Art & The Vote
As the upcoming November elections approach in the United States, many artists are mobilizing, creating works that encourage political dialogue and positive change.
In this month's AHN News, we interview artist Judith Selby Lang about her projects dedicated to voting.
We also feature a link to Baring Witness, and a book review of Globalize Liberation: How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World.
I hope this latest issue of AHN News inspires you to think about voting in a new way and motivate you to create your own expressions.
~ Mary Daniel Hobson, Director of the Arts & Healing Network
Artist Judith Selby Lang
Judith Selby Lang's diverse body of work consistently addresses the key issues of our time – be it voting and politics, health and healing, or environmental issues, she catalyzes her creativity for a greater good. Several of her projects can be found here on the Arts & Healing Network resource site (simple use the "search box" at the top right of your screen). Her projects range from teaching alzheimers patients how to do silk painting, to creating a public service announcement that raises awareness about AIDS. She is also a wonderful teacher and career consultant for other artists. The following is an interview Judith Selby did with Mary Daniel Hobson, Director of the Arts & Healing Network, about her projects that address the imperative to Get out the Vote!
Mary Daniel Hobson: What inspired the creation of your Vote postcards?
Judith: Twelve years ago, I took a photograph of Eva Menard. She was an enthusiastic patriot and when her daughter dressed her as the Statue of Liberty she sang the song "America the Beautiful" as she was wheeled through the corridors of the nursing home where she lived. As her teacher in an art-for-elders class, I had come to know and appreciate her positive energy. When I asked if I could photograph her in her red, white, and blue outfit, she responded with a big "YES!"
In the scrolling credits of the movie, Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore encourages viewers to do something. He has made several pleas for Americans "to get out the vote." In these turbulent political times, there is one thing that we all should do – VOTE! As I left the theater, I remembered the photo of Eva and thought that she could become the "poster child"; the humorous and provocative image that would encourage people to get out and vote.
With the help of Trillium Press, I created a postcard with Eva on the front and the California [USA] voter information on the back. I began sending the image/information via e-mail and giving away postcards for display everywhere: on bulletin boards and on car windows. I have been self-financing the prints and postcards, making them available to groups at no cost. The response has been overwhelming. For example, the National Women’s History Project ordered 1,000 postcards to give to attendees at their Women’s Equality Day luncheon.
Mary Daniel: Judith, this is not the first time your work has addressed the topic of voting issues. Tell me about the "Cast Your Vote Away" project.
Judith: My husband, Richard Lang, and I have spent many happy hours on Kehoe Beach in Point Reyes, California [USA], collecting the plastic debris that washes up on the shore. Back in our studio, we use the detritus plastic as art supplies to shape into sculptures and installations. On this pivotal day, December 16, 2001, something really extraordinary washed up. Sitting upright in the sand, as if it was waiting for me, was a twisted plastic shape, a large box lid, printed with "Absentee and Provisional Ballots" and emboldened with the great seal of the city and county of San Francisco [California USA].
Although my collecting bag was full, I knew that I had to bring back the box lid. It was a great piece of corrugated plastic and would certainly make a provocative artwork, a fine addition to the series we had titled Disposable Truths. As I walked back to the car, I tried to imagine the journey that his lid had been on. It traveled from San Francisco, out under the Golden Gate Bridge, past the Point Reyes Lighthouse and then north along the coast for at least fifteen miles before it washed up at Kehoe Beach in Point Reyes.
When I got home, Richard was amazed to see the ballot box lid and encouraged me to go public with my find. He photographed the crumpled lid with the sand still on it and added in bold type, "CAST YOUR VOTE....AWAY. "
Soon after, I learned that the U.S. Coast Guard had found eight box lids floating in the San Francisco Bay, but after that initial report there was no investigation or follow up. When I contacted the press, it wasn’t just that I had found the lid, but that Richard and I had created a provocative image to accompany the story, that so captivated the press. I ended up on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times. The San Jose Mercury News even sent a reporter out to the beach to document the site of discovery.
The wayward ballot box lid, symbolized for many the sad plight of our electoral process. The fiasco of the floating lids was just the tip of the iceberg. It set off a wave of discussions and investigations that discovered tabulation errors and gross overspending by the election commission. Finally, in April of 2002 the chief election commissioner was fired.
Mary Daniel: What do you feel is the role of art in social change?
Judith: Artists are image makers. And sometimes, they have the opportunity to make images that can effect social change. For example, when my friend Ann Stephens suggested that I enter the Marin County Tobacco Education poster contest, I resisted the idea. I told her, "I don’t have any ideas. I don’t think like a graphic artist." The very next day, a most peculiar thing happened. While driving into the parking lot of the Novato, California USA Library, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a baby bottle standing upright. Then, with my artist’ eye, I "saw" the bottle, filled with cigarette butts. Then, I "saw" the word "SUCK" with its double meaning of the positive "to nurse, to nourish" and of the negative teen slang "That Sucks!"
