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Dec 11th
The Art of Engagement PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stuart Sheldon, BT Contributor   
October 2018

For Freedoms hopes to heighten public discourse through nuance

I Pix_FamilyMatters_10-18just shared a weekend with my wife and two young sons in a cloud forest, far, far away from the Upper Eastside of Miami. We marveled at three-toed sloths chomping leaves and eyelash vipers sunning on ferns. Early morning brought a symphony of birdsong, and dusk silhouetted toucans, parrots, and countless intrepid creatures surveying their dominions from the high branches. It all affirmed something utterly fundamental, bordering on ridiculously obvious. We are alive!

There exist two distinct aspects to this exhilarating state of being. One light. One dark. My artist’s heart feels them both at once. While my beloveds rode their first horses through the tropical streams, milked their first cows, and snuggled baby pigs, I considered the growing numbers in our country who will never have this bone-deep joy in their lives. Those who instead face the unimaginable. Those for whom America’s rising environment of acceptable, murderous violence has taken their child or someone else they adore. Or who are driven by fear to build arsenals at home.

Bear with me before you dismiss this column as a political rant, because it’s actually an integral part of an art activation I’m creating right now. One in which you are part. Given that a critical election is just weeks away, I feel obliged to use this platform to express a non-partisan wish for our country -- that we become more joyous, more reverent, less militant, less violent. What is life if we must worry about our kids being shot -- or worse, if they begin to worry about being shot?

My oldest son was about to enter first grade on that day a few years ago when 20 six- and seven-year-olds were massacred in their first-grade chairs at Sandy Hook. I still can’t process this reality -- a man walking up and down those little aisles shooting each doe-eyed child head-on with an AR-15.

I believed this would be a turning point for our country. Shockingly, things have only gotten worse. But this is bigger than a gun conversation. It’s emblematic of our country’s devolution from high collective principles, a sense of a greater good, love-thy-neighbor, and golden rules to those of us-versus-them and selfish life-or-death instant gratification.

My art practice has two faces. One celebrates beauty and joy, the laughter of children, the glory of wisdom, the splendor of nature. The other aims to fix what is wrong with the world. It’s this latter motivation that underlies my latest art project, a 48-foot-wide billboard on I-95 that is part of the 50 States Initiative, a project launched in June by For Freedoms, a platform for civic engagement, discourse, and direct action for U.S. artists. For Freedoms calls the 50 States Initiative “the largest creative collaboration in the history of the United States.”

For Freedoms itself was established in 2016 by two artists, Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, with the goal of using art “to deepen public discussions of civic issues and core values, and to clarify that citizenship in American society is deepened by participation, not by ideology.”

Since then, For Freedoms (the name is taken from the famous 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) has grown into a network of hundreds of artists, galleries, libraries, museums, and universities working toward “greater participation in the arts and in civil society,” according to its website. The result includes partnerships for art exhibits; town halls (without the politicians); and art making and public art installations.

The 50 State Initiative includes the installation of artists’ billboards in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. They started going up across the country in September, and will continue in advance of the midterm elections. The intention is that if artists’ voices replace advertising, public discourse can become more nuanced, less polarized.

You may have seen my digital billboard, pictured here, while driving northbound on I-95, just south of NW 143rd Street. It represents the latest in my series of site-specific and video installations titled How Was School Today? aimed at gun sense issues.

Clearly, these are complicated topics, and while we’ve never been more divided as a nation, I believe we can find a connection at the level of our children being murdered. And in this lamentable connection, we can join together to bring society back to a place where our kids are just kids who worry about the big game and final exams and having crushes. And who never again even think about dying in school. Let’s break the false logic chain that more guns are needed because so many guns exist.

Please join this art project…for our kids. Share this column and visit Forfreedoms.org and Gunsensevoter.org, a nonpartisan, state-by-state profile of each candidate who believes in sensible gun legislation.

 

Stuart Sheldon is an artist, author, and Miami native. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram @stuart_sheldon.

 

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