How Art, Politics, and Activism Collide

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A panel discussion was held this past Thursday entitled, “We the People: Art + Activist + Political Causes,” featuring letterpress printer Amos Kennedy Jr., poet Holly Wren Spaulding, and PROOF founder Leora Kahn.

The talk focused on the power art has to empower and change, especially in the current political and social climate.

Facing an audience consisting of an equal number of students and professors, all from varying majors, the three panelists introduced themselves, with Professor Melanie Mowinski acting as moderator.

Amos Kennedy Jr. decided he needed a change in pace at the age of 40 and left his middle class life to follow his own artistic dream of letterpress printing, wanting his own voice to be heard instead of following the cookie-cutter model of the American Dream.

Holly Wren Spaulding was born to artistic parents who decided to leave the city and get back to the land, embracing the counter-culture of the 1970s. Spaulding counted this experience as an important model, leading to her not being afraid to try to figure out how to do things and help people find their inner power. She left a job at a college to follow her dream of being a poet.

Leora Kahn was a photo editor who became frustrated with the lack of meaningful content her company saw. Kahn went back to school and used her skill of photo editing to bring about social change, creating photo and text exhibitions.

The first question was directed at the audience: are you an activist?

Kennedy pointed out that everyone is an activist in their own life, for whatever they believe in.

“It’s all about the degree of activism you allow into your life,” said Kennedy.

The next topic – what makes art political – was also opened up to the audience, with many answers given: it provokes and engages, deals with contemporary sociopolitical issues, doesn’t want to be mistaken for anything else, speaks to the distribution of power and takes a stand, to name a few.

Kahn made a point that art in activism is very much culture-based with a focus on intent, while Kennedy stated his view that everything was on a continuum and was politically linked in some way.

The panelists then shared some personal inspirations for their own art and activism.

Spaulding shared various images of the text-based art of Jenny Holzer, Robert Montgomery, and Thomas A. Clark, using such methods as text on marquees, fire poems, and text placed in public spaces.

“By doing this, the person becomes aware of their environment and it can create a healing space that is hard to come by in modern society,” said Spaulding.

Spaulding also mentioned the group The Illuminator, with whom she sometimes collaborates to create projected walls of text on buildings such as the Brooklyn Public Library.

Kahn’s inspiration came from the Syrian artist Kevork Mourad, specifically a piece depicting a destroyed city and citizens, and untouched buildings layered in the back.

On the same topic, Kahn described her goal of PROOF, the photo and testimonial based exhibition project she founded. In one instance, Kahn interviewed women in Columbia who had been sexually assaulted and wanted to share their stories.

This empowered these women to interview more people, ultimately giving them the tools to help others and to change attitudes and policy.

Kahn also made it clear that although her work could be considered art, it is distinguished as an educational exhibit and not an art exhibit.

Kennedy’s further response to accessibility was linked to his decision to go into his current profession as a letterpress printer.

“The black voice had been absent, and I wanted to find it in creating this art,” said Kennedy. “I wanted to be a defiance. Here I am.”

Kennedy told his audience the story of Joanne Robertson, the woman behind the bus boycotts. After Parks’ defiant stand, Robertson went to a duplicating room and made copies and flyers calling for a bus boycott. Kennedy wanted to keep this history alive, using text as well as background imagery.

“Life is layered. Why shouldn’t my life be layered?” Kennedy said.

Lastly, the panel accepted audience questions, one of which asked for advice for students wishing to pursue art.

The consensus among the panelists was that it was not an easy path and it is not an overnight success.

The three artists did give this piece of advice, however: do not forsake your art. You have to know why it matters to you and why you want to pursue it. Cultivate art no matter what you do and believe that it will make a difference.