Come Back to Art: How Creativity and Activism Intersect

by Alison Stine | June 6, 2017 2:02 pm

This article first appeared on Equal Voice.

I wasn’t trained in this. I didn’t go for school for this. Nobody pays me for this, and nobody expects me to be doing this.

But most evenings, after my son is asleep, and I can’t work at my computer anymore, I get into bed with a sketchbook and pencil. I draw my son somersaulting, the back of his hair. I draw a bathtub. I draw laundry on a line.

These are small images, just fragments. They’re not masterpieces, and I probably will never have time to polish them. As the single mother of a small child, I have such limited time, I probably shouldn’t be drawing at all. I should be making tomorrow’s lunch, or folding yet another load of clothes.

I probably also should, these days, with any spare second I have, be working for justice: fighting for peace, for the rights of other people and for the planet. In the wake of Trump’s election, the fight for social justice is more urgent than ever. It’s also the most overwhelming it has been in my lifetime. Where to start – and where, ever, will it end?

Whatever we’re doing, it feels like we’re not doing enough. This is a familiar feeling for many women, especially women who are mothers.

A friend of mine, a longtime community organizer who is also an educator and mother, asked recently what we are hoping to accomplish with protests.

She’s no stranger to political action, especially when it comes to environmental justice for our fracking-ravaged home in Appalachia.

But she asked: What happens when the marches and strikes are over? What can we do then?

We can never be doing enough.

When I was a child, I painted and drew. One summer, my parents even sprung for a few art lessons, which I took with my sister. A retired art teacher took us into the country and set us up with easels, paints, and a view. His wife made us little cakes to take home after lessons. I remember the cakes, spongy yellow with white frosting, wrapped in foil. I painted a barn, which still hangs in my parents’ dining room.

At night, after my homework was done, I would try to paint my own portrait, stealing glances in a hand mirror. Sometimes, not often, my sister or mother would pose for me. I made collages, cutting up Seventeen magazines. I made stencils, tracing album covers.

I’m not sure when I stopped making art. Certainly by the time I was in college, if not before. I focused on my major, which was English; my career, which was writing and teaching. Then I focused on my marriage. When that failed, what was left to focus on?

I came back to art because I had nowhere else to go. I had erased so much of myself trying to be a perfect wife, a perfect mother, and I needed to find myself again. I needed to find space to breathe. In order to be strong for my son, I needed to be strong myself. Making art, accessing a part of myself that I thought was lost years ago, helped me do that. It helped me stay me.

It helps me now, when it can feel like so many of the things that matter to me and to my loved ones – equality, the environment – are being lost. Art gives me energy to keep fighting.

Come back to art because you feel broken. Come back to art because you are burdened. Come to creativity because you are voiceless. It can give you the strength, the care, and the quiet fire to keep going.

It might seem like art is distraction. It might seem like art is an escape – and in a way, it is, and should be.

You need a way to turn down the noise temporarily, to tune out for a bit; otherwise you’ll burn out and break further.

Otherwise, if you’re anything like me, you’ll make yourself sick with worry and fear –and that makes us helpless and unable to give.

But in another way, art is not an avoidance. Art is the most plugged in and aware you can be. The art I have always been drawn to, that has made the most difference to me, has been work created by the poor; by people with physical or mental disabilities; by people who struggled with racial, gender, or class oppression. Jean-Michel Basquiat. Alice Neel.

Making art is an act of protest. It is also an act of freedom. While not everything, art is something. It is making a statement that you will go on; that the things you see and experience, no matter how small or insignificant, matter. That you matter.

Keep making art. Keep mattering.


Alison Stine, who earned her PhD, is a writer, visual artist and author, most recently of the novel, “Supervision.” She is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, The Paris Review and Jezebel.

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