How many different t-shirts have you worn over the past four years? Forty-seven? Two hundred? Maybe even…a thousand?
West Philly artist Lori Waselchuk put on more than 1,420 distinct t-shirts between Jan. 21, 2017 and Jan. 20, 2021, one for almost every day of Donald Trump’s chaotic presidency. She only missed a few weeks, during pre-COVID travel.
Every shirt bore a sociopolitical statement, and the effort became Waselchuk’s personal form of resistance to the administration. Now that he’s out of office, she’s using the project to give back.
“I came up with the project to insert a daily set of rules where I would be both learning and then communicating what I learned every day of Trump’s presidency,” said the photographer, 56. “So I couldn’t let it go in the background.”
Some shirts speak to U.S. current events, like one protesting the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice and accused abuser Brett Kavanaugh. Others cast an international net, like a message about the Land Access Movement of South Africa.
The project became a collaborative photo exhibition called the #SweetTProject, which culminated in a giveaway event at Clark Park during President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Anyone who stepped up with a donation to one of four mutual aid orgs — the Movement Alliance Project, the People’s Paper Co-op, the People’s Fridge on 52nd Street, or Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee — was handed a tee in return. So far, Waselchuk has raised nearly $1k.
Tees are still available, in return for your donation
Building the collection wasn’t easy. It started with Waselchuk’s own personal stash. Then friends kicked in their extras. Then she began to hand make shirts, using quotes and phrases she picked up from hours of intentional reading.
She stuck to the task — which got harder to source as time wore on — while working as an exhibition and program coordinator at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center.
On the job, Waselchuk coordinated several other art projects for the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center that captured national conversations locally: Hank Willis Thompson’s “The Block” project, the Women’s Mobile Museum at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Waselchuk plans to continue the trade until the shirts have all found new homes. People who contribute to one of the above local mutual aid groups (or a different one of their choice) will get to choose a tee.
To participate, message Waselchuk on Instagram or contact her through her photography site with a screenshot of your donation. She can deliver to West Philadelphians and send the shirts to folks who are farther away for a $5 shipping fee.
Spreading the word in ‘Middle America’
Using social media expanded Waselchuk’s t-shirt wearing to friends, family and acquaintances from her native Wisconsin, a state that went to Trump in the 2016 election. The results, Waselchuk said, were insightful, eye-opening conversations with peers in the Midwest who might not have otherwise thought about the issues she was raising.
“Middle America voted for Trump,” she said. “Especially white women voted for Trump. I knew I came from that space so I felt like I wanted to connect and bring ideas into their spaces.”
A t-shirt sporting the quote “Every American flag is a warning sign” from Native American artist and activist Demian Dinéyazhi sparked a short but particularly poignant conversation.
“Your shirts keep me thinking and learning,” one follower wrote after the ideas exchange.
“It went to a conversation about understanding the work is not denying one another’s reality, but to sort of make sure that we really, really think about what the other realities are,” Waselchuk reflected. “And that was where I felt like the project was really working.”
While Waselchuk will return to a less overwhelming number of annual t-shirt wearing, (maybe she can use this helpful formula to readjust), the project’s intention continues.
Her West Philly home studio is crowded with exactly 700 shirts, still up for grabs in exchange for a donation. Two days after a peaceful exchange of power, Waselchuk can breathe again.
“The white supremacy noise emanating from the White House was really interfering with a sense of safety,” she said. “So I feel a sense of relief. But I also just am super intent on making sure that we continue to push for an equitable, just, sustainable world.”
“You have to be able to feel people…to know that you have the power to give.”