The Art of Change

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Artist Jane Gainer-Talbott stands in front of her painting titled Traffick-ing. In the piece, people are distracted by their phones and ignoring the societal ills around them, including signs of human trafficking. Photo by Chris Villanueva.

An Artist Uses Her Work to Inspire Social Justice

On May 29, Jane Gainer-Talbott took the day off from work, stood at the intersection of Torrance Boulevard and Madrona Avenue and held a sign that read, “Am I next?” It was four days after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd.

“I personally felt like I could not go on without standing up for the fact that this man was just murdered,” Talbott said. “Another black man was murdered by the police.”

It was a very emotional stance. So much so that she couldn’t help breaking down and sobbing uncontrollably while holding her sign. Many people who drove by honked at her.

Talbott brought a canvas with her in case she was inspired to paint. She is an artist and has been teaching art for more than 20 years.

She returned to the same spot on Torrance Boulevard for a much larger protest, and she participated in the protest in San Pedro that was sponsored by the NAACP and the Los Angeles Police Department.

Her son went with her for her first protest, because he wanted to protect her. Her husband, who is white, joined her for the second protest, even though he is a very private man.

“He’s not a very loud, verbal man,” Talbott said. “But I said, ‘If not now, then when? When do you stand up? What is [a] good enough time, when a people group are being annihilated, do you stand?’”

In his book Artists in Times of War, historian Howard Zinn asked if artists say war or other social issues are not their business, then whose business are they?

“Does that mean you are going to leave the business of the most important issues in the world to the people who run the country?” Zinn writes. “How stupid can we be? Haven’t we had enough experience historically with leaving the important decisions to the people in the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court, and those who dominate the economy?”

Zinn wrote that artists should be transcendent of the framework of society. He said they should think for themselves outside of what the government says, and should not be afraid to comment on social issues.

Talbott uses her artwork as an outlet to address social issues when her words are not enough.

“People are tired of hearing black words,” she said. “I know they are. My Facebook page shows me that. People don’t want to hear me be sad or … ask for help. They don’t want to hear how I’m sad about injustice, or how I wish there was change.”

Talbott has relatives who are not people of color who do not want to talk about controversial topics, such as the killing of George Floyd.

“Because I can’t say things with words, I can say it with art,” Talbott said.

Talbott said artists have a responsibility in this climate to speak with art so that people who are numb to words will hear it.

“We’ve been speaking words for 400 years,” Talbott said. “We’ve been saying, ‘Stop killing us, stop killing us,’ and trying to get people to believe us that they’re killing us.”

Men who spoke out for the black community, like Malcolm X, were killed. Leaders that made a difference used their words; Talbott uses her art.

She’s not alone. Felix Quintana, an artist based in southeast Los Angeles who has taught Slanguage workshops, recently took part in a six-month campaign to spread awareness to different social justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter, the unfair treatment of essential workers and asking for rent freezes during the pandemic.

“A lot of these themes are pretty much thinking about art as action,” Quintana said about the project, which was coordinated by the San Jose nonprofit Working Partnerships USA, “and thinking about community identity as well.”

Quintana’s artistic goal is not to get his work exhibited in a gallery. Instead, he is finding ways to rethink where his art will be seen. This includes sharing his work on social media, and conceiving web-based projects, as well as social practice projects that involve the community. 

Talbott is similarly engaged.

She is creating a piece — its working title is either Our History or Three Screams; she’s still deciding — that depicts three people screaming. Two are black silhouettes and one has a hand around his throat.

“I look at this and it’s me being angry,” Talbott said.

Her next project will be on a black canvas with a black image.

“I want them to look at this canvas and I want them to say it’s black,” Talbott said. “But I want them to look at it and see that, oh wait a minute, there’s so much more here. Because that’s reflective of how I feel.”

She is also working on a piece consisting simply of an elegant, beautiful black woman in a dress. She based it on a photograph she found.

“It’s just something I’d never seen before,” Talbott said. “Black kids especially, and you know what, I’ll even say, black men and women and adults, they need to see us portrayed without all the drama, that’s portraying beauty and dignity. We are a people of beauty and dignity and strength and resilience. And yeah, that came from our ancestry as slaves and our history in the United States of America as an oppressed people.”

