Sweet Resistance Art

Feminism is Freedom patch by Phoebe Wahl

For almost 2 years, I’ve been publishing posts with political art on this blog and Facebook. Judging from the comments that come in, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, but every once in a while someone writes to express their dismay at this new direction. I recently received a message on Facebook that said it’s a shame I couldn’t have created something uniting instead of divisive. I replied, “I understand your longing for unifying art and wonder, what would that look like? That is the challenge we all face, while also telling the story of our time.” This interchange got me thinking about the role of art throughout history. Do artists exist to make the world a more beautiful, harmonious place or do they have a responsibility to reflect the real world we live in, warts and all? I think it’s possible to do both. Years ago, the late writer, activist, feminist and educator Toni Cade Bambara said “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible” and her words sound even truer today.

That’s where something I call sweet resistance art comes in. The concept isn’t limited to professional artists – anyone can stand up for what they believe is right and create art that expresses their point of view. As my favorite protest sign says, “Things have gotten so bad, even the introverts are coming out.” The power in the sweet resistance variety of protest art comes from the juxtaposition of a bold message wrapped in an appealing package. The combination can surprise and disturb some who aren’t expecting it, especially those who look to art as an escape from real life, but others find it refreshing and relevant.

Downloadable image from Mary Englebreit

I can understand the desire to tune out the world and believe, if even for a short time, that everything is OK and nice. We all need a refuge from the onslaught of news stories about strife in the world. But does that mean it’s all right to ignore the reality of what is unfolding around us? Of course, people have different ways of dealing with stress and have to figure out what works for them. Years ago, I came across a quote from T.S. Eliot, who said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” At the time, I thought it was spot-on, but now I think it could be used as an excuse to stay passive, silent and shut off. I suppose the goal is to achieve a balance, so that we can be aware and engaged with what’s going on around us, while also retaining an inner peace and resilience, so we are prepared to help others. Isn’t that the universal spiritual struggle of humankind?

Downloadable image from Phoebe Wahl

So, how can artists or anyone else for that matter, maintain a balance and embrace the concepts of sweet resistance successfully?  To some, the idea may seem incongruous, but artists Mary Engelbreit and Phoebe Wahl prove otherwise, as they’ve managed to effectively interject protest messages into their adorable and comforting body of work. In doing so, they risk a backlash from their followers and must consider how resilient they are, both financially and emotionally. Championing causes they believe in may be too much for some of their fans, but it has also energized many to love and respect them even more.

Poster by Mary Engelbreit

Coming from different generations and with their own unique styles, Mary and Phoebe demonstrate how attractive political art can be an effective critiquing tool. They are both in business for themselves, strongly identify as artists with their own vision and are very much in control of the namesake images they project. They have taught me that speaking out through art and sharing who you really are can reveal an authenticity that is hard to ignore.

Warrior Woman Pin by Phoebe Wahl

Mary and Phoebe’s courage inspired me to jump into the fray and produce political satire with the Wee Folk Players (they’re a stitch) and we have bonded through the shared experience. What is so remarkable is that these women have built careers with art that depicts domestic bliss and an idyllic existence, attracting a large number of devoted fans. Not only are they talented on many fronts, they use their gifts to bring messages of hope and concern for the future. They are cognizant of what others like and want to see, while occasionally and consistently being willing to say what they think about current issues on social media, knowing full well that some of their followers will object. That’s a brave step, considering that they make art that is very hard not to like. The obvious questions are how and why do they keep sticking their necks out, in the face of condemnation for the positions they take and cries of displeasure at letting the real world sneak into their realm of fantasy?  I find this question fascinating and have been thinking about the subject a lot since the 2016 election.

Mary Engelbreit

Mary Engelbreit and I were first acquainted about 20 years ago, when my work was featured in her Home Companion magazine. Her wildly popular ME brand is known for its words of wisdom, paired along with endearing, spunky characters and designs, all lovingly rendered in detail with paint and colored pencil. She is famous for creating a “vast empire of cuteness” offering lines of cards, calendars, mugs, t-shirts and other products for decades. Despite what some may imagine, Mary is no shrinking violet. She is a force to be reckoned with and doesn’t shy away from giving her opinion, as she peppers her Instagram page with pithy news quotes and calls for action. In her shop, Mary offers free downloads of her protest signs and posters and donates the proceeds from her more politically pointed prints to the ACLU.

Phoebe Wahl

Straight out of the gate, Phoebe Wahl showed who she is and what she believes in. We met when she visited my studio in 2011, while still a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. I could tell right away that she had something special to share with the world and wrote this blog post. Since graduation, she’s been incredibly busy, illustrating children’s books and magazines, and designing and selling many products in her signature style. Her drawings, paintings and collages mix comfort, nostalgia and intimacy in a fresh and beguiling way. She’s also a forward thinking feminist who stands up for social justice issues that are important to her and routinely donates profits from some of her products to the ACLU. Free downloads of her protest signs are available here. I’m sure that she hears from some who prefer her fairies to her woman warriors, but she just keeps making her beautiful, engaging art that you can’t keep your eyes off of.

