PHILADELPHIA––On the eve of the 2018 midterm elections, and in a landscape overwhelmed by competing narratives, The Clay Studio in Philadelphia presents a showcase of 13 contemporary ceramic artists whose diverse works and inspiring practices are an emphatic rallying cry for action and attention. Making a Difference: Social and Political Activism in Clay––on display now through November 18––creates the space for these luminaries to speak out their truths, open our eyes, and address current events and societal dilemmas.
The artists in Making a Difference represent a wide range of cultures, ages, genders, ways of making art, and ways of making a living in the arts. Each voice is unique, and each artwork in the exhibition is a powerhouse of clarity and creativity.
Syd Carpenter’s series of farm portraits calls attention to the rural legacy of African Americans and the resurgence in urban farming:
“In the very early years of the 20th century, there were one million African Americans farming in rural Southern states. Today there are estimated to be less than 35,000 throughout the United States. This would appear to be a devastating legacy if the story were to end here. But it does not. As many African Americans moved from rural roots to urban, they did not abandon the sense of self-sustainability, productivity, and beauty located in farming and gardening. … My grandmother tended a well-known garden in Pittsburgh during the Depression. My mother was an avid gardener. I am a gardener.”
Russell Biles reports and satirizes information relevant to contemporary culture, selecting subjects that will have societal repercussions down the road:
“I work best with subjects that have touched me personally or have touched people with which I can empathize. For instance, I produce a lot of work concerning family, children, and women as the result of having been primarily raised by my mother and grandmother and having served as the primary caregiver for my children. Race and religion are also recurring themes, having grown up as a Christian in a small Southern mill town with a history of racial violence. Fittingly, my VOTE piece responds to the aforementioned. In VOTE, I’m not just saying ‘vote,’ I’m telling you why you should vote. I give multiple examples of the most powerful and evil dictators in the world who control billions of people who don’t have the right to vote.”
Roberto Lugo, a self-proclaimed “ghetto potter” from Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, works to honor people of color and bridge cultures through his ceramics:
“In the 2016 election I tried to consider why many would vote the way they did. I was perplexed but I refuse to believe that everyone who voted for this candidate was simply racist. After asking many people why they voted the way they did I realized they voted for someone like themselves. They hoped for jobs, they hoped for a world like the one where they grew up. I realized they voted for him for the same reason I voted for Obama; I saw someone who looked like me, someone who could help us get jobs, and a chance at equality. … An important part of [Obama’s] legacy is the capacity to help us see things from someone else’s perspective. I hope that my work continues this, and serves as a device to help us listen more than we speak.”
Ayumi Horie, co-founder of a collaborative activism project called The Democratic Cup, tries to spark positive social change through truth telling, allyship, and her own luck:
“My political work reflects my introversion. My projects are not confrontational or loud; they rely on the potent intimacy of a kitchen or the act of daydreaming, only to notice a story in the sidewalk. The best work can only be done if it honors one’s own inherent character, but don’t mistake my introversion for being small. We are all born with a certain amount of luck. How we choose to use that luck makes meaning. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, the vast majority of us sit somewhere on a spectrum where some have it worse than us and some have it better. Since none of us chose to be born into the families and situations that we ended up in, the question becomes: how can we become the best allies we can be and how do we pay it forward?”
Mark Burns makes a difference for the LGBT community through personal works that push the boundaries of pop art:
“Many years ago, I made an unplanned, rather simple organic difference for the emerging LGBT arts community through my studio work, unconscious of what was occurring. It took many years for me to realize that by making the most authentic work I was capable of, the most truthful work, I had made a difference for others to speak their own truths. … As a gay man, as a human being, I deserved my seat at the table, always believing that making the best work I was capable of would eclipse that contrasting situation, the state of being dissimilar. Being human was my intent.”
The late Paula Winokur’s environmentally-conscious art reflected her desire to protect the natural world for future generations:
“My work has been about nature since the first landscape box I did, which was in the mid-80s. And sometimes I wish that I could do something else, but I can’t. … Global Warnings  was the first piece that I did responding to the environment in terms of climate change… I started getting really focused on global warming, and with that piece, it was actually making specific statements. Each one of them is like a little globe, and it has messages on it about what we’re doing to the environment… and what we should be doing.”
At a time when the very notion of truth is so uncertain, these artists – and all the artists featured in The Clay Studio exhibition – are able to voice authenticities in ways that can inspire others, each using their creative output to reveal a different facet of today’s myriad social and political issues and effect change.
*This post combines portions of the Making a Difference: Social and Political Activism in Clay catalogue, which includes essays written by each artist in the exhibition and is available at The Clay Studio and its online shop.
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