Portrait of Passion

A Columbia man's diverse interests blend the artistic and the political
Friday, September 17, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:57 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Two of Don Choate’s passions — art and activism — come together this month in his “Multimedium” exhibit at Montminy Gallery.

The exhibit, which continues through Sept. 26, features portraits of people the artist met during the 16 years he worked at Central Missouri Food Bank. It also includes sculptures and woodworks.

“It’s kind of a retrospective,” Choate said. “It’s got sculpture, some pen-and-ink, a mobile and large portraits,” including sketches and serigraphs. “I hope people enjoy it and that at least one piece impressed them in some way,” he said.

In a collection of portraits titled “In Your Face,” Choate uses colored pencil to portray food bank shoppers and volunteers and gives each subject personality by varying perspective. Choate’s exhibit also includes self-portraits; one shows him behind a camera focusing on his female subject, whose face is reflected in the lens.

Deborah Thompson, executive director of Boone County Historical Society, where the Montminy Gallery is located, said public reaction to Choate’s work has been good. Some pieces have been sold.

“People always like shows that they can access easily, and portraiture is a very accessible form of art,” Thompson said.

Choate said his interest in art began when he was a child.

“I used to carve things out of soap when I was 8 or earlier, and I did the illustrations on the blackboards for holidays at school,” he said.

His appreciation for art rubbed off on his daughter, Lenore Danziger, who is also an artist.

“When I was growing up, he worked at home in his studio doing freelance,” Danziger said. “I could always hang out in his studio and work with his materials.”

Choate’s wood projects can be found throughout Columbia. “I made the doors of the Oxenhandler law office on Eighth Street and furniture all over town,” he said.

Choate usually has several ongoing projects. He’s designing an outdoor sculpture and recently made an album with a jazz trio. He has also finished an autobiography that’s being edited.

“Then I have to figure out a way to get it published, if ever,” he said. “But I had fun doing it.”

Choate’s other passions are community and political activism. His food bank work is the latest contribution he’s made to public life.

Choate was introduced to activism in college, where he was drawn to aspects of socialism and communism.

“My father was a staunch Republican and a self-made man,” he said. “So, when I left home, I got free.”

Choate said idealism drove him toward nontraditional politics.

“I grew up during the New Deal, which was the closest America has ever been to socialism,” he said. “It has always seemed logical to me.”

When Choate lived in New Jersey and worked in Manhattan, he read a worker-communist paper and Marxist writings during his commute. He began to talk about his views on communism at his workplace, Norcross Greeting Cards, and tried to organize an artists’ union.

“I got called into the office my ninth year there, and the boss said they couldn’t trust me anymore, so I started doing freelance work out of my home,” he said.

Choate began to attend demonstrations, some in Washington, D.C. He also designed sets for a children’s theater with other artists, many of them socialists in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Choate said many artists at the time were frequently asked whether they held left-leaning political views.

“The FBI came to my door wanting to speak to me,” Choate said. “I said I wasn’t interested. Later, they stopped my wife on the street.”

Choate at times has combined art and activism. He has designed T-shirts for political groups and in the 1980s designed a logo for The Crawdad Alliance, a group involved in the anti-nuclear movement. Choate spent three days in jail after he and other members of the group were arrested for trespassing at the Callaway nuclear plant.

Choate is satisfied for the most part with his artistic endeavors. He would, however, consider becoming politically active again.

“I might get involved in canvassing for the Democrat race,” he said. “But right now, I’m mostly into art.”

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