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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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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