International Women's Strike

In solidarity with the International Women's Strike, here are portraits of two incredible women. CJ Brune, who passed in 2015, was one of the original February Sisters and a lifelong activist who I was lucky to know as a friend and mentor. My mom Pamela, still alive and kicking, is pictured on her soap box fighting, as she has her whole life, for women's rights and social justice.

                                                                    Mom and "CJ" together in 2016

                                                                    Mom and "CJ" together in 2016

Trigger Warning

It is imperative that we stop this slide into violent ideology, now.  Students, faculty and staff from KU and across the state have made their voices loud and clear on this issue – They DO NOT want concealed carry on campus.  It's time we support them. Please join others in condemning and stopping this dangerous and irresponsible legislation before it’s too late.  

Frederick Douglass Community Center

Last year I got to work with folks in Toledo, Ohio on a small mural for the Frederick Douglass Community Center.  We chose to include his quote, "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." In light of recent events, these words have an added meaning for me today. The broken men are the president and his gang of ignorant scoundrels.

Don't Adapt to Absurdity

I am proud to be joining artists from across the U.S. in "Inaugurating Resistance," a new visual art campaign coordinated by Justseeds and the Interference Archive. Our work supports peoples movements in response to the rising tide of xenophobia, racism, and misogyny in the U.S. You can browse and download images from the growing collection, and you can submit your own here. Below are the four pieces I have contributed so far.

I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.

Dr. Vincent Harding, 1931-2014, was a visionary historian, theologian and social justice activist. In July 2012 on his 81st birthday Dr. Harding spoke at the National and Racial Healing Town Hall at a Children’s Defense Fund’s conference. “I am, you are, a citizen of a country that does not yet exist, and that badly needs to exist. And I want to offer you the opportunity to celebrate my birthday with me by pledging deep in you that you are not going to give up this life without offering yourself totally to the creation of this country that does not yet exist.” Borrowing the refrain from Langston Hughes's poem Let America Be America Again, he said: “We can always stop there and complain and complain and complain. ‘You’ve never been America to me.’ But remember, Langston did not stop there. ‘America, you’ve never been America to me. But I swear this oath—you will be!’ I want you, those who are not afraid to swear oaths, to swear that oath for yourself, for your children, and for your old uncle here. You will be, America. You will be what you could be. You will be what you should be, and I am going to give my life to the working for that.” (From a 2014 article by Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund)

Dr. Vincent Harding, 1931-2014, was a visionary historian, theologian and social justice activist. In July 2012 on his 81st birthday Dr. Harding spoke at the National and Racial Healing Town Hall at a Children’s Defense Fund’s conference. “I am, you are, a citizen of a country that does not yet exist, and that badly needs to exist. And I want to offer you the opportunity to celebrate my birthday with me by pledging deep in you that you are not going to give up this life without offering yourself totally to the creation of this country that does not yet exist.”

Borrowing the refrain from Langston Hughes's poem Let America Be America Again, he said: “We can always stop there and complain and complain and complain. ‘You’ve never been America to me.’ But remember, Langston did not stop there. ‘America, you’ve never been America to me. But I swear this oath—you will be!’ I want you, those who are not afraid to swear oaths, to swear that oath for yourself, for your children, and for your old uncle here. You will be, America. You will be what you could be. You will be what you should be, and I am going to give my life to the working for that.”

(From a 2014 article by Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund)

On the road to Culture/Shift

November 16th. Nicholas and I were on a road-trip.

But it didn’t feel like November. A warm wind from the south. Nearly eighty degrees.

And it didn’t feel like we were on the precipice. No cliffs in sight. No curfew. No national guard on the streets. Just blue skies. Light traffic. And endless billboards along I-70 for Loose Slots, Ozarkland and Nostalgia Ville, USA.

Like the recent SNL sketch that encouraged aggrieved and disillusioned hipsters to escape the new reality by living inside a literal bubble hovering over Brooklyn, for a moment we could motor on under the delusion that Trump and his gang were just a bad dream.

It didn’t last long. Culture shifts.

In a field along the interstate near Kingdom City was a sight that brought the nightmare back to life.  A monster truck with knobby wheels the size of kiddie pools was installed on a ramp as if it were about to take off into the sky. Emblazoned with billowing U.S. flags like a tank in a military parade, it’s meaning was not made unclear. A banner above the truck cab screamed triumphantly TRUMP! The banner was a claim to territory both physical and psychic. And it felt like a threat.

As it was in 1893, when land grabbers staked claims to the home of the Cherokee in what we now call Oklahoma. As it is in working-class neighborhoods across the U.S., where greedy developers force out long-term residents to make space for the “creative class.” And as it is at Standing Rock where multi-national corporations gamble with the well being of an entire ecosystem, while trampling on the treaties and human rights of a sovereign nation.

