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Artist or activist? Creative voices inspire dialogue

Is art a mirror for current events or personal experiences? Four individuals make powerful statements about the social problems of their generation.
Artist Josh Solas (left) pictured with Artist Dave Warmenhoven (right)

Artist Josh Solas (left) pictured with Artist Dave Warmenhoven (right) /Photographer, Devin Hendrick Photography

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See it in person

All four of these politically themed exhibitions can be found just off of, or along, Avenue for the Arts - starting September 20 until October 8, 2017. Be sure to visit during First Friday, October 6th, 2017 from 6-9pm! 

Ladies Literary Club

Ladies Literary Club

Cerasus Studios, located at 120 South Division

Cerasus Studios, located at 120 South Division /Photographer, Erika Townsley

The streets of Grand Rapids have been busier than normal this year, not with visitors to cultural events, parades or races, but with citizens protesting. From The Women’s Rights March to A Day Without Immigrants and the most recent DACA demonstrations, local protests have echoed national action, with groups marching in support of an array of issues. With such boisterous backdrop it’s not surprising that the artworks on display during ArtPrize’s 19 day event are being recognized for their provocative, political themes.

While Callie Cherry, Cerasus Studios Curator and Owner, has hosted several exhibitions discussing social issues—she has been considering a “Trump” related exhibition since the election. Cherry was inspired to dig deeper by hosting “a workshop on Art & Activism led by Hugo Claudin during Break it Down Make it Better. I drew from an existing network of artists as well as ArtPrize connections to find artists whose works expressed a diverse set of both frustration and cultural pride.” The resulting exhibition, Investigation Pending is a response to the Trump administration and includes works by Michael "Hank" Diaz-Leal, EJ Cobb, Eliza Fernand, Madhurima Ganguly, Rachel Hurd, Tatiana Martinez, Jordan Noble, Marcel Price/Fable the Poet and Joshua Solas.

Having opened Cerasus in August 2016, Cherry describes the last year as a “whirlwind” and says that “Investigation Pending represents only a fraction of the narrative, but it’s meant to start a discussion, not present a solution….the door is open for questions or dialog with us.”

Featured Investigation Pending artist and Kendall College of Art and Design Senior: Josh Solas sees his artwork as being his truth, “I believe part of my duty as an artist is to reflect the times I live in, voice concerns and provoke open dialogue with my audience.” His current work—a video collaboration with artist Josh Meek called “This is Ridiculous,” that Solas describes as an ongoing investigation into “how we use laughter to cope with the ridiculousness that is the modern day.” Adding that “when it comes to members of disenfranchised groups, that may mean laughing at your own demise,” and says his work “(is) a creative alternative to research papers. Our challenge as artists is to attempt to convey our findings in the best ways possible.”

Whether or not you believe that all art is a mirror for current events or personal experiences, it is certainly a vehicle for individuals to make powerful statements about the social problems of their generation, activist or not. Artist Eliza Fernand explains, “My definition for an activist work was one that went beyond educating the viewer or making them question a norm, and created a direct action….. So under those terms, I am not making directly activist artwork, but I am making artwork in the spirit of activism and with the intention of charging social change.” Featured at both Cerasus Studios, and also the Ladies Literary Club, Fernand is known for textile pieces that use bring colors and found materials. “I have only recently been working in such a direct style with text in my patchworks, my previous work was more abstract and open-ended.”

Paula Manning, Calvin College Curator, says of the Fernand’s Ladies Literary Club fabric installation, EQUITY NOT EQUALITY, “ (Fernand) addresses three aspects of the organization’s history: education, gender, and race, brilliantly paying homage to the Ladies Literary Club as a site of education and empowerment, but also calls present-day issues of gender and racial equality into question.” Manni sees the current day socio-political issues as content that cannot and should not be avoided and actively sought an artist she knew would take on the themes. “In this tense and overly-politicized climate, these issues often become conversation battles wrought with anger and hurt. I believe that art opens the door to a more nuanced conversation in a way that other platforms can’t, It’s my hope that viewers come to the work ready to watch, listen, absorb, ask questions, and engage. I think now, more than ever, we need to take the time think, listen, and dialogue—truly converse—well.”

Located just around the corner, Woosah Owner and artist, Erica Lang’s carved wall hangings and series of printed apparel is “about protecting our earth through daily positive impacts” and she “hopes it inspires and engages a younger generation to rethink their daily decisions, while having fun and taking pride in it as well.” Her ArtPrize 2017 submission Respect your Mother, was inspired by some of the changes she started to make over the last year as “small shifts in my daily routine; biking to work, bringing reusable bags to the grocery, adopting a vegan diet… and I started to feel empowered. This series of work is sharing that empowerment.” Political because it connects personal action to environmental awareness, Lang says she uses social media as a way to spread her message to a larger audience. “We will be using the hashtag #woosahRespectYourMother during ArtPrize to track people who are getting involved and taking action and we will be giving prize packs away weekly to selected winners.”

Not to be overlooked the UICA’s Cultivate exhibition focuses on the inherently political food systems, wrapping in issues of immigration policy and ecology. Artist Salvador Jiménez Flores says that “food is used as a cultivator of dialogue specially talking about current political issues that are affecting millions of people.” His ceramic installation La resistencia de los nopales híbridos is an “exploration of the themes of colonialism, migration, identity and futurism. I see the cactus is a resilient plant that can survive extreme weather conditions, I use the cactus as a symbol of resilience and hope for a better future.” His newest works explore a future aesthetic and it is “Through art, I seek to resist the labels put upon me and other people of color by reimagining what an alternative future could look like.” Not only calling attention to the issue but to inspire dialogue and action Flores says, “We are facing so many political injustices that are affecting thousands of people. One of the pressing concerns is the uncertainty of DACA. Therefore, I decided to stained these white walls with clay, dirt, earth…and spell out loud that we are here to stay.”

When asked about the overlap of politically charged shows and ArtPrize, Cerasus Studios Curator Callie Cherry mused, “ArtPrize has always had political works and exhibitions – so much so, that it’s been satirized by many locals. I think the volume of political work has a lot to do with the traffic that any work receives during ArtPrize season, it’s the perfect time to communicate a message that the artist finds important.”  

The Avenue for the Arts is a neighborhood title for the South Division commercial corridor. We are residential, commercial and nonprofit groups working together in a creative community. We are residents in Heartside, and active participants in shaping change in our neighborhood. In 2005, we choose the Avenue for the Arts as a title to represent our commercial corridor and the projects and events that we create. Because the Avenue is powered by volunteers guest writers create our Rapidian content. Special thanks to Jenn Schaub, Avenue for the Arts Coordinator and lover of grilled cheeses for her coverage of ArtPrize 2017.

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