Silence Speaks Volumes: Political protest art takes many forms in Franklinton's 'Silence is Death'

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive
AJ Vanderelli

AJ Vanderelli-led exhibition of protest art takes over Franklinton, empowers people to take action

“All great art is a form of complaint.” –John Cage, composer

AJ Vanderelli was in shock. It started on Nov. 8, later in the evening, and continued over the next few days, during which she discovered she was also frightened, a little depressed, perhaps, and really frustrated.

“Everybody I was talking to had that same kind of anxiety … and it took me a couple days to process it,” Vanderelli said in an interview in her Franklinton art gallery, the Vanderelli Room. “I ended up going to a Columbus United meeting and people were all crying and supporting each other. ... I just keep asking myself, ‘What is happening?' And I kept thinking that I needed us to come together, really badly.”

The event that ignited this tumult of emotion was the election of Donald J. Trump as 45th President of the United States. That there was significant enough support for the kinds of things on which now-President Trump campaigned, such as the proposed construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and an immigration plan placing restrictions on Muslim-majority countries, caught Vanderelli, among many others, by surprise.

“I've spent so much time not paying attention to any of it. I don't have a television. I don't watch commercials. Somebody stole my car stereo so I don't even listen to the radio. It's like I'm so disconnected,” Vanderelli said. “All of a sudden, it was like this reality check. … It's been a long time since I've paid attention, and I'm embarrassed.”

That sense of embarrassment didn't begin and end there. She discovered she wasn't alone in her disbelief. And she also discovered she was embarrassed on another level.

“I think about the fact that that's the person who's representing me and my country. … That's so not me and it's not the people I know,” she said. “So I felt like, ‘I'm ready to scream and I want my community to be able to do that and have a platform for that.' A collective scream but yet in a way that's not violent. It's like a scream [that says], ‘We are here and we are strong and we don't agree.'”

The “we” of whom she spoke is both a significant cross-section of the American populace, but, also, on a more personal level, Vanderelli's “people.” And it's to those people — the arts community and the Franklinton neighborhood — that Vanderelli turned to figure out exactly what this scream would sound and look like. A proposed art show became an art show and a march, which became an art show and a march and live music, which became … “Silence Is Death.”

“At the very beginning, the first few days after the election, I was talking to another artist about how I was feeling and he had said, ‘You know, AJ, it's time for us as creatives to put down the bottle and pick up the brush,'” Vanderelli said. The implication, subtle as a two-by-four to the side of the head, was that if there had been a time for feeling sorry for ourselves, that time was now over. The time for action had arrived.

“In a lot of ways it's like, good, because we fucking needed it. Because if this is the [way things are going to be], we are so naïve. There are so many haters, so many people that don't get it — that don't get diversity [and] that don't get that it's about the human condition,” Vanderelli said.

The more she talked to her friends and fellow art-makers, the more she found like-minded spirits, and the bigger the vision became. “Silence Is Death” became a neighborhood-wide political and social statement about empowering people to make a difference. Visual art, performance art, video, live music and more will be held at six venues throughout Franklinton during Franklinton Friday on March 10.

“We were saying that we were upset at the way the election turned out … and that we really need to have some kind of a show,” artist Gaye Reissland said. “So I said, ‘Yeah, we can call it, “The Pussy Grabs Back.”'”

And so, as part of “Silence Is Death,” there's an exhibition at the Vanderelli Room titled “The Pussy Grabs Back.”

“Some of our initial conversation was about having a protest march, but instead we thought, how about a performance art piece where we're actually marching [from venue to venue] to bring the visual art to light and give it a voice,” performance artist Heidi Madsen said.

And so there is a protest march called “Loud and Alive” that will connect the six spaces hosting “Silence Is Death.” 400 West Rich's Promenade Gallery will host “Inclusion,” 129 Studios' “Locker Room Talk” will feature both visual art and live music, the Columbus Idea Foundry will host video and spoken word for “Making America Create Again,” the Artists Wrestling League will present “Make Mine America” and Lundberg Industrial Arts will host “Soapbox.”

The visual art was curated by Vanderelli, Dana Lynn Harper and Tona Pearson. Reissland, Madsen, Hakim Callwood, Callie King, Lisa Steward and Lynne Bieber served on a planning committee.

“All the galleries and spaces are kind of family. AJ reached out and asked if we'd be a part of this and I said, ‘Of course,'” said Callwood of 129 Studios.

“The inclusion of video offers a unique way in which artists can take part outside the usual parameters, which speaks directly to the theme,” said Callie King, who manages media and content production for the Columbus Idea Foundry.