I am grateful to Mary and Phoebe, who’ve given permission to write about and publish their images here.

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53 thoughts on “Sweet Resistance Art

  1. Thank you for pointing out these two other women from different generations. I’ve long been a fan of Mary Engelbright, but now I’m aware of Phoebe Wall. All three of you rock!

  2. Thank you so much, Salley. Those who have a voice should speak out in whatever way they can. Your art (along with the artists above) provides a powerful commentary on the time and a voice for all of us. Artists, authors, etc. have always used their skills when injustice is prevalent and, just because it is “dolls”, it shouldn’t be stopped, ignored, or disallowed. Keep on keeping on!

  3. Sally,
    I have loved your work for several years and tried to overlook the political statements of late. However, this time you have lost me. I think it’s a shame to waste such a creative platform on politics. I get enough of that in the news media.

    I hate to ask, but please remove me from your mailing list.


      • Dear Ann, stating one’s opinions in anyway that want is not wasted. She has a wide audience and is trying to wake people up to what is going on. Everything is not always all cozy and nice!

    • Sally,
      I agree with Ann about the horrible waste of a creative platform for manipulated politics. You have played into the hands of a gross and powerful left who are using you to move our country for their own purposes. As an avowed introvert, it is very hard for me to see this mass manipulation happening, so I will say goodbye and know that, as with Ann, you won’t care if we come or go. You have your syncophants and don’t have the courage or desire to defend your cookie-cutter position. Sincerely , Lynn Rollins

      • Lynn, Salley has defended her position and it is not a cookie-cutter response. Her work is infused with what is meaningful for HER. We have become polarized by the political climate of far left vs. far right. The mass manipulation you refer to applies to both political parties and those who funnel mass amounts of money to their causes. There are millions of others who are deeply saddened and worried about the state of this country who are do not endorse either extreme. We care about the environment, human rights, overcoming racism,…the list is long. At this point in time, the far right is in power and they are moving to keep the rights of the rich to get richer while promising to help the poor while deliberately defunding the programs that help them- from my point of view. We no longer have a balanced government that attempts to compromise and work for all its citizens. Maybe we need a new system that does not allow corporations and dark money to direct our policies. Peaceful protest in any form is what this country is founded upon. Salley has a talent for engaging in this is a unique and powerful way.

        Keep on Salley. We may yet move from the extreme polarization of our current events and return to a kinder, more civil, and respectful time.

    • I hope that we can look more closely at what designates news media. Opinion pieces and editorial pieces are not the same as that which is written by investigative journalists. We need to view these for what they are and learn from the facts.
      When investigative journalists make errors in reputable publications, these errors are corrected.

  4. Dear Salley,

    THANK YOU! I have several young people who needed something Positive to focus on after yesterday. (Me, too!) Always enjoy “hearing’ from you. Book related or otherwise! Eve Fitzgibbon Elkton, Oreg

  5. Bravo Salley! We are who we are and you are allowed your opinion and to state it in anyway you want. We still can do that so far and if there aren’t more people like you coming forward then we will all loose the right of free speech and expression/

  6. Well said and thought provoking.
    I am very glad you do what you do including your political satire. Your art comes from your heart. I have always loved your art – then you went deeper with “Displaced”. My favorite for it’s message which truly touched my heart.

  7. As usual, I am so thankful for your posts. They give me courage as well as enjoyment and now there is more to enjoy. Particularly love the introverts signs! Keep up the fantastic, wonderful and inspiring work.

  8. Thanks to all three of you. I have not been familiar with Phoebe Wahl’s work but I will look her up. My hat is off to you for your courage to take your work in another direction when you realize that you cannot remain silent in the face of injustice. I continue to be inspired by your resistance to what is wrong, persistence in raising your voice, and insistence on following your heart even if it’s not popular with everyone. I think about these things every day and seek ways for my own art to speak my
    mind. Thank you.

  9. Sally,
    I first discovered your Wee Folk about fifteen years ago, and enjoyed creating them with my girls who are now adults, voting adults, women who are vulnerable in this world, women that I worry about how they will be treated. I am grateful that you’ve used your art to express your feelings, to continue this discussion, to remind people that this affects every part of our lives, that we have to keep fighting, speaking up, dissenting in every way possible. Thank you.

  10. Thank you for posting this, having lived in St Louis I knew about Mary Engelbreit and enjoyed her work and really appreciated it when she addressed with such compassion the issue of police shooting young black men. Now I have a new artist to appreciate in Phoebe Wahl as well. Thank you for your work and for showing me that it is possible to illuminate injustice and other social ills with love and respect and strength.

  11. Fabulous post. I have been an activist for women and children since my childhood. My mother was a great example of standing up for women’s rights. But 60 years later, it doesn’t seem like we have made a lot of progress. It’s wonderful to hear about young women continuing the fight. And to know I’m not the only older woman who has been advocating for many years. Thank you.

  12. Thank you Sally. Those of us who love your world of enchantment appreciate your words of encouragement now as we are struggling with disenchantment.

