The process of creating art I think is different for everyone. Sometimes it can be done rather impulsively, but from a deep and authentic place. Other times, it is something that is thought out for a long time before being put into action or physical form. Our case was definitely the latter. We thought a lot about the different actions we could take to create an environmental justice based art piece. We thought about going into a community and creating art there, but that was denied because it was not our community and just going in and out might have been a bit voyeuristic so that idea was turned down quickly. We hadn’t even chosen a community and upon thinking and discussing we thought why not localize the issue to the best of our ability that way it can be applicable to the artists as well as the viewers and perhaps make a difference in our local community. After learning about many of the EJ issues in our class, we realize that many problems are systemic which means as long as we are living under that system, which we certainly are in an private academic institution, there are bound to be EJ issues present right in front of us that should be brought to the forefront.
We decided to research artists that we thought had messages of environmental justice. I think this sparked a lot of ideas with us. We finally ended up with “Trash Art” or using materials that would have been otherwise thrown away or recycled and put into a polluting factory. Art is too often inaccessible to many people and we want this to be a project that is a powerful example of something that anyone can do with the “wasted” materials around them because in reality, its not going anywhere so we might as well use it empower rather than pollute.
Choosing an image was the most difficult part by far. Maggie and I (Lala) have had experience making portrait collages- using pieces of magazines and colored paper to collage into a portrait of a face. We thought this could be great idea and we could make it into a grid, kind of like a color-by-number, that way anyone could contribute, not just those that are well-practiced in art. But who do we want to represent and why? We thought about the many ways to frame this project. For instance, we are making a face out of materials that could be considered “trash”- might that be offensive to the person we choose to represent? Implying perhaps that this person was made of trash? Should we be calling someone out or celebrating someone for their ideas or actions? We decided on the latter, to celebrate someone’s existence. But who?
We thought about an image I saw at the Native American PowWow on Pomona’s campus of an indigenous woman mirroring the image of Rosie the Riveter. We wanted to do this to localize EJ issues, and maybe even work along side the Edgar Heap of Birds installation, commenting on the stolen land we currently reside in. However, we realized even though at first glance the image seemed empowering to Native peoples, it was also problematic in many ways. For instance, who is this Native woman represented? And why would she want to be in the position of Rosie anyway? We did not want to be essentializing and wanted to fight the stereotypical images of Native peoples that we have sadly been raised with. For instance, the Tongva peoples, on whose land we are on, in fact do not braid their hair but leave it free to hang.
I think many of us felt kind of scared as our presentation time was approaching and felt perhaps we should emphasize our struggle with choosing an image to the class, and actually create an image that is less “controversial” and potentially problematic and has no potential to offend any person or group of people. We chose to use the flag of California the Grizzly Bear and make a political statement about how this bear has actually been extinct in California since the early 1900s due to overhunting and now it is being replaced by these machines that tear up with earth to build unnatural infrastructure and how ironic that these construction machines are often named after animals even though that is what they are killing (such as Bobcat and Caterpillar). But once we graphed it out we realized aesthetically it was not working out… At this point we were frustrated and dismayed, but moved forward and I uncovered an old idea that we could rehash and still put into practice. This required taking initiative and going with our guts of what felt right.
I had the idea of Maria, who works in Mead cleaning up after the students, but many of them probably do not know who she is and are invested in the messed up capitalist institution that dehumanizes workers, especially physical laborers. Maria is not only a beautiful and kind person, but also carries knowledge that is ancient, rare and precious about indigenous plants and their healing properties. She is a curandera. It was obvious to be that given our bodies, position in this educational institution, and positionality, I think one of the most valuable things we can do is bring minimized voices to the forefront and use them as guiding voices with what we can do with our privileged education to make this a better place for all life on this earth. The primary difficulty with using Maria as our image was finding her (she is very busy) and getting her consent on the project and its purpose. This was mostly difficult because Maria speaks Spanish primarily and no one in our group was proficient in the language. I used to be but when I went abroad to Italy and learned Italian, most of my Spanish was lost and confused with Italian. Luckily, I got a friend who lived in Mead and spoke Spanish to arrange a meeting time with Maria and I wrote her a note about our project in her mother tongue and she happily consented and was excited to put my note and maybe the art project on her wall at home.
All in all, it was a difficult and multi-layered process, but I think ended quite well. Considering personal and political frameworks as well as aesthetics was a real challenge, but without a doubt we all grew a lot from the process and we hope that our intentions shine through to our viewers who may also grow from our creation.