CULTURE & ARTS

'Hope' Artist Shepard Fairey Explains Why He's Voting For Hillary Clinton

If he were to make a "Hope"-style portrait of Trump, it'd involve one word: "Ego."
Shepard Fairey poses in front of his art in January 2009.
Shepard Fairey poses in front of his art in January 2009.

Back in 2008, the words used to describe the presidential election ― or more specifically, the campaign of Barack Obama ― included “hope,” “change” and “progress.” This year, with another election on the horizon, a different kind of word stands out: “frustration.”

Shepard Fairey, the artist behind the controversial poster that made “hope” a ubiquitous descriptor for Obama’s eventual presidency, has a hard time finding positivity in 2016’s campaign season. “There’s a lot of hostility, even more than usual,” he told The Huffington Post in an email exchange. “Frustration,” he says, captures how voters feel today.

Ahead of a Hillary Clinton/Donald Trump showdown, Fairey isn’t making art for any one candidate. Instead, he’s been working on a project that transforms iconic photographs of the past into potent reminders of the injustices Americans ― no matter their party preference ― face on a regular basis. He’s used the work of Jim Marshall, well-known music photographer and lesser-known advocacy artist, as the basis of his red-and-black prints, tackling everything from mass incarceration to gun rights.

Fairey hopes the work, dubbed “American Civics” and on view as part of HuffPost’s “If This Art Could Vote” project, highlights something oft-overlooked in heated political debates: the humanity behind America’s enduring social justice issues. We checked in with the artist to talk about Jim Marshall’s legacy, the lack of “hope” today, and why he’s voting for Hillary Clinton.

"Jim Marshall's photo was taken at the California State Capitol in Sacramento after Cesar Chavez completed his 300-mile march
"Jim Marshall's photo was taken at the California State Capitol in Sacramento after Cesar Chavez completed his 300-mile march in support of farm workers' rights. Jim captured Chavez in a pose that suggests the vision and leadership that he truly embodied. I believe in what Chavez stood for as an activist and civil rights leader. He fought for the rights of people doing some of the most difficult work for some of the lowest wages so they could unionize and advocate for themselves to earn a dignified wage. In my art piece, I included articles that reflected the struggles of people who are on the lowest rung of the economic ladder. Chavez fought to increase the minimum wage for these people, and that battle continues today." --Shepard Fairey, April 2016 ("Workers' Rights," American Civics Series, Serigraph, 40 x 30 inches, Edition of 100, 2016.)

Can you tell me a little bit about the “American Civics” series? What inspired the project?

I’ve been making images about social and political issues for many years, and I’m also a longtime fan of the photography of Jim Marshall, who passed away in 2010. I was approached by Amelia Davis, Jim’s former assistant and the manager of his estate, to collaborate on a series inspired by Jim’s social justice photography rather than his the rock ‘n’ roll photography that most people know.

I liked the idea a lot because many of the same social problems still exist today that were problems and issues being addressed in the ‘60s when Jim took these photos. I felt like it was important to make art in my style inspired by these images to put in front of today’s audience.

Cesar Chavez during his 300-mile march to the California State Capitol. (Jim Marshall, 1966.)
Cesar Chavez during his 300-mile march to the California State Capitol. (Jim Marshall, 1966.)

When was your first encounter with Jim Marshall or his work? What was your first impression?

Unfortunately I never met Jim, but I’ve been a fan of his work since I was in my late teens, end of high school or early college. I’m a big fan of Johnny Cash and Jimi Hendrix, so Jim’s images of those two excited me. The more I got to know Jim’s photography, the more I felt it’s special for being able to capture both the iconic side and the candid side of his subjects.

"Jim Marshall's photograph of a coal mining family in Hazard, Kentucky, taken while he lived with them, says a lot with what
"Jim Marshall's photograph of a coal mining family in Hazard, Kentucky, taken while he lived with them, says a lot with what it shows, which is a mother and two children huddled together in support of each other, but it says just as much with what it lacks. There is a conspicuous absence of material necessities and a father. I don't know whether the father was working in a coal mine when the photograph was taken or had potentially died young because of the health risks of working under dangerous conditions, but it is clear that the family is struggling and lacking. In my illustration, I brought the figures of the family closer together to emphasize that love and support are essential to surviving hardship. My inclusion of news clippings about the perils and low wages of the coal mining industry are meant to illustrate the concept of 'Two Americas.' The America many of us like to believe in holds industrial power in high regard, but the less-talked-about America suffers from the low wages and health risks of that same industry." --Shepard Fairey, April 2016 ("Two Americas," American Civics Series, Serigraph, 40 x 30 inches, Edition of 100, 2016.)

The pieces you created span five topics: Voting rights, mass incarceration, workers’ rights, gun culture and the concept of two Americas. How did you settle on these themes?

These themes are themes that I’ve addressed in one way or another in my work before, but what solidified these specific choices were the images I thought were most powerful looking through Jim Marshall’s archive of photos. It can be very challenging to make compelling images about these subjects but for each concept, I knew when I’d found something that I could work with based on both the image itself and its backstory.

A coal mining family in Hazard, Kentucky. (Jim Marshall, 1963.)
A coal mining family in Hazard, Kentucky. (Jim Marshall, 1963.)

And what exactly does “Two Americas” (pictured above) mean?

I chose “Two Americas” for the coal mining family [originally featured in Jim Marshall’s image] because the family of the coal miner was living in poverty but most likely the heads of the coal company were very wealthy. I think it is important to remind people that there are people who benefit from the dynamics of capitalism and people that suffer under those same dynamics.

