Art & Activism:
We are living in a time of deep transition, ripe with change. I hope this issue of AHN News dedicated to ART and ACTIVISM will remind everyone of the important role the arts can play in creating a better world. I am delighted to feature an interview with political artist Favianna Rodriguez. In addition, because summer is such a great time for reading, I am packing this issue of AHN News with three book reviews. The first is a book on mural art called Street Art San Francisco, the second is Wildfire:Art as Activism, the third is a book on Writing to Change the World.
Also, I have also included some details about what is new on Arts & Healing Network web site, including our FACEBOOK page, a fresh podcast with Chris Zydel, and a new post to our AHN Connection Center.
May this issue inspire you to take up pen, paper, or paint and use art to be part of the change you want to see in the world.
~ Mary Daniel Hobson, Director, Arts and Healing Network
“I feel like, as artists, it's our responsibility to make a commentary on our contemporary society. That is the most powerful art, when you're able to see what's happening around you, and do something of your time.” ~ Favianna Rodriguez
Favianna Rodriquez is an artist-entrepreneur based in Oakland, California who has helped foster a resurgence in political arts, both locally and internationally. Favianna's posters deal with social issues such as war, immigration, globalization, and social movements. She is co-founder of the design studio Tumis Inc., which serves social justice organizations. She also co-founded the Oakland, Calfornia-based EastSide Arts Alliance (ESAA) to train emerging artists. She is co-author of Reproduce & Revolt, an international collection of political graphics. Favianna was interviewed by Britt Bravo in November 2008 for the Big Vision Podcast and an edited transcript of that interview appears below:
Britt Bravo: For people who are unfamiliar with your work, how do you describe your work?
Favianna Rodriguez: I'm an artist and an institution builder. As an artist, I feel like I'm breaking boundaries. I feel I'm not the traditional artist that just works in their studio. The kind of art I do is art that gets engaged into the public. Whether it's my posters in the street, or books that I'm publishing, that are getting out to bookstores, or workshops, or my speaking in different universities with different young people, I really see art as a way of changing our communities. I think that we have to be very innovative in how we do that, and that includes building institutions, doing actual art, having art jams, and just getting people involved in the artistic process. My favorite thing out of all of the things I do is being a printmaker, and doing a lot of posters around political causes.
Britt: What are the issues that you're the most passionate about, and that most of your work revolves around?
Favianna: The issue that I'm most passionate about is being a woman of color. As an artist, in the art world, I have seen how systematically many women artists are marginalized, and artists of color are even more marginalized. I think that it's a shame, because art, everyone is entitled to art in their life. Art is what helps you be a critical thinker.
I really see my role as someone who breaks into the field and always demands accountability and really looks at, "How are these art institutions serving people in this country when the demographics are changing very rapidly?" Yet, the art world does not reflect that. In my content, I really like talking about the fact that I'm a woman of color, and how it is that, through that perspective, I grapple with many things, whether it's being in the business world, or being in the art world - everything from dealing with my sexuality to dealing with what it means to be an independent woman, and an entrepreneur.
Britt: Can you describe your creative process?
Favianna: I'll start with some examples. In 2006, we had these huge immigrant rights marches happening all over the country. Actually, my parents were the ones who told me. My uncles and my aunts, they said, "Favi, we're going to go march. We really want you to come." It was a surprise for me, and at the same time I saw all these symbols of the American flag. As someone who's kind of an activist, an anti-war activist, I really had a problem with that. And I said, "Well, I want to create a poster around what we, as immigrants, are demanding. Like, we want amnesty for the billions of undocumented workers here that are working so that Americans can have a cheap lifestyle." I did a poster around that.
Similarly, for International Women's Month, I was working with the Women's Building [in San Francisco's Mission District], and they were doing a play around how, as women, we have two sides. We have the side that's constantly struggling with all the media messages we get, and the other side that's just very much about ourselves, and who we are - not caring about any of those things. So, I did a piece - kind of an autobiographical piece - of myself looking in the mirror and just releasing all the messages that I had been conditioned with.
