Art Connects Us to Our Own Humanity

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Art Connects Us to Our Own Humanity

By Dana Schuerholz

Note: In response to several questions about her involvement in arts and activism before and during the WTO, Dana graciously typed and texted these short responses and reflections on her not-fully-functioning cell phone, just before leaving the country.

SEATTLE NONVIOLENT ACTION GROUP

In the mid 80s and early 90s I found the Seattle Nonviolent Action Group, SNAG. We were a multi-issue action/affinity group that organized direct actions and participated in actions organized by other groups and coalitions. As a self identified artist-activist, I brought my passion for art as a tool for popular education and inspiration into the actions we participated in and organized. We performed theater in the streets and in court rooms. We had nightly wheat pasting, postering on telephone poles and huge blank city walls with our demands and desires like “El Salvador will be Free” and “Free South Africa.” We made substitute newspaper front page “wraps” with a message, and wrapped them around the morning newspaper -- at the time the Seattle Post-Intelligence -- to educate and raise awareness about issues of gentrification in Seattle and tax dollars going to pay for wars in Central America.

When we were at the Nevada Test Site to participate in one of the largest single-day civil disobedience protests in US history, our affinity group danced in the desert before being arrested. During the Gulf War we planted crosses in the medians of Interstate 5 and wheat pasted over master use planning boards.

As part of a group called Operation Homestead we took over abandoned buildings for low income housing. I organized a group of us to build small cardboard houses we carried through the streets along with the ladders and crowbars which we used to break into the abandoned buildings. We painted a mural on the side of one of the buildings in which we were arrested, and wrote the definition of home as part of the mural.

ART & REVOLUTION CONVERGENCE

The Art and Revolution Convergence in ‘97 and ‘98 was a key part of preparing for the WTO. It was a large scale 4-day arts and direct action skills sharing gathering and training for over 100 activists, artists, and organizers across the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Many people were able to come together to share and learn both arts and direct action organizing skills. It was a “convergence” of both seasoned and green activists, inspiring one another to use art to open and ignite the imagination of the public we hoped to connect with. I still think about building giant puppets, writing songs, and learning about nonviolent civil disobedience. It was fun, exhausting and memorable. People went back to their communities and organized creative actions. It inspired some of those affinity groups and individuals to then apply that knowledge and experience to the WTO protests, where we were able to build upon that culture of resistance.

I believe art is essential to every social movement. Art connects us to our own humanity and people are moved to action when they feel connected. Beauty inspires. Humor softens and allows people to absorb information rather than feeling forced to listen.

I’m a teacher now, and I know that when I am having fun and taking some risks in my own approach to educate students, they are more engaged and the desire to learn is greater. I think it works that way with art and activism. When we’re having fun, we are learning new skills and new approaches, trying new things -- and the people we are trying to reach will be more easily reached and interested. When something is fun and beautiful it’s irresistible.

NEWSPAPER WRAP

I am proud of the newspaper “wrap” we created in the lead up to the WTO. A small group of us decided to engage some writers to write articles, and we were then able to create a page spread that looked very much like the Seattle Post-Intelligence. One night, a few days before the WTO meeting, about 100 activists went out and wrapped 5,000 newspapers in the wee hours of the morning. It sparked conversation about the issues that were being brought by organizations to the protest. Not only did we reach a couple thousand people who read that firsthand, but then all of the news media in Seattle and beyond covered the action and even reproduced the front page in the afternoon paper which had over 100,000 in print. Later that week when some television crews came to the Direct Action Network headquarters and wanted to speak to those activists responsible, I put a giant puppet head on, and with their commitment to alter my voice for anonymity, told them why we did it and how effective it was and continued to be due to the fact that main stream and independent media covered that action again and again.

WTO

For the actual first day of the WTO meeting and protests, I decided to work as a photojournalist and not participate in civil disobedience with that many tens of thousands in the streets. I thought taking pictures might be the most effective thing I could do. On the second day, the police grabbed me out of a group of press. The police took me off to jail with all the protesters. It was maddening to be a photojournalist and not be able to take photographs for those 24 hours.

Lesson for the future: The amount of organizing and creativity involved made the WTO protest an unprecedented show of the people’s voice and power!

Dana Schuerholz is a long-time Seattle area artist, photo-journalist (US and Latin America), organizer, organic farmer, parent and educator. She has been active in organizing nonviolent direct action, education and arts activism in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest in the 15 year leading up to the WTO protests and since then. She was a member of the Seattle Nonviolent Action Group, Act Up and Operation Homestead. She is currently the director/Founder at Vashon Green School.