In Pursuit of Magic During the Midterms: The story of an artist and her vote poster.
Being an artist can often be a lonely experience. I often feel like I’m working in a vacuum, unsure of both the value of my work and even the relevance of art itself in a world awash in endless sea of transient images.
This fall, I was feeling all of that more acutely than usual. I had just been rejected from a big show I had my heart set on, I had applied for a grant I wasn’t sure I was even a good fit for, a sale had just fallen through, and my husband and I are in the process of moving, so my studio was in disarray and my art supplies were half packed up.
In short, I was in serious need of some good juju.
And out of the blue, the universe provided me that much needed magic, by giving me one of the most artistically gratifying experiences of my life, thanks to over a hundred friends and strangers who helped make it happen.
Taking the Plunge
In mid September my older sister called me. “You know your piece with the flag on it?’ she asked. “I think you should turn it into a ‘Please Vote’ poster and hang it all over the place.”
I opened my website and looked at a photo of the original. “That’s a good idea,” I said. “But I won’t say ‘please.’”
I also started imagining what I’d have to do to make the project happen. “I can’t do this by myself,” I added. “I’ll do it if you’ll help me.” She agreed.
I knew I needed to act fast because the midterms were less than two months away. I took a picture of my original artwork, a gray, five-foot mixed media piece called ‘Old Glory’ and played with it for about a week until I figured out how to make a version that could stand on its own as a poster.
After my sister showed it to a few friends for feedback, we realized it needed to be blue. The gray, which was perfect for the artwork, felt depressing for a vote poster. I sized it to fit on a telephone pole and started to get quotes for printing.
I wondered if we could hang a hundred. My sister thought we could do five hundred. She showed a friend a mock up and he immediately asked for forty. Holy cow, I thought, maybe we can hang five hundred.
Once they were printed, I reached out to a friend on Facebook who had been a student activist with me back in the day. I told her I’d give the poster to anyone who’d commit to hanging ten in a public place. In a half hour, she came back with six or seven names of people who were game.
I realized then that I didn’t have the image up anywhere for people to look at. I asked my husband to take a picture of me holding the poster so people could see the size and I threw it up on my Facebook business page and then shared it to Facebook profile. Over the next hour or so, I had thirty people, mostly women, excited to hang the posters.
Now I was getting excited. My sister was reaching out to her friends as well, and we had blown through our first five hundred posters in just a few days. We ordered five hundred more , and then an additional five hundred, before the month was over. I bought mailing tubes and started shipping.
We also asked every volunteer to send me a selfie with the posters hung. Suddenly, I started getting texts from people I didn’t even know — friends of friends, friends of my sister’s friends, friends of my sister’s friends’ college kids. I loved it.
Even more gratifying, people seemed to feel really good about doing it. I’d say, ‘Thank you for doing this” and almost invariably I’d hear, “No, thank you. It felt good to do something.”
I was also personally canvassing for a couple of candidates who I thought could flip their districts, and I was sharing the posters there as well. This was only moderately successful because they only wanted posters that advertised their particular candidate.
I started to wonder if I had been too generic with my message by just using the word “vote.”
But because my poster just said “vote,” it seemed to make it safer for a wider range individuals to participate. I think it also made it easier for people to ask local businesses to hang them, and made it easier for those businesses to say yes.
I decided my wider message had its own role to play and kept going.
It was also a shock to me to realize how many people didn’t even know there were midterm elections coming up. My own personal mind blower was when I asked a local branch of Planned Parenthood if they would hang one, and the young woman at the door read my poster and asked, “Vote for what?”
I was sobered. There’s a big chunk of America that doesn’t even know what the midterms are. But, I reasoned, it’s also a great chance to educate people. The poster provided me a way to have many conversations about this topic with strangers.
I also noticed that the vast majority of people who volunteered to hang posters were women. I was personally experiencing what I had been reading in the news — women all over America were getting politicized and wanted to take action. It wasn’t just a news story, I was seeing it first hand.
A Giant Collaboration
Receiving such a strong initial response was very emotional for me — I felt enveloped in good will and community as like-minded friends and strangers were helping to make this grass-roots poster campaign a reality. But it wasn’t until a couple of weeks into this project that I realized it was also a nationwide collaborative art installation.
While the poster intrinsically has a message, it was only in the actual hanging of the poster all over the country that its mission was fulfilled. The artwork wasn’t just the poster, that was half the artwork. The hanging of the poster was the other half. Everyone who took the time to hang a poster in public was a co-creator in this art installation. Everyone who sent me a photo added to the piece.
