Art provides emotional resonance during a summer of protest

Protest art created at Hill Street Country Club's printmaking workshop.
(Courtesy of Hill Street Country Club)

Dinah Poellnitz says that art is a picture book to history.

She’s the co-founder of Hill Street Country Club , an Oceanside gallery that’s frequently used as a venue for educational discussions and workshops.

In February, the gallery held its first printmaking workshop, which served as both a practical lesson in poster printing and a lesson about art’s role in history. Poellnitz specifically pointed out how, as part of the Works Progress Administration during World War II, painter Diego Rivera was commissioned by the U.S. government to paint public murals.

Then, in May and June, San Diego erupted in protests over the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, locally bringing to the surface long-held anger and frustration over police brutality and racism.

So for its second printmaking workshop, as more San Diegans participated in protests and became more involved in activism, Hill Street Country Club — which Poellnitz says provides “a safe space for people to tell their stories” — changed curriculum to meet the moment, focusing on combating racism through creating protest signs.

“We’ve always been on the social justice side of the art community in San Diego,” Poellnitz says. “The printmaking stuff is what we’ve always done because we’re a small organization in the corner.”

“Art is a language,” she adds. “It’s an opportunity to create these mini conversations, and it doesn’t require us to sit down and have a one-on-one talk. It touches you because it’s something that you relate to and it lets you know that you’re not alone. It’s a great way to share a message.”

Art and activism are inextricably intertwined — where you find people marching in the streets, you’ll also find visual representations of the struggle.

Even before San Diegans took to the streets and began to familiarize themselves with ideas of police and prison abolition, local artists have used their platform and media to spread messages of antiracism. During COVID-19 and the ongoing social justice movements, local artists are only amplifying those messages in this summer of protest.

Protest art by San Diego and Tijuana visual artist, Luisa Martinez.
Protest art by San Diego and Tijuana visual artist, Luisa Martinez.
(Luisa Martinez)

Visual artist Luisa Martínez, who has lived in both Tijuana and San Diego, has recently been involved with rent reduction and cancellation initiatives in Tijuana, as well as working to provide support for people at the Caritas migrant shelter.

In June, she provided some of her works for the Art Against State Violence art auction and protest at the Otay Mesa Detention Center. She says that in the past she’s had internal struggles about art’s value in the face of larger issues, but has ultimately come to realize how meaningful it can be for those movements.

“I feel like I held back a bit earlier on because I couldn’t process how this was adding to building a better world or social justice,” Martínez says. “But I come back to that Toni Cade Bambara quote: ‘The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.’ There are injustices in the world, but we also have to illustrate and build and perform these new social realities. It can highlight these injustices, but it’s also about advocating or advocating for something new or better.”

Art can also serve as a channel to highlight ideas or issues that might otherwise fly under the radar.

Illustrator Stacey Uy’s portfolio includes projects such as designs for immigrant rights group Define American and posters for the Women’s March in January 2017. She also launched a zine called “Radical History Club,” whose mission is to “de-colonize our perspectives of U.S. history,” and covers topics such as The Reconstruction era and the FBI’s COINTELPRO program.

Uy, who is Filipina-Chinese American, says that she found it both jarring and empowering to learn about the Delano grape strike of 1965, in which Filipino-American farm workers fought against exploitation and helped form the United Farm Workers union. An event, she notes, that wasn’t in her history textbooks.

Inspired by Emory Douglas , whose graphic art appeared in the Black Panther newspaper, Uy wanted to tell stories from history that school texts leave out, but with an added emphasis on graphic art.

“I want to show the story from the perspective of the oppressed, how they resisted, organized, and made these big pieces of legislation what they are,” says Uy, who also participated in the Otay Mesa Detention Center Resistance art project. “Like the Civil Rights Act — we think of it as the result of one president but it’s really people on the ground that made it happen.”

Carmela Prudencio , who co-runs City Heights’ Teros Gallery with partner Alejandra Frank, says that it’s only natural for artist and activist spaces to overlap, considering that promoting art and amplifying a cause require similar skill sets.

“The DIY scene here is very strong,” says Prudencio. “The skills we know through organizing art events or music events, the way we’re able to independently promote and uplift each other’s messages can translate into organizing spaces. I want more artists to realize we have that skill set to uplift these communities. Right now we’re seeing, because of the pandemic, what essential and nonessential really means. Art is something that’s kept its head above water even though a lot of other sectors are struggling. We’re able to do that through utilizing that toolkit and skill set.”

Part of what differentiates art from journalism or direct action in terms of conveying a message is the emotional aspect. Martínez shared how she saw an exhibit at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art of sculptor Nick Cave (not the musician) and had an unexpected emotional response that resonated with her.

“Even if you don’t understand something immediately, you might have a reaction, and if you peel back the images and symbols, eventually it starts to make sense,” Martinez says. “In a conversation you have to provide context and try to convince someone, but with art you have that immediate emotional reaction and that pull.”

Uy adds that art, simply, sometimes sheds light on issues that get buried in the mainstream.

“Art is able to amplify the things people need to know that they wouldn’t necessarily learn from a textbook or even the news,” she says.

Hill Street Country Club art gallery in Oceanside.
(Hill Street Country Club)

There are, however, still some unfortunate reminders that even though art can reach audiences that other channels might not, there’s still progress to be made.

Last month, someone threw a rock and shattered one of the windows at Hill Street Country Club in Oceanside. Poellnitz wasn’t happy about having to replace the window, and notes that it likely was a reaction to the Black Lives Matter signs on display. But that reaction only reinforces to her that she’s on the right path.

“Racists do stupid shit , that’s what they do,” Poellnitz says. “But obviously I’m bothering someone enough to make them throw a rock. So I’m staying on message. We’re gonna keep our signs in our windows, and spread the message throughout town.”