  13. Keep it up Sally!!! And, thanks for posting about Mary & Phoebe whom I have followed for a long time on Instagram. I love that women are speaking out with their art!!

  14. I have long been a fan of your work as well as Mary Engelbreits work. I love that you are standing up for what is right, using your art to help us affect change in the world. Thank you so much!

  15. Salley (with an E), you are doing the right thing. Art that does not express the maker’s thoughts is not Art. In “ordinary” times, politics does not intrude so much into our thoughts. For an artist to express herself about what she thinks is right, and what is wrong, is both appropriate and important. Kudos to you and your like-minded friends. All the best, Sally (with no E)

  16. Thanks so much for your art and support. I am a fan of your talent and freedom of expression. Your presentations have helped me during this difficult time. It’s nice to know there are others that also support the community with their artistic endeavors. I appreciated this “Sweet Resistance Art” conversation.

  17. Thanks again Salley. I didn’t realize that Mary had such wonderful work aside from that I was familiar with as a quilter. Kudos to Phoebe too. I do think there is a PLACE for all work that opens eyes and makes us think differently.

  18. Dear Sally, Thank you from the bottom of my heart, as Mary Engelbreit says. Thank you so much for introducing me to Phoebe’s work as well. I am deeply inspired by the works of all three of you.
    I’m ending the weekend, with hope, thanks to your mail today! Love, Mary J

  19. A life long feminist and activist I’ve have a habit of using art and making as a retreat from the world, I tend to make pretty things. What place does pretty have in the face of all of the recent ugliness? You and Mary Engelbreit having given me pause to rethink that question. What place does pretty have? How can I use that to relate a message? Thank you for using your voices and your gentle art to speak so loudly for what is right.

  20. Expressing support for ending the life of a child who is growing in the womb is not an artful expression. A life is lost every time a women chooses abortion over birth. How can we support that?

  21. Will you welcome art that supports an opposite political view or just your far left policies? If I make art supporting the right if the unborn would you feature and champion that? I am a big girl and don’t feel the need to unsubscribe as I can ignore what I don’t like without getting upset. However, can people calmly listen to another point of view without becoming angry and reacting with shouting like we have seen in the past week?

    • Thank you for chiming in here, Martha. I mean it when I say that anyone can stand up for what they believe is right and create art that expresses their point of view. I encourage you to make your own artistic interpretations of causes you care about and create a platform to share it in, just like I’ve done with my blog.

  22. I love that term- Sweet Resistance. It is perfect for what you, Mary, and Phoebe are doing. Keep up the good work! You are all brave artist women warriors!

  23. Salley, you always say it so well, so currently and so eloquently. I admire you for your talent with a needle and for your way with words.

  24. Salley, I am so glad that you have been so thoughtful and deliberate in your words and your work. It is powerful and clever. It is deeply troubling to me that we, as a country, are moving into a time when there is less ability to trust, more concern that wealthy extremists and dark money funding are dividing our country for their own purposes. Your art, marches, the small steps that individuals are taking to resist the extremists are so important. Keep on creating and writing.

  25. I see Trump and Putin as the viciously divisive ones, and you as the one speaking out against their divisiveness. Very interesting post. I’m with you all the way. If we ever elect a fairy for president, we’ll all be happy and can put down our protest signs.

  26. Sorry Salley, this reader is VERY disappointed. I found your blog for ideas not your political views. If you intend or “feel the need” to share your political views–get a separate blog and invite your readers, those who may be interested in participating in that type of forum, to your political blog. Spare the rest of us–social media and the 24/7 new cycle bombards us, now you. If you want to change something, then actively participate civically AND CIVILLY (not a play on words). Your last photo portrays Trump as a Fascist–this is incorrect–his policy does not espouse fascism–look up the definition. You may not care for it–but it is NOT fascism–so stop calling it something it is not. This lends no credibility to your cause. So TRUMP 1, YOU 0. Just say what you really mean, you don’t like him–that is ok, but be credible and honest! People would be more likely to listen to opposite views and engage in a civil discussion if the disappointed would stop screaming their woes. Where are Gandhi and MLK when you need them? History is bound to repeat itself. Thank God for my civics teacher in high school. Everyone has the right to free speech–it is how you conduct oneself with your free speech that makes the world of difference.

    • I hear you, Sparky. It sounds like you haven’t visited my blog for a while, so I can understand your surprise. Please let me bring you up to date. This blog follows my artistic journey, which includes many interests, including our current political landscape. After the election, my little dolls moved from a fairy house and into the white house. This has been a challenge for some of my followers, who like yourself have expressed dismay. Some who disagree have left and others stay because they still get something of value out of my posts. And you will make your own choice about what to do.
      I consider art to be an important and civil form of protest. This post profiles 2 successful artists and business women, Mary Engelbreit and Phoebe Wahl, who are speaking out through their art. The accompanying photos represent their points of view. To find out more about my foray into political art, you may find this post from 1 1/2 years ago informative: https://weefolkstudio.com/2017/04/30/play-therapy/

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