A Kansas City Artist At The Intersection Of Preservation And Breakthrough

Multidisciplinary artist Peregrine Honig always knew she would live in a church. In fact, she even had dreams about it from time to time. She just didn’t know what church it would be—until she visited the old Greenwood Baptist Church in Kansas City’s Westside neighborhood.

She climbed through nearly two years of decay and negotiated past a pigeon nest to look out over the church rafters. Moved to tears and awed by the church’s former exquisite beauty and its retained dignity, Honig knew she had found her next home and curatorial space.

For months, Honig poured herself into reviving the structure that, according to her research, had served as a house of worship beginning in the 1920s for a black Baptist congregation. With the help of Jamie Jeffries, a preservationist developer of the Bottoms Up Collective, Honig transformed the building into the Greenwood Social Hall.

Kansas City Artist Peregrine Honig Whitney Museum

A private residence and public project space, the renovated Greenwood incorporates both Honig’s creative touches and detailed requests—a sense of symmetry, the bathtub from her old home, large pieces from her personal art collection—while striving to honor the spirituality remaining within the walls.

Honig has an abiding respect for the building’s history, only hosting events there that she believes are appropriate for a former church. And, she’s written into the bylaws that no one can burn sage at Greenwood, to help preserve the presence she feels inside.

Kansas City Artist Peregrine Honig Whitney Museum

“It wasn’t deconsecrated, so the Baptist spirit is still in that space,” says Honig. “It curates me—the space curates me. It keeps me in check, and it keeps me in line.” Honig’s artistic portfolio began when she was just two years old. Her earliest drawings are well documented in “Patterns of Artistic Development in Children: Comparative Studies of Talent” by developmental psychologist Constance Milbrath which compiles a series of studies examining various individuals’ artistic development from early childhood to adolescence. Honig has never really known herself as anything other than an artist.

She spent her childhood compulsively drawing and pondering an artist’s life, wondering what kind of uniform she’d need and whether or not she’d wear a beret. She began to imagine that her work would one day be found in a museum, because that’s where artwork seemed to belong. Honig’s work did indeed land in the collections of esteemed institutions much earlier than she ever thought possible, including in 1998, when The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York acquired “Ovubet: 26 Girls with Sweet Centers.” Rather than feeling overwhelmed by her early success, Honig has felt motivated by the recognition.

Kansas City Artist Peregrine Honig Whitney Museum

“Because I kind of started at the top of the food chain, I’ve really enjoyed getting to understand the space in between being in the Whitney and having my first solo show,” says Honig. “You just keep on working. Go to your studio, sit there, space out, and it’s great being around a lot of people who are actually making artwork.”

Embracing the stimulation she gains from being a part of the integrated art community at The Greenwood and surrounding Kansas City, Honig often channels that energy into exploring topical themes, such as female sexuality and identity. She’s the creator behind the nationally popular “We Don’t Care” gender-neutral bathroom signs originating in 2016. She has a series of pieces that depict Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen in the nude. Still, it’s the intuitive moments that drive her, rather than specific intent, and she’s somewhat surprised when people find her work overtly sexual or political.

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“I’m the only person who can make my work. It’s from my perspective, and I’m satisfied with that. At the same time, there are tons of people who are dealing with the female figure,” notes Honig. “I am interested in Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, I’m just interested. I am interested in early sexuality. “I’m cis-female and white, and I’m just observing and I’m processing, and so does that make me a feminist, or does it make me a political artist, or what is it? There are politics in everything. There are politics in sexuality, there are politics in gender identity and there are politics in taking off your clothes. Most of the time, the people that I’m drawing, painting or sculpting are naked because clothes set somebody in time.”

When Honig first moved to the Midwest from San Francisco at age 17 to attend the Kansas City Art Institute, she realized the middle of the country was far different than what she envisioned after watching “The Wizard of Oz” and “Meet Me in St. Louis” as a child.

“I’d never been to the Midwest,” confesses Honig. “I thought it was fields of wheat and barns, and it would be some kind of rural residency. Then I would go to a coast. I was incorrect. I fell in love with Kansas City.”

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Throughout the 20-plus years she’s spent living, working and creating in Kansas City, Honig has found that the art community has not depleted. And despite an undercurrent of resistance, people take pride in supporting artists. She’s incredibly grateful for the critical funding she’s received from the Seeley Foundation, the Lighton International Artists Exchange Program (LIAEP), the Charlotte Street Foundation and others. And, like many artists who find alternative ways to fund their craft, her Kansas City lingerie store Birdies—which she has co-owned for 15 years with her friend and business partner Alexis Burrgrabe—also helps subsidize her work.

“I co-own the business because I don’t want to have to think about money when I’m in my studio,” says Honig. “I’m not interested in being a starving artist. That’s a debilitating way to think about yourself, and I think it’s unfair. It’s condescending and patronizing, and I think it allows for academics to look down on people who are producing the optical seeds that might save the world on a scientific level.”

Kansas City Artist Peregrine Honig Whitney Museum

Honig credits the support she’s received in the Midwest, along with her early success, for giving her the confidence and power to take on things she wouldn’t necessarily be able to if she were in a bigger city. She knows that her ability to turn material into thought happens most fluidly when she has easy access to good space and good material. She has found both at Greenwood.

She has spent countless hours researching the history of the building and the Baptists that used to call it their spiritual home, fostering hope that one day the current congregation’s choir will return to the space for a special performance. For her, living at Greenwood feels like living inside of a sculpture, and it’s bringing a sense of balance to Honig’s life and giving her the space to process her own past and make plans.

Kansas City Artist Peregrine Honig Whitney Museum

“Right now, in my art life, I almost feel like I’ve caught up to myself. I’m not looking over my shoulder. I’m looking forward,” says Honig. “That is very powerful. I feel that everything that I’ve done—and having a space that’s functional and beautiful—it’s like falling in love. It’s like I did everything that I was supposed to do to get to where I am.”

This story originally appeared in ALIVE Issue 4, 2017. Purchase Issue 4 and become an ALIVE member.

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