I feel like I get inspired by everything that's happening around me. I think that it's too bad that our stories are not in the common language of arts and entertainment because I think our stories can be very powerful - the stories of an immigrant family, of a single family, of a family who's organizing or fighting evictions, or of a young woman who's questioning her sexuality. All of those things are really powerful stories, so my process is that I like to take those stories and do something beautiful with them, which is a piece of work. I work in multiples. I don't do one painting. That's why I'm a printmaker. I do works on paper so that I can distribute them to schools and community centers, and just post them up in the street.
Britt: Can you talk a little bit about your new book, Reproduce and Revolt. What inspired it and who should buy it?
Favianna: Around three years ago, my fellow collaborator, Josh MacPhee, reached out to me, and he had this awesome idea. We said, "OK. We're putting out a call, and we're asking people to submit artwork on everything from prisons to military, to the war, to the environment, to being vegan, to bio-tech foods, to women's stuff…everything." Every single topic you can imagine was on there. Initially, we had 500-600 entries over a few years. Then we decided, "You know what? We can no longer be America-centric. We need to make this bilingual, and we need to really encourage more artists from Latin America." I mean, look what they're going through. How could we not open it up to them? So, we did. We translated the call. And before you know it, we had over 1,000 entries. We selected the best, and the most representative in a way that's gender-balanced, and balanced in terms of what countries it's representing. We created Reproduce and Revolt, which is really a toolbox. The purpose of this toolbox is for activists, and just people, art lovers, to have a selection of images that reflect the 21st century - the politics of the 21st century.
We have images there on transgender stuff, on bio-tech stuff, on media monopoly, on corporatized war - all these things that you may not have necessarily seen in the 1960s and '70s, but that are issues now, so we have to create artwork around it. It's a collection of graphics. And all the graphics in the book are royalty-free, which means that you could reuse them. And we're putting them all online so that people can download them and use them at will. We're also crediting the artists, because another thing that has been a problem is that artists are not always properly credited. Especially in movement work, there is almost this push to be anonymous. But, we didn't want to do that. We wanted users to have a sense of who was creating their art, where they're located, what they do, and their bio.
I encourage everyone to get it, because we also have an essay on the history of the black-and-white political graphic, and tips on how to create design for social justice movements. Everything from thinking about: Who is your audience? What is your message? What are you trying to say? How is it that you are a responsible political artist? That means that, for example, if I'm somebody who's straight, and I'm doing artwork about a gay community, what is my responsibility in fairly and accurately representing those issues, when I'm not in that community? It's a great resource, for teachers who are looking for source material for art projects, for activists, and art lovers in general.
Britt: You do a lot of work with young people and young artists. Could you talk about why you do that work, and share a success story about how a young person doing this kind of art has created change for themselves, or for their community?
Favianna: I work with a lot of young people, and it's interesting to me that, at any given moment, you sometimes cannot measure how you impact a young person's life. I know that many of the young people I work with were not necessarily youth that were going to go to college - or even youth that were going to go to art school, for that matter. They were more youth who were on track to go to jail, sometimes, and who were struggling and in and out of jobs. It's amazing to me how much art can give anyone a voice - the ability to talk about and to have an outlet for what they see happening in their community. Many of my young people now say, "Oh, Favi, I'm starting my own little art business. I'm painting murals here on the side," or "I decided to go back to school."
One kid, his name is Bunthoeun Hack, I remember meeting him. He was part of my arts program, and he didn't want to leave his Nintendo [video game]. I remember having to walk into his house and say, "You know, dude, I'm going to teach you how to paint a mural. Come paint with us." He said, "No, no, no, no, no." And I said, "Come on, dude. Just give us a chance." Anyway, he was very young at that time. He was fifteen. Throughout the years, he became one of our best artists. Eventually, he helped me open my business, along with my former business partner. He was such a transformational figure for people in his community that the Dalai Lama came and named him an agent for peace, because he went from being a kid that witnessed, and even sometimes participated in all this violence, to being someone that was an advocate for peace, and such a demonstration of personal transformation. Later, he became my business partner.
