Labor, Lines and Joy

The following is the talk I gave at my MFA candidacy show on September 14, 2019. – mo


“We might not be back. I might be in jail. I might be anywhere. But when I leave, you’ll remember I said with the last words on my lips, that I am a revolutionary. And you’re going to have to keep saying that. You’re going to have to say that I am a proletariat, I am the people.”

Fred Hampton

I started to write this talk on the anniversary of Fred Hampton’s birthday. I met the story of Fred Hampton twice, first as an example of the reality of state violence as he was assassinated while laying in his bed, at the age of 21, by Chicago Police and second as a key leader and intellectual visionary in the formation of the Rainbow Coalition.

The Rainbow Coalition was formed in Chicago and include the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, (a Puerto Rican liberation group) and the Young Patriots, a radical group of Appalachians who left the coal fields of West Virginia and Kentucky for industry jobs in Chicago.

The Rainbow Coalition organized and took action to work in solidarity with the city’s poor and oppressed, through resisting police brutality, free breakfast programs, legal aid and free clinics. Like the larger Black Panther Party movement, they committed to a ten point program:

  1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black and oppressed communities.
  2. We want full employment for our people.
  3. We want an end to the robbery by capitalist of our black and oppressed communities.
  4. We want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings.
  5. We want decent education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.
  6. We want completely free health care for all black and oppressed people.
  7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people, other people of color, all oppressed people inside the United States.
  8. We want an immediate end to all wars of aggression.
  9. We want freedom for all black and oppressed people now held in U.S. federal state county, city and military prisons and jails. We want trials by a jury of peers for all persons charged with so-called crimes under the laws of this country.
  10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace and people’s community control of modern technology.

The Young Patriots, captured on filmed in the 1969 documentary American Revolution 2 [Part One, Two, Three], was the first organization I saw that was filled with people who talked like me, who had roots in the same land as me and whose politics aligned with mine.

These 10 points and the dedication to work and struggle within a multi-racial liberation movement have been central to my own analysis. So in honor of Fred Hampton, Anne Braden and all those across this state who are right now fighting police brutality, family separations, concentration camps, racialized terror, denial of basic needs and state violence. I say I am a revolutionary and my love is with the people.

You might be thinking how does this relate to sitting in a gallery listening to candidacy statements? I believe that to truly represent my work I must talk about what I chose to stay in struggle with, how my love with labor is central to my practice and the joy I get from both these obsessions, Labor and Justice.

My life before coming to Western Carolina University was filled with community town halls, political campaigns, mutual aid, crisis response and direct actions. All these activities echoed the demands of the 10 point program and were centered on ownership, empowerment and harm reduction. It involved both challenging the institutions around us and building for ourselves what we needed. What sustained me in this work was my deep love for working class people, what fills my studio and my research are signs of this love and celebrations of the continuous struggle. Revolution is important to my work because it is the air I breathe and it seeps into all I chose to do.

When I first entered this program I was taken by the urgency, like many leftest in this region, to tell a different story of Appalachia. One that included truth telling and exposing the brutal reality of the violence and destruction that comes from this region’s economy that is built on blood, theft and extraction. These truth telling objects became grieving vehicles. As personal and depressing as this work got I couldn’t rid myself of my desire for labor and craft, and the beauty that comes from that. And beauty surrounded by horror becomes absurd and absurdity is a classic tool of artists to highlight the atrocities of man.

Moving from grieving to action in my studio practice, as I would as an organizer, I have returned to line and labor, both in application and conceptually. These fabric pieces in the gallery titled Call & Response have been fabricated off of fragmented memories. Memories of women throughout my family and community gathering and processing found fabrics, either passed down or found in clearance bins and the deep memories of the dance of crochet. One hand to guide the yarn one to pull the loop through, over and over again, stopping to pull more yarn from the ball or to work out a hand cramp. These actions, making rugs and blankets becoming milstone artifacts. First baby blankets, high school graduation with your school colors, welcoming of new partners and making new homes feel more like home. Labor as love notes and family connectivity.

So I gather materials in similar ways, used, on sale, in free bins and I pull my knots. Making chains and allowing those actions to build upon themselves, layering over what has come before, creating shape, creating mass, muscle and skin. Thinking of my hand, their hands and what joy there is in making and the type of making that allows you to transport to a place of memory, both your own and a collective regional memory.

Line and labor, labor and joy.

As I said before, my love is with the workers and the justice we all deserve. The gallery is a platform and all art is political. I saw this as a great opportunity to display the work I consider as information delivery devices. Asking the viewer directly which side are you on, while reminding/telling you of your value and providing organizing strategy to build the power needed to win.

Fred Hampton said: “If you dare to struggle, you dare to win, if you dare not struggle, then, damnit, you don’t deserve to win.”

All power to the people.

Appalachia – Baltimore

You cannot save the land apart from the people or the people apart from the land. To save either, you must save both-that is a lesson taught nowhere better than in the economic history of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.- Wendell Berry

I placed this quote on my studio wall before I started creating my new body of work. Being a Kentuckian is central to my identity as an artist and activist. Both sides of my family have immigrant roots to eastern Kentucky that span over 100 years. From that lineage I inherited my Appalachian values, including profound connections to the land, the people and the struggle for the survival of both. I use both my art and my activism to articulate these values, bring light to the urgency of the continuing collapse of this region, and to make sense of my own grief and rage.

My work is a personal act of resistance; it is how I survive within this society that is built on the disposability of people and land. As a result, the major themes of my work are extraction, sacrifice zones, solastalgia, and state/corporate violence.