A phone call from the Lawrence Director of Arts and Culture brought a moment of levity. It seemed that someone had made a politically charged alteration to a community mural I led in 2006. A protest sign held by a Civil Rights Marcher in the mural was repainted to say, “Stop Trump.” “Did I believe this was a criminal act,” they asked. No, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, I replied… No one claimed responsibility. Many commenters were outraged and called the change terrorism, while many others cheered.

All this made the purpose and destination of our road trip that much more meaningful. We were headed to St. Louis for the first national gathering of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, aptly titled Culture/Shift. It promised to be a memorable weekend, but the outcome of election made it feel like emergency preparedness training – good to know then that one of the Lawrence Field Office folks, Kate, is actually on our local Emergency Management team. In addition to Kate the blacksmith and Nicholas the filmmaker, the Lawrence/Kansas City contingent included Sara the scientific illustrator, Connie the adventure cartographer, Margarita the poet, Amber the painter/musician, and Nedra the story quilter. Thanks to support from the USDAC home office we were all able to afford the trip. 

Culture/Shift was held at the Regional Arts Commission (props to Cultural Agent Roseann Weiss and the incredible coordinating team there) which for a few days became a home to the most dynamic and inspiring group of artist/activist/policymakers I’ve ever had the privilege of hanging out with. And although the weather outside caught up with the season, inside the spirit was warm and full of radical hopefulness.

Setting the tone for the gathering, Chief Policy Wonk, Arlene Goldbard challenged us to stand up to equivocating media pundits and armchair apologists who have suggested that we “Give him a chance” or “Wait and see.”

“Don’t adapt to absurdity,” Arlene said quoting Van Jones. We didn’t need more proof of Trump’s xenophobia, racism, sexism or ignorance to verify the danger. It was time to imagine and then build the resistance.

More on Culture/Shift here

Construtores de Pontes dos Sonhos—Builders of Dream Bridges

Água Branca. It sounds like a New Mexico spa or a white water rafting outfitter along the Colorado River, but here in São Paulo it’s a comunidade hidden behind a trucking company and packed in between the Marginal Highway and the polluted Rio Teite. It’s a community of 3,000 people you wouldn’t run into unless you were looking for it. And, it was the site of my final project in Brazil this spring. I was invited by Parede Viva and the Revivarte project to add to the series of murals they had been making with local residents. On my first day, I was escorted in a U.S. Consulate SUV across a tiny portion of this city of nearly 20 million. The graffiti artist, and my counterpart/interpreter, Kaleb met me there.

After brief introductions, a group of us, Fel, Kaleb, Joyce from the Consulate and Ana who runs a neighborhood salon, took a walk around. As we wove our way down narrow alleys and in between buildings in different states of construction, Ana told us about neighborhood struggles (gentrification, drugs, poverty) and triumphs (Revivarte, a new playground, improved housing). All around us there was wildly inventive painting on walls, vehicles, trashcans and light poles.

We walked along the edge of the comunidade, bordered by a narrow creek lined with banana trees and shacks perched perilously over the water. At one end there was a small bridge (ponte) over the creek.  It led to the heavily gated backside of a big box store like Home Depot, but clearly wasn’t accessible to Água Branca folks.

The site for our mural was at the main intersection entering the comunidade on the brightly colored walls of their pre-school. Just inside, giant angry paper mache mosquitos hung from the rafters. They were warnings about Dengue, much more prevalent there than Zika. Next door was a scrap yard where catadores brought their carts (carocas) full of gleaned metal, plastic and wood to sell for a few reales.  Parede Viva artist Mundano has been leading a project called “Pimp my Caroca” that supports these and other São Paulo catadores by painting their carts and helping to share their stories.

Pontes (bridges)
The next day Kaleb picked me up. Negotiating morning traffic, he thought out loud saying that we (artists) act as a kind of bridge when we come to work with comunidades like Água Branca. I wondered, if we bridges flow in both directions or just one. And what do we span? From where to what? Is there a toll? And what’s underneath?

In a small casita at the back of the school we gathered for the first time. Our team was made up from local kids who joined us after school (they only go half-days), Kaleb, plus two teachers Ana Carla and Ana Karla. There was a good mix of girls and boys and a range of ages from about 7 to 17. We went around and introduced ourselves (with Kaleb’s animated translation) and said our favorite color. I wrote them down and asked which of these colors should we use in the mural? “All of them!” they demanded. I agreed.