"Jim Marshall captured what at first glance is regarded as an innocent child playing with a toy gun in Greenwich Village, New
"Jim Marshall captured what at first glance is regarded as an innocent child playing with a toy gun in Greenwich Village, New York, in 1963. In many ways, I see this image as predicting the increase in gun violence that has taken place in the ensuing years in New York City as well as the rest of the country. Thirty-three thousand people per year lose their lives from guns, and I attribute this to an American gun culture that glorifies gun ownership and puts gun rights ahead of safety. Jim Marshall's image was ominous to begin with, but it was important to me that I use the American flag and gun violence articles in the art to make the connection between an ingrained gun culture as part of the fabric of America and the resulting devastatingly high statistics of gun violence." --Shepard Fairey, April 2016 ("Gun Control," American Civics Series, Serigraph, 40 x 30 inches, Edition of 100, 2016.)

As an artist who actively participated in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, what strikes you as most different about this electoral period?

There’s a lot of hostility, even more than usual. Right now the lead candidates have the highest degree of unfavorability in history, so it’s much more difficult to see a place for something optimistic in the vein of the “Hope” poster. A bright area for me in this campaign cycle has been the success of Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Despite his refusal to take corporate contributions, he was able to fundraise and harness the energy of younger grassroots activists in large numbers.

Bernie Sanders supporters including myself seem to be largely motivated by frustration with the dysfunction of politics as usual in the two-party system. I think “Frustration” is a is a theme in 2016 when “Hope,” “Change” and “Progress” were more positive themes in 2008.

Greenwich Village street scene: A boy rests after playing "good guys vs. bad guys." (Jim Marshall, 1963.)
Greenwich Village street scene: A boy rests after playing "good guys vs. bad guys." (Jim Marshall, 1963.)

You expressed your support for Bernie Sanders on your website, stating: “I feel it’s important for me to voice my support for his bid.” Who are you supporting now?

I’m supporting Hillary now because I have some hope that her move further to the left under the pressure of competing with Sanders will see follow-through if she’s elected. But also I’d vote for basically anyone over Trump.

"Johnny Cash is one of my favorite musicians and also one of my favorite storytellers and social commentators. Cash felt comp
"Johnny Cash is one of my favorite musicians and also one of my favorite storytellers and social commentators. Cash felt compassion for the less fortunate, and I think his religious beliefs shaped his view that no human being is beyond redemption. He played live shows at San Quentin Prison and at Folsom Prison (where Jim Marshall shot the photograph that inspired my art piece) to do something kind for the inmates but also to draw attention to mass incarceration. In this image, I wanted to capture Cash's iconic nature as well as the harsh exterior of Folsom Prison; Cash was fortunate enough to be standing outside rather than inside of this prison wall. Prisoners and prison rights are often looked over, and I felt it was important to incorporate news clippings and graphics relating to their difficulties and raise awareness. The United States has the highest incarceration rate on the planet, with almost 25 percent of the world's total prison population." --Shepard Fairey, April 2016 ("Mass Incarceration," American Civics Series, Serigraph, 40 x 30 inches, Edition of 100, 2016.)

Overall, how important do you think it is for artists to weigh in on political events like presidential elections?

I think it’s good for artists and everyone else to weigh in politically. The people who are greedy and will benefit from dominating the political process certainly speak up so the rest of us should, too.

Johnny Cash at Folsom State Prison in California. (Jim Marshall, 1968.)
Johnny Cash at Folsom State Prison in California. (Jim Marshall, 1968.)

Do you feel pressure to create more political art since 2008?

I don’t feel any pressure to make political art since 2008. I do it because it’s important to me and for the most part I enjoy it. To me, any art about social issues or the environment is political, whether or not it’s interfacing with candidates or being applied to a specific election. Voting is a specific piece of being a part of democracy, but it’s only one part. I try to do things with my art that will have a positive impact all the time, not just around elections.

"Jim Marshall's photograph of Fannie Lee Chaney captures the day she found out her son, James Chaney, and two of his friends
"Jim Marshall's photograph of Fannie Lee Chaney captures the day she found out her son, James Chaney, and two of his friends died at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan for registering African Americans to vote. Her expression is an intense combination of sadness and resolve that was critical for me to try to capture artistically. Because her expression is direct but also mysterious, I included supplementary news clippings and FBI materials in the various layers of my work so the viewer could understand the full weight of the scenario. People lost their lives securing voting rights for all during the civil rights movement, and those same essential rights are threatened in today's world." --Shepard Fairey, April 2016 ("Voters' Rights," American Civics Series, Serigraph, 40 x 30 inches, Edition of 100, 2016.)

If you could choose one word that would appear above a “Hope”-style portrait of Trump, positive or negative, what would it be? How about for Hillary?

For Trump: Ego. For Hillary: Experience.

Fannie Lee Chaney, mother of murdered civil rights worker James Chaney. (Jim Marshall, 1964.)
Fannie Lee Chaney, mother of murdered civil rights worker James Chaney. (Jim Marshall, 1964.)

”American Civics” is on display at the San Francisco Art Exchange through September and are available for purchase here. For each issue addressed in the artwork, it is the intention of Shepard Fairey, along with Jim Marshall’s estate, to donate 10 percent of the net proceeds to an appropriate charitable partner, which are listed here.

The Huffington Post is bringing political art together for our “If This Art Could Vote” project. We invite any and all artists to put forward their own works here, and fans can click here for the complete list.

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistmisogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

HuffPost

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