More important than the spaces signing on to participate is the art being made to fill them. More than 160 visual artists submitted work for “Silence is Death.”

“It's important for the arts community to come together to make a statement,” Vanderelli said, adding that, while organizing “Silence is Death” has been a massive undertaking, she feels renewed impetus and encouragement to make her own work. “There's so much work to do that I need to be focused and I need to be able to have that strength within me and get over the anxiety,” she said.

“Art taps into a different part of your brain than the news,” Madsen said. “I feel like art has potential of reaching into that place where you feel, getting in there and reaching people beyond their defense mechanisms. Since the election, I've been trying to avoid Facebook because it's just depressing. But things that catch my eye are when people come together and create community. There's a new awareness, a fire lit under us in a lot of different ways.”

“This is our responsibility as artists, to talk about what's going on in whatever way works for you,” Callwood said. “Not everybody has to do conscious art, but whatever way feels comfortable for you, you should go ahead and let your voice be known. If you're keeping quiet about problems, you're not helping. We can't all be on the front lines, but we can all do what we can do.”

“We wanted to speak out and let folks know that we agree that this is completely outrageous. Generally, it's the artists that speak up first, artists that create something, that are playing an important part because those images are powerful,” said Ralph Walters of the Artists Wrestling League (AWL). “People have been killed for cartoons, so a visual representation of an ideal is a little more confrontational.”

To be clear, “Silence is Death,” while making a statement about the importance of political and protest art in a conceptual, philosophical way, is also, at its core, protest art.

“I'm not down for what's going on now, the policies that Trump's putting in place,” Reissland said. “I find it personally un-American [and] dangerous to the country. I'm against so many of the things that he stands for. His policies are just so different from how I was raised.”

“Artists always were kind of throughout history the moral compass,” Reissland continued. “When we see something that is unjust … we can't help but respond. I have to do something. I can express my dislike. I can make phone calls and when I can, I can protest. But I can and I have to [create art]. It's an outlet for me … my way of helping the resistance.”

AWL will display art made for “Silence is Death” in addition to performing the now-immediately-recognizable AWL wrestling match/live painting.

“We allow the audiences to direct the topic for the painting. We noticed last year some topics becoming increasingly political, so we just kind of accidentally happened into that. Sometimes what we're painting is a reflection of how the audience feels,” Walters said.

“I hadn't been able to wrap my head around to my own reaction to the election and what can I do as a performance artist. What do I have to say?” Madsen said. “The first thing I settled on was that America is open. We shouldn't be building walls. The more I thought about that, I felt I could do a really interesting performance art piece as Neil Diamond [performing] ‘America.' I have this silver, sequined cape with stars all over it, and I could wear that, take the song, and add famous quotes that talk about America's openness. We made little business-sized green cards that say, ‘We're open today.'”

The final piece of “Silence is Death” is that the concept extends beyond art, artists and the art community.

“If you are affected and you end up expressing yourself in a particular way, it's about that, but I would hope it goes beyond that,” Vanderelli said.

“To open people's minds, that is my goal as a performance artist,” Madsen said. “I have a responsibility to say something profound and educate people and be the change I want to see. A lot of people are upset, but we're also seeing a lot of things about the power of people coming together. People are poised. People are paying attention.”

“I hope that my artwork moves people to get out and at least make some phone calls or take action in some way,” Reissland said.

Callie King wants this direction to be very clear. In addition to coordinating the Idea Foundry's participation in “Silence is Death,” she is making a piece of art that will be displayed at the Vanderelli Room. The piece depicts telephone booths, labeled in four different languages, and will feature the contact information for elected officials. The piece will also include a mailbox, into which patrons can drop notes in pre-addressed, pre-stamped envelopes to be mailed to those same officials.

“I obviously went more literal for my piece,” King said. “But it's important to give people an opportunity to take action. This is not to say that art as protest isn't valuable, but this happens to be how my brain works. This piece fits the theme, and if genuine engagement is the goal, then it's empowering people to take action.”

“We as a country and as a community can still make a difference,” Madsen said. “We're empowered to make a difference every day.”

“I want it to be bigger than Franklinton Friday,” Vanderelli said. “I want to have that next level of attention. Are [people] feeling this enough to want to see it? Is it important enough? I want it to be.

“We can really change everything.”

“Silence Is Death”

7 p.m.-midnight Friday, March 10

The Vanderelli Room

218 McDowell St.

400 West Rich

400 W. Rich St.

129 Studios

129 McDowell St.

Columbus Idea Foundry

421 W. State St.

Artist Wrestling League

400 W. Rich St.

Lundberg Industrial Arts

410 W. Town St.