I had planned on showing some images of my murals but we couldn’t get the projector to work, so instead I asked the team about that tiny bridge down the street. What does it connect to? Who uses it? What goes under? They wanted to show me, so we walked over, and immediately the kids started playing on under and atop the bridge. One pirouetted along its spine like a gymnast, others nestled inside its rounded openings becoming new pillars holding it up. We looked at the creek in both directions, first towards the comunidade (relatively clean and healthy) and then the opposite direction past the scrap yard toward the highway (trashed). I asked if there were animals or fish. “Sim, sim” even turtles they say. And looking up we saw in the distance a lone white egret perched motionless in the water awaiting a meal.

It was just a brief adventure, but it completely changed the vibe. By shifting our perspective, by asking a few basic questions, questions that because they were asked implied that they were worth answering, we started to see that bridge in a new way - from overlooked and common to a unique and identifying characteristic of the comunidade. Bridges (or the lack of them) both literal and symbolic were ever present. There are many essential places you simply cannot get to without a car. And the bridge out of poverty is still more of a dream than reality for many in Água Branca.

For a few years now, a quote from James Baldwin’s essay “The Creative Process,” has followed me around. “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” And it occurred to me again here in Água Branca, if the bridge was an answer, what were the questions?

Back in our casita studio I proposed, if you could build a bridge, what would it connect? Who would it be for? What would it look like? They charged ahead, drawing in teams of two, first pencil and then color. We took a break for almoco (lunch) of little empanadas and soda. After, we presented our bridge (ponte) designs to each other.

(In the news, a vote was imminent in the House on whether they would proceed with an impeachment trial of the President. My new friends were wary. They feared that many people did not understand the implications and motivations behind this push. Like in Kansas where so many vote against their own self-interest out of fear and ideological pressure.)

These short projects mean that we only have a day or so of drawing before a design needs to be composed – that was my homework for when I got back to the hotel.

Our mural design is of a vision in the making. We see the hands of artists creating it. In the center, the Água Branca bridge is reinforced by the kids who sit within it, while their aspirations occupy the space above. Flowing underneath is a mixed message – the creek is populated by turtles, fish and…trash. The adjoining wall is a blueprint for the future, composed of all of their bridges interconnected, allowing everyone access across the city.

The next day we made quick work of squaring –up the design with a chalk snapline (the simple builder’s tool was a revelation to many). And then it was time to paint, but we had to wait… for the Consul General, Ricardo Zuniga. Following protocol, he would be the first to paint. We had met earlier in the week when I was invited to join his family at a new exhibition of Tim Burton drawings.  At the show, me and the Consul General, who had a major hand in opening relations with Cuba recently, discussed our favorite Burton films and agreed Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice were the best, while the recent remakes of Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were overblown disappointments. 

Painting went quickly. The early fall weather cooperated, storming dramatically at night. People on the street parked their chairs on the sidewalk to watch the progress. My Portuguese was still terrible, but I knew the important colors – vermelho, laranja, azul and a few directional words like up, down, more and less. The rest was communicated by example and culturally appropriate hand gestures (I learned they weren’t all the same as in the U.S.)

The day before we finished, the media giant Globo TV (the same Globo that had been fanning the flames of impeachment) came to do a feature about our project. We were prepared. We had talked about how to share our story. It aired the next day. We watched and cheered when the deep voiced news anchor intoned Água Branca with a gravitas rarely heard, and then, just like that, it was time to say goodbye.

"Construtores de Pontes dos Sonhos - Builders of Dream Bridges"
We finished the last details, and then I quickly washed the brushes before our dedication ceremony. To each of the painters, I handed one and said, “This is a symbol of our work, but it still has life in it. You can choose to use it by yourself and do a little, or you can work with your friends and do a lot.”

After cake and sodas and many cheers of Parabens!, we jumped into a VW van and headed to the movies to see Superman vs. Batman. It was dubbed in Portuguese - probably all the better for me. During the movie, the design team was rambunctious and excited, waving their paint brushes in the air at the climax of each battle between superheroes.

Coda
A few weeks after getting back to Kansas, I received a fantastic surprise in my email. The crew from Água Branca, along with Kaleb, had muralized the bridge - a small but significant gesture, completing an idea and reinforcing the notion that art is not disconnected from life. 

(And since my return, President Rousseff has been relieved of her position while the congress proceeds with an impeachment trial. The interim president, Temer, quickly reformed his cabinet to include only white men and shut down the Ministry of Culture, which was only reinstated after massive protests.)

I am grateful to all of the folks from Água Branca who welcomed me and gave their time for our project. Also, muito obrigado to the Meridian International Center, the U.S. Consulate in São Paulo, Parede Viva, Revivarte, filmmaker Adriano Choque and my friend Kaleb.