Pilgrim says.
“When I thought of propaganda, I thought of leaflets or grainy old black-and-white film,” he says. “But many years later I came to understand that any object could be propaganda.”
It could be a postcard, a thermometer or an ashtray. Even a watermelon could be racialized.
The everyday objects in the museum and Kathy Y. Wilson’s apartment both reflected and shaped attitudes about African-Americans, Pilgrim says. They served to legitimize first slavery and then Jim Crow’s discriminatory laws and customs. Items like a metal sculpture of a black man’s head that was used for striking matches implied that dark-skinned people felt no pain and therefore could be treated as second-class citizens.
“These objects were so pervasive that they were represented in every room in a home as well as in restaurants, public accommodations, our public schools,” Pilgrim says. “You could not find a place in American society where you did not have anti-black two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects.”
Wilson, who will be sharing a stage with Pilgrim, recognizes that ownership of racist items requires a level of responsibility and respect for personal histories. “It’s naïve to assume that black people are going to accept this show with open arms,” she says.
Wilson admits she wasn’t ready for the flak when a mammy appeared on the cover of her book, Your Negro Tour Guide.
The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia was established in 1996 to have intelligent conversations about parts of history we might not like, Pilgrim says. “It’s not about offending. It’s about using real objects from our past, and present, to hold real discussions about where we were, where we are and where we hope to go as a nation.”
David Pilgrim and Kathy Y. Wilson will speak 1-3 p.m. Jan. 14 in the Aronoff Center’s Fifth Third Bank Theater. Tickets are $20, $15 students, at westonartgallery.com.