This Kansas City artist uses childhood perspectives to show the complexities of Black life
Vivian Wilson Bluett is an emerging, self-taught artist who wants her art to create community conversations around social and racial justice and history.
At first glance, it’s not uncommon for people to think Vivian Wilson Bluett’s art was painted by someone much younger.
The acrylic paintings are vibrant with color, the backgrounds are soft and the figures often appear somewhat basic. Her use of children as a focal point in the frame gives her paintings an innocent air.
But those details belie the depth of her work, says Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art Director of Learning and Engagement Kreshaun McKinney.
“What's great about her work is it can almost be kind of like a bait-and-switch in a very interesting way,’’ said McKinney. “People think this is a children's illustration, then they come in and look deeper to realize they are hardcore.”
“Vivian does not mince words, visually,’’ she said.
Wilson Bluett, 40, said she wants her art to humanize for adults the historical traumas of Black people, but from the unlikely perspective of Black children's innocence. Her exhibits often focus on what can be charged topics, like African American men’s mental health and Black feminism.
Since breaking out in 2020 Wilson Bluett’s work has been showcased at the American Jazz Museum, the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City, the traveling Black Space Black Art Collective curated by the Natasha Ria Art Gallery, and, most recently, The Smalter Galley for her latest exhibit, “Deromanticizing Complex Narratives: A Call and Response,” which ended earlier this month.
The unapologetic narratives in her work are Wilson Bluett’s interpretation of African American life over the last century, according to her colleague and mentor Harold Smith, who helped curate the exhibit of around 20 paintings.
“I can’t immediately think of any other artist that has approached issues from this vantage point,” said Smith. “Her work approaches the intersection of societal issues, the Black experience, and historical traumas from a different viewpoint: that of childhood.”
“After the Smoke Clears” is one such example. With seven Black and white children looking upward at a set of lifeless feet, it depicts the 1918 lynching of Mary Turner, a pregnant woman who was hung by her feet and burned by a white mob in Lowndes County, Georgia. While she was still alive, members of the mob removed and killed her unborn child in front of Turner.
Turner’s alleged crime was decrying the lynching of her husband a day prior, on the false accusation he murdered a wealthy plantation owner.
No one has ever been convicted for the Turners’ murders.
“I see Vivian’s work as portraying the true horrors of what happened to people like Mary Turner,” Smith said. “She forces us to see it, so we cannot unsee it. She shows us who we truly are, not a sanitized rendition.”
Wilson Bluett said she wanted to learn about the history of lynching after visiting the Community Remembrance Project of Missouri at the Black Archives of Mid-America. The exhibit is a memorial for African Americans lynched in Missouri.
Wilson Bluett’s research on the subject led her to Turner's story.
She says these reminders of Jim Crow, and the terror Black people still endure — like the 2014 police killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio — has inspired a lot of her work. She uses the perspective of Black children to lend it a universality.
“One thing we all have in common is that we were all children, so I wanted to frame the painting through the eyes of the kids who watched that day,’’ Wilson Bluett said of “After the Smoke Clears.” She said it was the hardest painting she's ever done.
Wilson Bluett said 1918, the year the Turners were killed, wasn't really that long ago.
"At the time that she was lynched, my great-grandmother could have been one of these kids having to be subject to that gruesome event,’’ she said.
That social message embedded in Wilson Bluett’s art doesn’t strike every viewer favorably, said Smalter Art Gallery owner Lee Smalter.
“‘I had a few people who asked me about the Mary Turner painting, and I would tell them what it meant,’’ said Smalter, who opened the gallery in 2019.
Smalter said her explanation didn’t always sit well with people.
"They're upset for how that truth landed on them,” she said. “That absolutely did happen to me in a couple interactions.’’
Wilson Bluett doesn’t let reactions like that bother her.
“The visual is just the visual, and however you internalize that or translate it, that's all on you,” she said. “That has nothing to do with me, and sometimes people need to sit with it.”
She said her mission isn’t to ruin anyone’s day, but she pushes back when people use words like “provocative” or “offensive” to describe her paintings.
“Education is not always going to be fun, and neither is history. If you always feel good when learning about history, you're not learning about history,” said Wilson Bluett. “There's going to be moments where you feel disgusted, and that's just part of it.”
Wilson Bluett also contributed to the design and painting of the Black Lives Matter murals on several Kansas City streets after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in 2020. She said the event shaped her deeply.
“As a mom, having to comfort my children and tell them 101 ways on how to survive the police — and they still can die,’’ said Wilson Bluett. “That’s a concern no parent should have to deal with.”
Now in her seventh year as a professional artist, Wilson Bluett is looking to expand even further. She is a part-time studio assistant at Studios Inc., and educates Black youth as arts facilitator for The Village KC nonprofit.
She’s also preparing for a show with Black Space Black Art Collective at the Johnson County Library next month. She says she’ll spend the next few months exploring new platforms for artistic expression and learning new techniques that will take her craft to the next level.
“With the support of my husband, my children and the art family I’ve built over the years … I want to put my work in museums to genuinely educate people artistically on what it feels like to be Black in America,” said Wilson Bluett.