I always look for the young people that have become discarded, if you will, by some institutions, especially by schools. A lot of these young men I feel are unjustly tracked into a juvenile justice system, and later into prison. I think that they can produce some of the best art. They will, with proper training, mentorship and guidance, be some of the most powerful artists. I mean, that's what happened to me. I never went to art school. But, I had people who gave me skills. and who gave me the self-confidence to be able to have that voice.
Britt: Could you talk a little more about the path that brought you to this work?
Favianna: My parents were immigrants here in the 1970s. Of course, like many immigrant families, they wanted their daughter to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or something that would really bring status to the family. Early on, I knew I wanted to be an artist. They were able to put me in free, after-school programs here in the neighborhood. Actually, I'm thankful that, while I was never able to go to those art camps, or anything like that, I was exposed to a lot of community artists, and that formed my ideology around art and how accessible it was.
I ended up going to college, trying to be an architect, because I was one of those honor-roll students. My parents put a lot of time, money, and resources into me and my brother, so that we could be excellent students and get into all those colleges. I went to the University of California at Berkeley with the intention of being a "professional," if you will. That's the language that is always used - that you have to be something "professional," that you have a "profession." I started learning architecture, and then I realized that school's really expensive. And I was like, "Wow." I ended up dropping out. I decided, "You know, I'm at UC Berkeley. This is one of the best schools in the country. But, something is not working for me." I think, at that point, I really decided to actively pursue my art, and actively be an entrepreneur and open my business, because I saw my family always run businesses, and I wanted to do that.
I decided that I was going to reach out to the mentors and the adults who I could learn something from. Little by little, I feel like I got this huge set of skills. I think that now I'm a professional artist. I'm able, at a young age - I'm thirty - to pretty much have art sustain me. When people think of what an artist does, I think there's a big misconception. I think that people think that artists are just creating. In reality, artists are only creating maybe 20% of their time. The rest of the time, they're "adminning" - they're working with galleries, with institutions, with schools.
I think that I am someone who is an entrepreneur, in the sense that I run my own business, and I run a web-design firm named Tumis. I'm able to apply the things that I learn in business, and the connections that I make into my art. It's such a powerful tool for me, because I'm able to look at, "OK. What works? What doesn't? How do I fail and how do I succeed?" Trial and error. All these things that you actually don't even learn in art school, I feel like I've learned.
That's my story. I know that many people do go to art school. I do see that as a legitimate thing, but at the same time, I think there's something to be said when people take the tools into their own hands and really go after what they want to learn, and go after the people who will teach them that, through mentorship and through apprenticeship. That's really what I did.
Britt: What advice do you have for people who are listening and who are aspiring political artists?
Well, first, as artists, I think we have a really bad rep, and I think we have bad habits. I say that because I've gone to so many artists' meetings. I mean, I work with so many artists, and I feel like we almost have this ingrained way of thinking of what an artist is. We are at a time when arts funding and arts programming is getting cut everywhere across the board, and so we have to be innovative with our models. We have to think about things like audience development. We have to think about how do you reach people you think you may have nothing in common with, and to really think strategically around our art.
I mean, art is not just something that happens that can be beautiful. Art, like anything, even like math, there's a process to it, and there are ways that you can leverage the most out of it, and that you can engage people you never thought you could have engaged. But, it takes research. It takes you understanding things like, who's your market? It takes you thinking big, thinking, "If I was to reach the people that I would most want to reach, who would they be? Would they be women? Would they be lawyers? Architects? Parents? Single moms? Greenies? People who do yoga? What are they?" Think about who you're trying to reach, how you're trying to reach them, and think, "What are the steps I can take to do that?"
In business, you have to plan out your next few years. You always have to think ahead. As artists, sometimes we have this thing of, oh, "We have this Bohemian lifestyle," or "This should just be free." It actually ends up really hurting us. I don't think we should think like that. I think, as artists, just like in any career, you have to be a planner. You have to think about where you want to go with your art in the next few years, and think about how you can reach a larger public. Don't just limit yourself to the galleries. I don't show at galleries a lot. I show in community centers and in streets. My artwork is in many places, including now, my artwork is even going to go to a youth court. I think we have to be more innovative.
