GWYNETH ROBERTS, Journal Star
Kat Wiese and her multimedia painting, “If a Black Woman is
Afraid of the Dark, is She Afraid of a Shadow or Herself?”, which
will be on display in the show "Black Love, Black
Futures" at the South of Downtown Art Hub.
Kat Wiese is standing on a chair inside the South of Downtown Art Hub, taking down old art so she can hang new art.
The new art will star in a show opening on Valentine’s Day. It’s called "Black Love, Black Futures," and Wiese is one of its featured artists.
The 24-year-old wrote about "Black Love, Black Futures" on her Facebook page.
She wrote about a painting she’s been laboring over for months and about the artists and chefs and musicians joining her to show off their talents.
She wrote: “I am proud to say this was organized and presented from start to finish, from music to food, by black folks!”
Wiese is a printmaker and a painter and a photographer.
She’s friendly, welcoming, thoughtful, a supporter of the people and the neighborhood where she works and lives.
“Kat is such a wonderful person,” Lindsey Weber Riskowski says. “She cares so much about connecting people with other people.”
Weber Riskowski is a printmaker who moved to Lincoln and discovered a kindred spirit in Wiese.
She was impressed by the younger woman’s drive, her knowledge, her talent, the depth of her work.
She saw her focus and determination.
“She’s concentrating her energy to work to help build an art history that hasn’t been readily available to black people.”
Wiese is biracial. Her mom is black and her father is white. Her own skin is light and, growing up, she wasn’t sure how people saw her. A girl with freckles who liked Southern rock and Aretha Franklin and skateboarding.
A girl who blended in with the majority white community she grew up in.
“I didn’t know I was visibly black.”
But when she was a freshman in college — on her way to a 2018 degree in fine art from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — she went to Richmond, Virginia, as a member of UNL’s Slam Poetry team and found herself at a discussion in a space open exclusively to black people.
That meant her.
“It was the first time that I had been in such an intimate environment where people were talking about their experiences and their families. What it meant to be light-skinned, what it meant to be dark-skinned.”
They talked about things she had not yet considered.
“For the first time, I realized I had a community and it was big and beautiful and diverse.”
Lincoln sculptor Nathan Murray is part of that community. He met Wiese at an opening of his work at the Lux Art Center.
“Her art is meant to make the viewer think,” he says. “She explores issues about race that touch on larger issues that are going on in society.”
And he’s watched the way she incorporates her passions at her day job at the South of Downtown Community Development Organization on 11th Street, connecting with people of different races and backgrounds.
”Bringing people together, uplifting them,” he says. “That’s super important in this day and age.”
Her positivity is contagious, says her South of Downtown boss, Shawn Ryba.
“An unrelenting focus on the strengths of those living in the neighborhood.”
Wiese grew up in Lincoln; she attended Lincoln High and North Star and the Arts and Humanities School.
Her mom was her role model, she says.
“My mom is one of the most important people in my life.”
Wiese tells a story. She was in the car with her mom and she watched her stop to offer a ride to a man who was struggling to walk.
“That’s the kind of generous person she is.”
Another story. Her parents were divorcing and she and her mom were staying in a friend’s basement — her mom sleeping in a cramped room with a bunk bed, giving her daughter a larger room with space to work on her art.
“I strive to be like that,” she says. “To really invest in the people I care about.”
Wiese is married. She and her husband, Scott Wiese, live close to her South of Downtown workplace.
She teaches Sunday School at the F Street Neighborhood Church. She makes earrings and creates commissioned murals. She’s obsessed with cooking Indian food and with politics and, most of all, art.
She’s spending Black History Month sending out tributes to local black artists.
In her day job, she connects with neighbors and students at nearby schools. She organizes art shows and art classes and makers markets — displaying and selling the work of local creatives.
This spring, she is organizing “yarn storming” classes for the neighborhood and, when they are finished creating, they will decorate light poles and alleys with the textile art.
“She brings things into the lives of people who live in that area that they don’t have access to,” says Peggy Gomez, who serves on a committee Wiese leads. “That work is important.”
And then there is Wiese’s own work as an artist, a passion since her childhood.
“I’ve always wanted to be an artist, but in college I really kind of found my path, art as a way to process my identity and my ideas.”
One of the paintings she will unveil at the show Friday is a 6½-by-7-foot wood panel, a painting within a painting. A light-skinned black woman sitting on a stool, staring out, a portrait of her own face — darker in color — behind her on an easel.
Its title: “If a Black Woman is Afraid of the Dark, is She Afraid of a Shadow or Herself?”
The backdrop of the painting is made up of brown paper bags that Wiese collected from grocery stores and carefully cut and glued to the wood panel — a nod to the “brown paper bag test” used in the early 20th century at black colleges and other black organizations to deny admission to anyone whose skin was darker than the bag.
Her mom had told her about the test when she was younger, Wiese says.
And she learned more in college, researching for a short documentary on mulitracial identities.
“It made me think differently about some of my early experiences with other black girls and the underlying sense of distrust there.”
She began to grapple with colorism — the privilege of lighter skin — and its continuing presence in the world and making it a focus of her work.
To illustrate it in her painting, Wiese searched for black female faces from pages of women’s fashion magazines from the mid-’90s forward.
She flipped through thousands of glossy pages to find enough faces of color — darker than a paper bag — to put in her montage.
“Those were the magazines I saw growing up. The faces I saw and the faces I didn’t see because they weren’t considered valuable enough to put in a magazine.”
Black faces erased.
“That’s my mother being made invisible. That’s my sisters being made invisible.”
Wiese used every shade of black paint she could find — carbon black, blue black, mars black, chromatic black — to create the image of the woman in her painting.
“Blackness is completely nuanced, where we often think of it as a void,” the artist says. “But black identity is so full and so rich.”
She wants to help celebrate that, she says.
And her art is one way of achieving that vision.
“I really believe art has the ability to start conversations that wouldn’t happen otherwise,” she says. “And I really want to use the capacity of art as an investment in cultural identity to connect the community.”