When Talbott was in high school and elementary school, she was taught about the classification of different races and taught that black people were lazy and hyper in their tone.

“Growing up, there wasn’t a lot of information about me, and people with my skin,” Talbott said. “The information they gave you was Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman and then Malcolm X. The media was very biased, the school was very biased.”

Talbott said she has experienced so much pain from not having a history and not seeing art where black people were portrayed positively. Instead, she only saw art of black people being worn out and broken down.

“The paintings in the museums were white, and [in] church you saw white Jesus,” Talbott said. “It’s hard to actually develop an identity as a black young girl that was positive.”

However, while studying art at El Camino College, she learned that black people were alive and well during the Renaissance, and present in that period’s artwork.

“I was taught that we literally had paintings about us, with us as topics in the paintings, main characters, kings and queens,” Talbott said. “But a lot of the paintings … were covered over, painted over with white faces, so that black people would never get a sense of identity, or any type of pride was stripped away.”

Talbott learned of Saint Maurice, a black man who was the leader of a Roman legion in the third century, as well as Dido Elizabeth Belle, a black British heiress from the 18th century.

“You realize when you have history that you don’t have to pretend, it’s right there on paper that you come from a strong, resilient people,” Talbott said. “And, that’s what art does, it shows us our history.”

Talbott recently attended an exhibit at the Broad Museum called Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, which includes the work of black artists from 1963 to 1983. She saw impressionist-style murals of activists like Malcolm X and Angela Davis.

“That was the art of revolution,” Talbott said. “We need art of revolution again.”

Talbott saw pictures at the exhibit that portrayed the hatred of the Ku Klux Klan, but she would like to see more depictions of the love that emanates from the Black Lives Matter movement.

“There’s a lot of people who are trying to love … who are protesting who don’t have my skin color,” Talbott said. “There’s a lot of people who are trying to do good and who are doing things politically on paper to try to stand up for black people.”

Many people were blind to the struggles of black people, Talbott said.

“It’s almost like things were suppressed for so long, and they’re finally able to come to surface,” Talbott said. “People see because of social media how black people have been feeling for years. When they saw George Floyd die, when they saw him murdered, they felt that pain too. They felt that injustice too.”

So many people’s eyes have been opened compared to 10 or 15 years ago and Talbott would like to see art reflect that.

Quintana said that the pandemic created a need for art as a launch pad for social change.

“In general, a lot of my colleagues, artists, friends and community who are just creative individuals, when the pandemic hit, they saw that there was like a big need for art (and) for people just to organize and mobilize and … fight for an issue,” Quintana said.

Quintana said that his friends and colleagues looked at his work and saw it unfold alongside legislative action that was taken, including paid sick leave and rent relief.

“The response has been really positive, especially … given the time, people are paying much more attention to the artwork that’s really supporting … a lot of these movements,” Quintana said.

For Quintana, because of the length of the campaign, he was able to be at the forefront of the conversation, and really have a say in how he wanted to use his voice and his artwork.

“People who aren’t really used to … going to see art in a gallery setting, they were able to open up their email or go to this campaign website and see, you know, the artwork front and center,” Quintana said.

Working on the campaign involved lots of collaboration. Quintana was able to respond to current social issues as they became prevalent. In one case, the campaign was working on a project and had to put it aside because paid sick leave legislation was gaining traction.

“In that way, the work was very much responding to the time,” Quintana said. “Moving more into it, when there was more downtime, I was able to … think about what projects had precedent, and also, you know, given the time frame … of my residency which ones could I really flesh out.”

Quintana has also been working on a series called Los Angeles Blueprints. For the series, he takes pictures from Google Maps, tints them blue, and draws on them. The idea of the project was to highlight specific neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

Quintana intends the series to point to big corporations, in this case Google, which does a lot of surveillance of neighborhoods. The series explores the idea of representation, or misrepresentation of a neighborhood.

Even before he worked on the campaign, social justice issues were already present in his work, but not as direct and straightforward as they were in the campaign.

Quintana pondered how he could keep his artistic momentum going now that the campaign was over.

“Now it’s not so much about art, for me it never really was,” Quintana said. “Art was just kind of a tool to talk about, you know, my community and try to … talk about these issues facing my community.”

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