Kansas City artist Ryan Wilks' new exhibition at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center attracted a group of women who formed a circle and prayed. It's not uncommon, Wilks says, for Christians to offer help with eternal salvation.
Wilks used to be offended by the behavior, but in this case it only provoked a shrug.
"The title itself, 'Hell' — it's blasphemy," says Wilks (who prefers plural pronouns). So they understand the women's impulse.
Rather than rail back at the women or usher them out, however, Wilks engaged in conversation and the group listened.
"As a young queer person, my first introduction to shame and self-loathing and the devaluing of my existence was through religion, and it was through God, and it was through men telling me that I wasn’t worthy, that my spirit, that my soul was not worthy," Wilks says.
Internalizing those messages, like many others have, is really damaging, Wilks says, and the wounds go deeper than self-esteem.
Humans, by nature, Wilks says, want to reach out and touch the divine. This is an idea they've spent a lot of time working on for several years.
Last summer, Wilks installed a 40 square-foot six-foot high altar at the Kansas City Public Library as part of an exhibition called "Here Where You Wish." During the 10 weeks it was up, 28,209 people wrote prayers and wishes and left them at the altar.
Wilks read each scrap of paper and says a common thread jumped out.
"Essentially, it boils down to lessening the pain of living. I think that's a beautiful thing. I think there's power in that, and whether or not any of it's real doesn't matter, because it impacts positively," Wilks says.
Much of Wilks' work is about having the freedom to touch the divine, Wilks says. "That I can touch that, that I'm worthy of touching that, and I’m worthy of making it, too."
What this looks like for the work in the exhibition called "Hell," might seem a bit polarized.
One side of the exhibition is confrontational and challenging, such as the piece about abortion that includes a painted porcelain baby hanging by a wire.
Wilks says the depicted abortion involved the Biblical Adam's first wife, Lilith, who was condemned by God to bear 100 babies each day (all of whom will die) for eternity for failing to sexually please her husband.
But the other side of the exhibition is prayer-full, and Wilks wants patrons to puzzle through the elaborate font — it's all in English.
Part of that project is showing that prayer doesn't have to be couched in a memorized slice of religious poetry in order to have value or meaning, Wilks says.
Personally, Wilks says, individualized prayer works best and invites the public to read the creations, like one that begins: “Eye of a needle thread open for me, stitch me together with golden seams, unfold my will before me when my will beckons me by the power of 3x3 let this be.”
That particular prayer is nestled between the top and bottom of a lapis lazuli-colored capital E; within the E are demons playing with and killing each other.
After Wilks engaged the group of women who had formed the prayer circle, the women's gallery visit ended with a different kind of circle.
"We all hugged each other. We walked away disagreeing with each other, but we walked away with smiles and we were hugging," Wilks says.
Their theologies had remained in opposition to each other, but, Wilks says, they all met within the grace of kindness.
Ryan Wilks' "Hell," through July 17 at Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore Ave, Kansas City, Missouri 64108.
Wilks spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Central Standard. Listen to the full conversation here.