Occupy takes its message from the park to the gallery

Senior Staff Writers
Friday, March 16, 2012

Occupy Providence may have left Burnside Park more than a month ago, but members of the group gathered in Olneyville Thursday night for an art exhibit in the Yellow Peril Gallery featuring political artwork of Occupy artists. Most of the artists had been active members of the Burnside Park Occupation and said they wanted to represent the Occupy movement’s goals through art. 

Occupier Mel St. Laurent contributed a series of photographs featuring different Occupy movements from around the country. One photograph features a pregnant woman holding a sign that reads “doing it for him” with an arrow directed at her stomach. “I feel the world is rising up,” St. Laurent said. “It’s not about a little Occupy movement, it’s about a revolution,” she added.

St. Laurent said she became involved in the Occupy movement when she saw a video of three women at Occupy Wall Street in New York City getting pepper-sprayed by the now-infamous NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna. “I went expecting to photograph images of police brutality, but I became a participant instead,” she said.

St. Laurent listed her concern about the disappearing middle class in the United States, the difficulties of obtaining access to health care and the loss of union power as motivations for her art. “This is a strong political movement that many people have mistaken for very far left, but it’s for everyone – poor, rich, anyone,” she said.

St. Laurent’s photography is a particularly poignant illustration of life inside the Occupy movement. Her black-and-white prints, especially her portraits, are often gritty and always touching. Four of her shots are reproduced on vinyl and stuck to the gallery’s windows. During the day, the sun shines through the semi-transparent vinyl and illuminates the images. People and cars on the street pass by hazily in the background, and the static images literally come alive in the light.

But when the sun goes down, the images vanish, a statement about the day-to-day travails of living in a tent – with the sun as the principle source of light – and the out-of-sight-out-of-mind fears of being forgotten that accompanied the end of the Burnside Park occupation.

One of the most popular exhibits Thursday night was a collection of homemade chairs produced by the Chair People Collective. The collective consists of four anonymous women who called the chair “a symbol of activism, a symbol of hope.” The chairs are practical and sometimes eerily beautiful, with high, arching backs made of woven twigs and string.

One member of the collective said she wanted to make chairs because “when you have a chair, you have a home.” She added that she wanted “to build place from which to think, from which to speak out, from which to be creative.”

The collective sells the chairs and donates the proceeds to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. Each chair costs $99 – a reference to the Occupy movement’s support of the 99 percent – but tacks on an additional price for members of the 1 percent. One chair costs $7 million for members of the 1 percent. The chair’s price tag, a black carton base with twigs latched together on one side, explained that the price was chosen because Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, received a $7 million bonus in 2011.

Veteran of the U.S. Navy Tom West created a number of pieces for the exhibition. West said he became interested in political art after returning from service in Operation Desert Shield “thoroughly disgusted with the military and the (government).”

Despite his disenchantment with the political system, West said he likes to keep his art light because he still feels “lucky to live in the U.S.” Compared to the places he has traveled to overseas, he said he thinks Americans are generally happier but added that the non-representation of poor people in society is still an issue that has to be addressed. Not every piece in the show is a home run. But that is not the point. Gallery director Vanphouthon Souvannasane said that when he and his partner moved to Providence from New York City, they hoped to create a space where they could connect with the community.