Most people would dismiss such a vision. They would see such an event as a crazy misperception. I "saw" it as an answer and an opportunity. Out of that epiphany, I realized a powerful image that has influenced hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. I created an image that speaks to young women and mothers about the detrimental effects of smoking on infants and children.
Although I had immediate success with the poster (2nd place in the contest), and it was selected for display in the bus shelter kiosk in front of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, it took me almost two years beyond that initial recognition to find someone to publish and distribute the poster. To many, the poster was too graphic, too shocking. Because I believed in the image, I pursued every possibility. Finally, I found the WRS Group in Waco, Texas USA, the leading national distributor of health education products. Since then, the poster has been featured in their HEALTH EDCO Curriculum and their Childbirth Graphics catalogs. And last spring, the image was used in a billboard campaign in Montgomery, Alabama [USA].
Mary Daniel: You have created a remarkable number of diverse and wonderful projects. How do you sustain the great work you are doing – creatively, emotionally, and financially?
Judith: In many ways, I feel that the work does me. I am blessed with tremendous energy plus I don’t mind hard work. I thrive on variety. I just love making things. My husband, Richard Lang, is an amazing artist. Together, we share a commitment that is founded on living a creative life. Not only is he an incredible support, he has a good eye and is a sensitive, insightful helpmate. And, with him, come three remarkable human beings, his children, that have taught me so much. They are each artists in their own unique ways.
My family is my foundation. My dad, my mom, my step-mom and sister, have have always given me the emotional support and encouragement that make making art possible. Through special associations and collaborations, I have been able to learn and grow into my art work in community. My large-scale public projects would not be possible without the efforts of so many people.
Financially. I describe myself as an itinerant art instructor. Each weekday, I travel to different convalescent hospitals and day treatment programs. As an independent consultant and as an instructor for Santa Rosa Junior College, I bring the challenges and pleasures of creative expression to elder members of our community. I am also a mentor teacher for the Arts & Consciousness Program at John F. Kennedy University. And several times a year, I teach a weekend workshop, "Watercolor in New Ways" for the University of California, Santa Cruz. My teaching provides me with a good income so that I have been able to do my art without commercial consideration. This has given me tremendous freedom.
Mary Daniel: What advice do you have for other artists who wish to use their creativity to effect positive change in the world?
Judith: Do something every day. It takes two things to be an artist; a good hand and a good seat. The hand is to craft and the seat is to sit still and remain present. It is a matter of developing the habit, the creative habit. Like flossing, you do it every day. It takes practice, it takes awareness, and then it develops its own momentum.
The job of the artist is to attune to mumblings and mispronunciations, to embrace the ambiguity of things glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. Artists must learn to trust what they think they don’t see. And then, beyond the flash of insight or the thrill of that "first" vision, there is the hard work of bringing that vision into the world. Stamina and skill are required and an unfaltering belief in the vision.
Sometimes it is luck, just being in the right place at the right time, to make yourself open, to be available to see the baby bottle or the ballot box lid and then to have the wherewithal to bring it to the world.
For more information about Judith Selby Lang's work, please visit www.beachplastic.com.
Baring Witness is a global partnership of men and women who create words of peace with their bodies. Their mission is to promote non-violent community-based action by educating the public through media, web, print and film venues. Their aim is to create a peace-based culture of partnership between men and women, without blame.
The photo above is an example of one of their actions: On July 10, 2004, 81 San Francisco Bay Area women spelled the word VOTE with their nude bodies on Love Field in Point Reyes Station, Northern California USA. The event was organized by Baring Witness as part of its campaign to persuade Americans to register and vote, as well as reminding the 22 million single, American women who did not vote in the 2000 election, and how powerful and vulnerable their voting rights are.
Globalize Liberation: How to Uproot the System & Build a Better World
Edited by David Solnit
This is a great collection of essays for anyone needing inspiration and ideas about how to effect positive change. It is particularly heartening for artists, because it features many black and white photos which illustrate the importance of the visual image in political change – be it posters or flags or photographic documents of protests or over-sized puppets. The 33 essays included in this publication, record the insights and experiences of community organizers, direct action movements, and global justice struggles from North America, Europe, and Latin America. Of particular interest are essays like "From Trotsky to Puppets: Other Revolutions are Possible" by Graciela Monteagudo; "Weaving Imagination and Creation: The Future in the Present" by Marina Sitrin; and "Moving Through the Symbols" by Naomi Klein.
As the book's editor David Solnit writes, "As a carpenter, I have packed this book like a tool belt, with the most useful and practical tools: ideas and understandings of how to uproot the system causing our problems and build a better world. The ideas and writings of the people in this book have been incredibly useful to me over the last few years – sources of hope and help in clarifying my own understanding... It is up to each of us to engage our community, think strategically, be creative, follow our intuition, look for possibilities, and take action…The hope is that the ideas, experiences, and passions in this book will spread like dandelion seeds in the wind, like fire in the dry grass."
This book was published by City Lights, San Francisco in 2004.
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