Why Art Is an Essential Ingredient of Any Resistance Movement

When I came home one day last week, I found neighborhood canvassers left a color poster for the April 29 People’s Climate March on my doorstep. I was admiring it when my wife came up behind me and said, “Could I have that? I want to frame it for my office.”

Like me, my wife, a social worker whose clients are mostly immigrant families and children, found the poster’s pen and ink image of women carrying water to be both friendly and moving, an unusual combination in the art of political mobilization. So I contacted the march organizers and got in touch with the artist, Alma Sheppard-Matsuo.

“I wanted to show the deep human labor that goes into combatting climate change,” she told me by phone. “Water is becoming inacccesible so the simple act of carrying water is so important. And this is work that is often done by women, children and elders. People who are marginalized.”

Sheppard-Matsuo is just one of hundreds of artists who will give the People’s Climate March in Washington on Saturday its distinctive visual stamp. I found dozens of them working in the cavernous confines of what used to an Irish pub in northwest Washington. The Uptown Art House, as it was dubbed, was filled with artists from ages seven to seventy working on posters, banners, parachutes, and installations for the March.

A group of Native artists were working on a life-sized covered wagon to be emblazoned with the slogan “CO2-lonialism” to illustrate the fact that fossil fuel extraction and the violation of the rights of native people have always gone hand in hand.

A group of kids were dabbing paint on a massive parachute to be held up by a circle of marchers. The group endeavor required to display parachutes have made them a popular alternative to the individual placard. “I think we have bought up every parachute made in America for this march,” one organizer told me.

An undocumented woman from Texas was constructing a giant puppet, while artists from Utah were building an even-larger cactus.

The mood was both serious and playful, a welcome respite from the anxiety and acrimony that often pervades the political mood of the Trump era. I heard the phrase “working with intention” from several artists, and Sheppard-Matsuo also mentioned it in our conversation.

Art isn’t just the decoration of the climate justice movement, she told me. It is another form of resistance itself. Her personal story was typical of the people I talked to. Her art flowed from personal experience. She came from an immigrant family. Her Japanese father grew up in Brazil. Her family was “progressive but not that political.”  After graduating from art school, she got involved with an arts and culture group of Occupy Wall Street, and then later in the People's Puppets. 

“This opened my eyes to community involved art and political art, which I found infinitely more useful, impactful and fulfilling than the commercial world,” she told me in an email. “I haven't looked back since.”

The message she hopes to convey with her art? “This is a welcoming venture. Keep it open. Keep it kind.”

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