I have always tried to work with my fellow artists to think of ways we can lead ethical lives, which means that we can live the values we talk about in our work as political artists, collaborate with each other. Collaboration is also a big cornerstone of doing political graphics. And, make an impact with them. If you make this beautiful piece around somebody's suffering, and yet it has no impact on that actual struggle . . . I think that if you're talking about political issues, you have to always figure out how they're going to trickle down to the very communities you're depicting.
Britt: Is there anything else you want to share?
What I've learned is that I really want to think big with where I'm going and what kind of impact I want to create. I think that we shouldn't think in the context of what things have been done before us. We have to think about how to do things that haven't been done - new models - because those are the things we leave for the generations to come.
I think about how many times I didn't like the color of my skin, because I didn't see myself in any art. I think about how hesitant I was to become an artist, because I didn't see role models, and even to this day how hard it is for me sometimes to find peers who are women of color, because of how systematically they are pushed out. And I think, I don't want that to be the situation in another 50 years. I think that's something I want to leave with everyone is that we have the ability to do many things, not just what is within our categories, or our boxes.
Listen to the original audio interview on the Big Vision Podcast.
For more information about Favianna's work, please go to favianna.com, and check out her blog at favianna.typepad.com.
Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo
Edited by Annice Jacoby for Precita Eyes Muralists
Foreword by Carlos Santana
Reviewed by Mary Daniel Hobson
“Each city has its own fingerprint of style and story. However, here in the Mission, in San Francisco, I see a level of CULTURA that inspires the world.” So writes Carlos Santana in the opening sentence of Street Art San Francisco, a book packed with powerful, vibrant reproductions of murals and street art, past and present, which have graced walls, sidewalks, garage doors, and other architectural surfaces throughout the Mission District of San Francisco, California. These images are augmented by short essays and stories, which reveal background history, interpret meaning, and address issues specific to murals such as ownership and conservation.
Above all, the murals in this book serve as potent examples of how the visual can speak loudly and immediately about pressing social issues. Many of the murals describe social injustices – speaking in pictures about everything from labor rights to immigrant displacement to environmental degradation. They also express the joys of community collaboration.
Founded in 1977 and currently led by Susan Cervantes, The Precita Eyes Muralists feature prominently in this publication. As one Precita Eyes muralist says, “Murals strengthen neighborhoods, transmute the darkness of the Mission into its strength, convert violence into beauty, and provide an alternative vision.” It is heartening to see the way murals have been used to engage young people and the disenfranchised, and also how they have been used to honor and celebrate the rich diversity present in the Mission District.
This 300-page hardback is so densely packed with images, it feels as if they are bursting off the page. It is a book that can be picked up again and again, each time discovering something new.
This book was published by Abrams in 2009.
Order through Amazon.com.
Wild Fire: Art as Activism
Edited by Deborah Barndt
Foreword by Joni Seager
Reviewed by Tristy Taylor
Wild Fire is a wonderful collection of personal essays written by artists and activists who share their stories and experiences of creating and teaching with a focus on the inseparability of art and social change. The book is broken up into four parts: Art in Social Movements; Art as Activism; Eco Art; and Art Heals, with each chapter sharing an intimate, first-hand account by the artists themselves.
This collection spans the globe and exhibits a variety of writing styles, from Petra Kukacka’s stream of consciousness piece “Mixing Metaphors” to more academic dissertations like Stephanie Conway & Julia Winckler’s “Acts of Embodiment,” to Oona Padgham’s straight interview-styled piece “Arts in Detention.” It also covers a range of artistic projects – from mural paintings, photography, zine-making, and alternative publishing, to street theater, puppetry, and protest singing. Both triumphs and failures are shared in this collection, which as an artist myself, I find wonderfully inspiring and helpful. I really enjoyed reading about the act of creating community art in the heart of the struggles that go on every day in our world.
The book includes a few black and white photos, but I would have loved to see images attached to each project. Unfortunately, there are no websites listed for further information about these artists and their projects.
I highly recommend these dynamic essays to activists, artists, educators, students, and community workers who share a passion for art, politics, and social change. It’s also a wonderful collection for anyone interested in exploring community art, art as activism or funding community art projects.
