As Inauguration Day looms closer and Donald Trump gets ready to take office, a tide of fear and loathing is rising across America. Protests are planned; marches are being organized in Washington and cities around the country; and the number of Congressional Representatives boycotting the inauguration is growing. Concerned citizens from all walks of life are finding various ways to express their dismay and distress over the appalling behavior and moral bankruptcy of the incoming President. Political cartoonists lampoon the Orange One; Alec Baldwin spoofs the repulsive President-elect on “Saturday Night Live”; magazines and newspapers (not just in America, but around the world) are expressing their shock and dismay at the poor choice our nation has made.
Shu-Ju Wang is a Portland book artist and painter who, like many other artists, wants to take a stand against the racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and hatred she sees in Trump and many of his followers. She has organized 50+ artists to make strings of prayer flags – protest prayer flags – to proclaim that “Love Trumps Hate.”
I loved the idea of this project when I heard about – I wanted to find out more about the artist and what she hopes to accomplish with this spiritual/artistic expression of political protest. Shu-Ju Wang graciously agreed to answer my questions:
BJ Gallagher: Where did the idea for the protest prayer flags come from? What made you decide to undertake this project? Why prayer flags, in particular? Why not some other artistic expression?
Shu-Ju Wang: Like so many people, I was shocked and in a daze after the election. I signed a bunch of petitions, made phone calls, sent emails, and donated to various advocacy groups – but I didn’t believe any of that was going to stop Trump from becoming President. I accepted that, but I wanted to make a public declaration in some way. I saw the “love trumps hate” signs that protesters were holding up and felt that was the declaration I wanted to make as well.
With the coming of the New Year — a time of renewed hopes and aspirations — we saw an uptick in hate crimes that came with the election results. It occurred to me that the tradition of prayer flags was perfect for the times. So that was why I chose that format.
But I alone could not make enough flags for it to be a statement, something that could be seen from the street or from a distance, so I reached out to the wider community. I put out the call for artists and others to send me their design of the words “Love Trumps Hate” and 60 rectangles of simple cotton fabric, and said I would print the prayer flags, collate them, and send them to everyone who had contributed a design. That way everyone got one prayer flag from each artist. I gave them instructions on how to string them together for display.
This whole endeavor can also be seen a metaphor for how to get what you want in life — if you want something, others probably do too. Find a way for others to get what they want – as well as for you to get what you want. That is the surest way to achieve your goals.
BJG: Tell me a little about your background ... your art form, your training, your vision and/or passion. How does this project fit with your work in the world?
SJW: I’m a painter and book artist – so the prayer flag idea has always been interesting, they’re like really big books that a whole community makes. I’ve also created a few installations. In recent years, my work has focused on the profound or catastrophic transformations of our lives — things like immigration (I’m an immigrant), health, aging, and the environment. This particular election will have a very profound impact on all of these issues.
My academic training is actually in Computer Science in the ‘80s. After I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science, I started working at Tektronix. And once I was able to pay for my own schooling, I started going to Oregon School of Arts & Crafts (now Oregon College of Art & Craft). I took a variety of classes in photography, drawing, and book arts. I left hi-tech in 2000 to become a full-time artist.
How did you put the word out to solicit participation by others in making prayer flags?
On Facebook, of course. I’m also on several book arts related mailing lists, so I posted to those as well. I filled up the 60 allotted slots within a few days. There are people from all over. Many from Oregon, but also Washington, California, in the Mid-West and East Coast, too.
What has surprised you along the way? Has anything disappointed you? What headaches did you encounter?
This project has worked amazingly well, considering how many people were involved. What surprised me the most was how well everyone followed my instructions. I really expected there to be way more issues, but no.
The only issue had been my instructions…there are idiosyncrasies about the Print Gocco that I probably should’ve mentioned but didn’t. On the other hand, I didn’t want people to be scared off, thinking that it would be too hard to make something that worked well. In the end, there were just a few people that either modified their designs (or I did it for them, with their permission), so that it would print easier/better.
Last week, the last 10 packages were picked up from my house and will be dropped off at the east Portland pickup location for the last pickup tomorrow!
Oh … something else that did surprise me: I thought that people would very quickly write or craft their design and image. But when I received their designs, it was apparent that many people spent a lot of time and energy designing their prayer flag. So many are very finely crafted and beautiful. I am very appreciative of that. It didn’t take very many designs coming in before I regretted how quickly I put mine own design together!
Now that the flags are all printed and distributed to the artists who designed them, how are they using their flags?
The artists are using them in a variety of public collections/displays and fundraisers: • St. Lawrence University’s Brush Art Gallery's permanent collection • 23 Sandy Gallery, Portland, Oregon • Ford Gallery, Portland, Oregon • Waterstone Gallery, Portland, Oregon • Planned Parenthood, Beaverton, Oregon
The prayer flags are also being considered for the Modern Political Collections at Emory University, but we haven’t received final confirmation yet.
In the upcoming Women’s March in Washington DC, Los Angles, Portland, Seattle, Denver, Boston, and several other locations, people are either marching with the flags strung up or they’re pinning individual flags to their shirts.
Our fund-raising has been modest so far, but we hope to raise more in the coming weeks and months. So far we’ve donated $300 to SPLC, $300 to Planned Parenthood, and $150 to the ACLU.
What impact would you like the prayer flags to have?
I’m not a religious person, so I don’t think it’s going to change the universe. But I hope it will allow people to make this public declaration – and to start conversations with their friends and neighbors. This is the first time I have personally felt that a public declaration is necessary on my part. Of course, everything we do or say is a public declaration of sorts – whether we mean it to be or not. But this is very intentional.
Anything else you'd like to add?
A few people started their own projects, after hearing about the prayer flags. I was really happy to know that the idea resonated with people, even if they don’t participate in my project. When I put out the call, I said that people were free to use the idea to start their own, and several people wrote back and said they would. Another person started doing magnets with their community. So that was very cool.