Q&A: KC artist and scientist Don Wilkison says that in art and life, ‘failure doesn’t matter’

As a hydrologist and artist, Don Wilkison uses creativity to prompt people to see things from a new perspective.

Known in art circles as The Minister of Information, or m.o.i., Wilkison, of Kansas City, applies 22 years of research experience to his installations in order to observe how we interact with the environment.

In April, his “Color Field Buoys” were one of nine installations chosen to be featured in “Art in its Natural State,” an exhibit celebrating the beauty of Arkansas.


Kansas City Spaces: What is the most interesting part about being an artist and a hydrologist?

Don Wilkison: Having an idea and trying to complete it, but not knowing how you’re going to get there and having to trust in your own ability to do so. I think it’s both the most interesting and the most frightening thing to not know where you’re going.

KCS: Social and economic justice are important to you. How do you portray that in your work?

DW: Often, my goal is to get people to think more deeply about these issues. I once did a year-long project called “We are Here to Plant a Tree.” Because I had worked in the government and have experience interacting with community-based education groups, my plan was to mentor young African-American men on how to gain access to these institutions. The idea was that we are going to plant trees for free, but they’re a metaphor for larger behavioral changes. We asked the young men: ‘Do you like trees? Do you want it to grow? Well, we can’t grow it for you, but we can give you the tools you need to maintain it.’

The tree by itself isn’t a piece of artwork, but if I assign a metaphor to it, then it becomes one. Through this project, there was a collaboration of art (the tree) and experience (us working together).

KCS: How do you see your work positively affecting the environment?

DW: It’s more about changing people’s ideas because that’s what is going to make positive changes happen. The goal is to get people to think more deeply, or in a different way. Making environmental changes is an important responsibility. Therefore, you need to decide what it is that you can do to help by focusing on something narrower or in your skill set. I’m an artist so that’s my medium for conveying messages.

KCS: Explain the ‘Color Field Buoys’ and why they are significant.

DW: The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute put out a call for artists to talk about issues and come up with solutions. ‘Art in its Natural State’ is where temporary, outdoor artworks are displayed to highlight the natural beauty of the state. Being a combined hydrologist and artist, I ended up placing my work in Lake Abbey. I had recovered these 13 buoys from a stream flood in a previous project, knowing they were extremely interesting and would be useful someday. Looking at them in the water, each buoy is paired with another that mimics the same colors in vertical, opposite order. Some of what the color field theory talks about is how your eye will see differently depending on the arrangement of colors. As seen in the buoys, you will see red differently when it’s next to the water compared to when it’s above the water because of the different colors in the background.

KCS: Is there any advice you have for the next generation of artists?

DW: There are two things you have to do. Trust yourself and then just do it. I am personally not always good about trusting myself. Don’t be afraid to fail. I think of the studio as a lab for experimenting, a place where failure doesn’t matter.

I have been taught to critically evaluate things, like science. When you finish one project, where does that go? Does it lead to somewhere else, or stop here? In the end, failure can be really good.