Express yourself: ‘Protest’ art at Featherstone

The word “protest” conjures up emotion, memory, and sometimes outrage. Oak Bluffs’ Featherstone Center for the Arts offered more than 30 artists the opportunity to express their own reaction to this single word in the first show of the 2017 season, “Protest.”

The open call went out to local artists six weeks ago by email, with a follow-up four weeks later. The response was strong and varied.

“We have high school kids and an 80-year-old, so it runs the gamut of the entire community expressing their views,” said Featherstone executive director Ann Smith. As a result, the non-juried show is diverse, with a mix of mediums including painting, poetry, photography, and collage.

Mary-Jean Miner of Tisbury has knit 26 "pussy hats."
Mary-Jean Miner of Tisbury has knit 26 “pussy hats.”

“Featherstone is for the community of Martha’s Vineyard, to share art with the people. Not just for professionals, but for all to express and enjoy art,” said gallery manager Kate Hancock. “For all of our open shows, there is not a selection process. We are a community arts organization, so we welcome all artists.

“The goal of this show was not to create a ‘political storm’ over any one political thing, but to give artists an opportunity to express their affirmation of things, rather than the negative,” Ms. Hancock said.

The protest theme was the first of its kind for the Virginia Weston Besse Gallery, and was suggested by staff member Veronica Modini, who has since has moved to Providence and is part of the Rhode Island School of Design, but who continues to work remotely to support the gallery.

“She came in right after the election. We were talking about our 2017 themes,” Ms. Smith said. “She said, ‘Don’t you think protest would be a really good theme? Everybody is up in arms about everything.’”

At the opening reception of “Protest,” artists discussed what motivated them to produce their work and bring awareness to topics important to them. “Our goal with the arts is to foster the freedom of expression. It is one of the most important values in this country,” said Ms. Hancock.

Margaret Emerson of Chilmark created a multi-media collage protesting the immigration ban.
Margaret Emerson of Chilmark created a multi-media collage protesting the immigration ban.

Ellie Bates of Edgartown was inspired by natural wonder in her poem, “The Legacy of Redwoods.” “What I was trying to show is our nation’s greatness in our national parks. The whole natural environment really played a huge role in this, because my poem talks a little bit about how the redwoods grow in family units, and how there is an interdependency. In the sense, these icons teach us the power of patience and humility,” said Ms. Bates. The last line of her poem reads, “America’s greatness is magnified because like the Redwoods the people stand tall. They will protect their rights under the law of our great land.”

“Beauty with Attitude” was the title of Rebecca Comito’s mixed-media collage. Her piece was inspired “because of how women are treated through the years, most of their lives. The day that we have equal rights will be a great day on this planet,” said Ms. Comito.

While the new White House administration wasn’t the only entity on the receiving end of the artists’ protests, it does come into play occasionally in their work.

Responding to the open call with a colorful painting to “Fight Fake News,” Basia Jaworska said she was inspired by the Dada art movement, which took place right after World War I, “when artists were so pissed off, angry at the world,” Ms. Jaworska said. Her style is simple, nothing complicated. “Something that anyone, even a kid, could understand,” Ms. Jaworska described her work. “Keep it real simple visually, conceptually to get my point across.”

An experienced painter of musicians and heroes, she brings a sense of humor to this piece: “It’s obvious that that is not a banana. The best way to get a message across is through humor. Everything is so scary, and it’s absurd. So this is to bring out the absurdity of fake news,” said Ms. Jaworska.

Mary-Jean Miner of Tisbury, a former freelance writer for The Martha’s Vineyard Times, expressed her version of protest through knitting. She has knit 26 “pussy hats” since the Inauguration. Six of her hats were part of the Women’s March in January — two in Washington, two at Five Corners, and two in Boston. “I’ve been knitting ever since,” said Ms. Miner. “I’m not able to go to D.C., but I can do this.”

Margaret Emerson of Chilmark, an experienced pastel and acrylic artist, said her No. 1 issue with protest has to do with immigration. Her piece is multimedia, mostly an acrylic painting on heavy watercolor paper, with collage incorporated. “I just started with the wall; the cardboard represents the wall that Donald Trump is building. It’s so upsetting to me what’s going on in our country, not wanting people to come here from other countries,” said Ms. Emerson. “I actually painted it about five different times, kept adding layers to it. I used some pictures from the newspaper that had to do with the immigration ban. And I thought I would overlay it with the American flag. That’s the Statue of Liberty up in the corner.” Ms. Emerson also wrote a poem that hangs alongside her collage.

Staff at Featherstone was pleased to see an outpouring of expression coming from artists of all mediums across the Island.

“I think so many people have been off to the Women’s March, other marches, and I think there was a real sense of people wanting to share their voice and their issues and concerns,” Ms. Smith said. “I’m really pleased with the outpouring of different messages from environmental protection to women’s rights to equal rights. This show was designed so that anyone could express their feelings any way they wished.”

“Protest” runs through March 29 at Featherstone Center for the Arts.