Published in 2006 by Sumach Press, this softcover book has 237 pages.
Order through Amazon.com.
Writing to Change the World: An Inspiring Guide for Transforming the World With Words
By Mary Pipher
Reviewed by Mary Daniel Hobson
With Writing to Change the World, Mary Pipher offers a fabulous resource on how to wield pen and paper (or computer) in the service of positive change. The focus of her book is on writing that is destined for a larger audience with the goal of engendering connection and understanding. As she says, “A writer’s job is to tell stories that connect readers to all the people on earth, to show these people the complicated human beings they really are, with histories, families, emotions, and legitimate needs.” This kind of open-hearted, clear, honest and authentic writing can form a bridge or a web of understanding that can unite us all and help us navigate the challenging times we face.
Pipher’s book is structured in three parts. The first is called “Writing What We Alone Can Say,” and speaks of anchoring in one’s own lived experience and discovering one’s voice and message. The second section is called “The Writing Process,” and covers some of the expected ups and downs of the process of writing and how to cope with those. In addition it has an excellent chapter on “The Psychology of Change” and covers respect, accurate empathy, clarity, perspective, and other topics that help one’s writing become more effective in creating change. In the third and final section, called “Calls to Action,” she outlines helpful information about different kinds of writing, including letters to politicians, speeches, personal essays, blogs, music lyrics, and poetry.
One of my favorite chapters was on writing political letters. In it Pipher recounts how she was called by Audubon Nebraska to help in a letter writing campaign to stop the building of a motorcross racetrack right next to Audubon land, where the noise of the motors would damage and diminish local bird populations and other ecology. She shares quite freely her own letter writing process as well as an honest critique of her own letter as being too literary and positional. She also shares a letter by a friend that is a great example of “the key elements of a persuasive letter,” which include empathizing with the person you are writing to, making sure you know the point of your letter, keeping your language simple, including optimism, sandwiching criticism with positive statements, and ending the letter with a suggestion for action.
Pipher keeps her book very accessible and inspirational by including stories from her own life and many wonderful quotes about writing and social change. She also offers several writing prompts to get you started in finding your own voice. Her main message is passionately conveyed and very optimistic - as she says, “If I have one great idea – it is that connecting people might save the world.”
Published in 2006 by Riverhead Books, this softcover book has 253 pages.
Order through Amazon.com.
WHAT’S NEW ON ARTHEALS.ORG:
The Arts and Healing Network has joined FACEBOOK.
Please find us on Facebook, and join the community of over 900 members that are sharing ideas and information about art and healing. There are many great discussion going on, including: “How Do the Arts Promote Healing?”. Responses include this nice one by Frederika, “I believe whenever the divine is allowed expression, healing takes place.”
Click here to visit our Facebook Page.
A NEW PODCAST is up with an interview with CHRIS ZYDEL about Creativity Coaching and Expressive Painting.
Tune in to hear Chris speak about her creative journey, the important teachers on her path, the benefits of taking time to retreat, transformational stories from participants in her workshops, and advice for diving more deeply into one's creative work.
Click here to listen online.
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Listen to more Podcasts on the AHN Podcast page.
THE ARTS & HEALING CONNECTION CENTER has several new members including Bruce in Vermont, who writes this inspiring introduction: “Greetings, I am a new member here and wanted to say hello. I am an art teacher in two small, rural elementary schools and I also run a program called "Art Helps" in two schools. I work with children using art as therapy and a way of communicating emotions and thoughts about whatever is troubling them. I am in the process of getting my masters in counseling so I can expand Art Helps to more schools and school districts. My goal is to have the program running across the state of Vermont in every school district using the talents of the school counselors, art teachers, sped staff, etc to serve as many children as possible. I am a professional artist as well, working in oil, watercolor, and pencil. My image making has centered around conventional pieces in the past, but now I am trying to let go and use my art for my own therapy. Thank you for listening and please let me know if you'd like to know more...I am very open to any questions."
[Please note: We no longer use our Connection Center Forum, but we have many other ways you can participate in the AHN Community.]
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