It was the perfect mashup of concrete real world actions — sending physical posters via the old fashioned post office and hanging them in public — and social media actually working in the way we always hear about, but never experience firsthand — connecting disparate people involved in a positive way in the “digital town square.”
Other Artists Compound the Creativity
Meanwhile, as I was shipping posters and getting the word out anywhere and everywhere, the universe handed me the gift of other artists adding to the poster campaign in fun and unexpected ways.
Lisa Yapp, an actor friend I had met at an improv class, had taken ten posters from me on a Friday afternoon and started to hanging them on her way to attend a few shows at the New York Fringe Festival.
When Lisa sat down to watch some musical theater improv, the talented Trudy Carmichael was on stage asking for someone from the audience to provide a prop from their bag or purse. Lisa offered the poster. When Trudy held up it up, everyone cheered. She then made up three songs about the poster on the spot.
Around 10pm that night, Lisa texted me a couple short video clips of her performance. I was in heaven. It was everything I want in an art project: creative, funny, fun, and relevant.
Here’s one of the video clips of Trudy Carmichael about voting:
Inspired, Lisa and her partner then decided to have some fun with the poster themselves. They dressed up as Democracy for Halloween and attended the famous annual Halloween parade in Greenwich Village, poster in tow.
Afterward, she texted me, “Sarah, I’ve never had my picture taken so many times in my life. It was like we were celebrities. What a blast.”
Around that same time, at a rally against fracking in North Jersey, I ran into an artist acquaintance, Ruth Bauer Neustadter.
I handed Ruth a poster and told her what we were doing. She looked at it, thought a moment, and pulled out an invitation to an opening she was having later in the week. “I’ll hang your poster up at my opening.”
Whoa, I thought. Who does that?
When I attended the opening, I saw that Ruth had made the entire evening a collaboration with everyone in attendance. She invited dancers to perform, people to sing, whatever anyone wanted to do, as well as encouraging attendees to share their thoughts about the work hanging on the walls and the environmental issues they were about —some people had written poems on the spot — and for a few minutes she generously turned the focus to me and my posters, resulting in several more people volunteering to help. I was inspired by her generosity of spirit and by the unconventional, inclusive community-based way she conducted her opening.
These artists provided three creative, unexpected ways to connect ideas to an audience. I was inspired. These moments, in combination with the nationwide army of volunteers who were busy hanging the poster, woke me up to the fact that I can chart my own course as an artist in fresh ways that bring me joy if I stop trying to fit into the narrow, restrictive parameters about art success that the New York art world tends to perpetuate.
By November 6th, over 100 people in 25 states helped us hang almost 1500 posters in just under six weeks. I never felt so gratified as an artist. And, as an activist, it matched how I felt at the Women’s March — surrounded by love in action.
And while lots of posters were hung in the blue Northeast where the reception for our message is very warm, the feedback I got from volunteers in various states across the country was overwhelmingly positive. A few of our poster hangers who live in ‘purple’ or ‘red’ areas did meet with unease or resistance, but it was much less than I thought we would get.
And I’m still amazed at how many times, while hanging posters in jaded New York City, somebody stopped, held the poster in place so I could tape it, and then went on their way. It was crazy.
The whole experience reminded me of a weekend in graduate school when I had a part time gig delivering flowers on Valentine’s day. It was the first time I’d ever spent the day knocking on strangers’ doors without a petition, and instead of being greeted with suspicion, everyone was thrilled to see me. Flowers — Yay! Voting — Yay!
It was also wonderful to have a partner working with me from the beginning. Being able to plot next steps with my sister gave me the courage to proceed and helped me not get slowed down by indecision. And having two of us tap into our networks of like-minded friends also really helped the project take off.
Now I’m selling the remaining posters to help defray the printing and shipping costs which were higher than expected because we were so successful.
I’m also selling larger, limited edition, hand-pulled screen prints on 100% rag paper as well as the original piece.
My goal is to continue doing projects like this and have them pay for themselves. While most of my art is not political, I feel the universe gave me multiple examples of how I can connect myself and my art to my community and the world at large.
We had no plan other than to print the posters and share them. In truth, I was a little worried our plan would fizzle and just be a waste of money. But throughout, we both stayed as open as we could to any new thought or comment or bit of advice that came our way and said yes to it.
The fact that the project was tapping into a national vibe and had a deadline gave us and all our collaborators an urgency and focus that also contributed to the project’s success. And because my sister and I were splitting the costs of the project, that made it possible to take the financial risk as well.
Will you? Here’s the link to take a look: http://sarahbushartworks.com/index.php/vote-poster/
After all, the midterms may be over, but the fight for democracy isn’t.