The Art of Protest: Where Philly’s activism signs get made

The workshop series is a rotating event that draws the likes of City Council members, artists and Philadelphians with something to say.

James Cuarcero holds up the banner he made at the Art of Protest workshop at the Kimmel Center.

James Cuarcero holds up the banner he made at the Art of Protest workshop at the Kimmel Center.

Peak Johnson / Billy Penn

Hundreds of thousands have taken to Philly streets for dozens of protests these past few months; There were almost 30 protests in February alone, tackling issues from Islamophobia to Black Lives Matter to supporting the Paris climate agreement.

This month, social action in the city expanded to include different trainings, panels, and even film screenings. On Friday evening, members of Mural Arts Philadelphia and artists from Signs of Solidarity gathered together at the Kimmel Center’s SEI Innovation Studio for the second of three sign-making workshops, part of a series called The Art of Protest.

Co-lead by Signs of Solidarity featured artists Sheldon Abba and Bruno Guerreiro, the objective of the workshop series is to facilitate statements that ignite social change. Some of the signs will pop up at future Philly protests.

“I think a lot of us live in our own worlds and we live in fear and this kind of thing, I think, releases some of that,” Guerreiro said. “There’s no need to have fear when you’re around people, it’s all love for the most part. There’s these battles between people that maybe wouldn’t exist if we came together and talked about it in person.”

Both Guerreiro and Abba worked on signs that showcased a famous quote by political activist Angela Davis that read, “We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.” It was Abba, Guerreiro said, who sought him out to convey the message that he wanted to share.

“I don’t think the signs have to have a clear message, just as along as it doesn’t promote too much hate,” Guerreiro said. “Signs of Solidarity put together this great event to kind of explain what they do and to introduce some of the artists that were involved with the whole signage thing on inauguration day, where they put a bunch of banners throughout the city promoting love and inclusivity.”

Along with Atlanta, on Jan. 20 buildings across Philadelphia displayed large banners, similar to what Guerreiro and Abba had done, “to stand in opposition to hate and in protest of any and all that embolden divisiveness.”

Artists work together on a banner at the first sign making workshop at the Kimmel Center.

Artists work together on a banner at the first sign making workshop at the Kimmel Center.

Peak Johnson / Billy Penn

Just this past weekend a Make America Great Again March was held in the city in support of President Donald Trump.

“I just feel that there are a lot of uncertainties on both sides of the coin right now and it’s important for us to join together,” Alyssa Blank, a graphic designer from Paoli, said. “What this event is doing, is to have solidarity among each other from the same side but across party lines too.”

Blank attended Friday’s workshop with co-workers, adding that it’s not often that she gets the chance to be around other people that want to spread and positive message.

Nearly 50 people attended the latest workshop, some artists or designers by trade, but all working on various signs and banners.

Blank’s message that she was working to convey on her sign appeared simple: Fear not.

Alyssa Blank works on her "Fear not" sign at the Art of Protest workshop.

Alyssa Blank works on her "Fear not" sign at the Art of Protest workshop.

Peak Johnson / Billy Penn

“It’s trying to convey, communicate, despite all of the tension in the air and all of the emotion that it’s important to let go of the fear and extend those olive branches where you can.”

Last week as an introduction to the forthcoming series of panels, artists and advocates such as Councilwoman Helen Gym, Polish American artist Olek, visual artist Michelle Angela Ortiz, and Artistic Director Liza Goodell of Spiral Q , a nonprofit that specializes in giant public art projects. Together they gathered to share their thoughts and experiences as to how art plays a role in protest.

Gym said she couldn’t help but think of her upbringing and experiences, both as a parent and as a daughter of immigrants. Recreational centers and public parks defined her life rather than an individual home.

“When I think about activism organizing — that I come out of communities that really don’t have a choice. I come out of immigrant communities who have long been treated poorly, significantly marginalized in this country where we fight against deportation and fight against the question of if we are even citizens or have any rights in this country,” Gym said. “Generations after our parents may have been here, that we continue to struggle against incredible biases and stereotypes that are shaped about us or talked about us and then shape the policies that define our lives.”


A protester finishes her sign at the Art of Protest workshop.

Peak Johnson / Billy Penn

Olek felt that the theme of the panel signaled people to be more cautious about their daily behavior of how to be engaged and informed.

“Art is always significant,” Olek said. “At the end of October, I did a crochet billboard for Hillary Clinton. It was my own initiative with people in New York, and at the time someone said to me that creating political art is useless. I felt like that was the wrong statement. If we’re not going to fight for something, who’s going to fight for us?”

Olek has lived within the U.S. for the past 17 years. Now is a good time to be an artist, she said, because America still has the freedom of speech that other countries don’t.

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