The Art of Activism: Erik Ruin

Spotlighting the efforts of artists and organizations who are engaged in the struggle for social justice and are helping build the movement through their work.

This spring’s Public Eye cover artist, Erik Ruin, is a Philadelphia-based printmaker, shadow puppeteer, and paper-cut artist whose work has been called “spell-binding” by The New York Times. He describes his art as oscillating “between the poles of apocalyptic anxieties and utopian yearnings, with an emphasis on empathy, transcendence, and obsessive detail.”

He stumbled upon printmaking and paper-cut art because they were the more affordable, available mediums being deployed by his punk rock peers. The democratic nature of the mediums he works in creates opportunities to challenge and reinvent the “rather hierarchical and elitist infrastructure that often surrounds/presents the art world.” For Ruin, printmaking in particular allows for a highly personal creative process that’s more accessible than a single painting.

Raised in Michigan, Ruin was a member of the UpsideDown Culture Collective in Detroit and other groups of radical-minded artists that eventually coalesced in 2007 to form the international Justseeds Artists Cooperative of printmakers (which began as a solo project of Josh MacPhee in 1998). His work is frequently made in collaboration with other artists and activist campaigns delving into social issues as well as more abstract underlying concepts. For example, “Prisoner’s Song,” his recent audio-visual piece with composer Gelsey Bell, was formulated to explore “what imprisonment and isolation reveals about the nature of humanity.”

Ruin says the connection between his art and activism isn’t always scripted though. Pointing out that activism often focuses on quantifiable goals and campaigns, Ruin is drawn to art-making partly because of its “resistance to utilitarianism,” noting that “the way an image or performance has the potential to impact people is highly subjective, variable and often mysterious even to its maker.”

While artists often use their skills to enrich and amplify the message of social movements, Ruin also observes that “art has the power to speak in different, sometimes stranger and subtler, ways—to say things that are only on the verge of being articulable otherwise.” Although his art often explores more abstract and subjective elements, the labor-intensive physicality of his process—he is currently creating a paper-cut piece more than 100 feet long—intersects with his convictions. “[L]abor and the struggle to be present with what I am depicting is of inherent value to me,” he says. “I feel like the effort to shape and bring forth the figures and landscapes in my work is an extension/reflection/origin of the empathy I hope viewers will experience when viewing it.”

Erik Ruin, Wanderers (Trees), 2014, screen print, 25” x 19”. See more of Erik’s work at erikruin.com.

The Art of Activism: Nansi Guevara

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Nansi Guevara’s art appears on the cover of the Winter 2017 edition of The Public Eye magazine. Subscribe today!

Nansi Guevara, a visual artist and activist based in South Texas, has been creating art for as long as she can remember. “The circumstances in my household, a crafty and costurera mother and a father that left construction materials all over the house, pushed me to utilize these discarded materials for new objects that nurtured my imagination.” She points out that what is now called “DIY” has always been a marker of creativity, and a form of art, rooted in indigeneity, that goes back centuries. It is rasquachismo for border communities—a term coined by Tomás Ybarra-Frausto referring to the celebration of resourcefulness, ingenuity, and “the underdog” in Chicano/a arts. As a self-described Xicana, Mexicana, first generation U.S. American, artist, and muxerista, Nansi uses art to make sense of her and her community’s experiences and evoke emotion and empathy through imagery.

Growing up on the border in Laredo, Texas, exposed her to complex, often contradictory realities. “Since I was a child I couldn’t understand why some people were allowed to cross the [US.-Mexico International] bridge and some were not.” Nansi evokes Chicana feminist theorist Gloria Anzaldua’s concept of nepantla, or “the in-betweenness that we experience as border people,” as the foundation for the sacred knowledge of fronterizas.

Inspired by the queer/women leadership of Black Lives Matter, the dignity and humanity of the Zapatista communities, the indigenous-led movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota, and other bottom-up, community driven movements for change, Nansi says, “For me it is critical to center the often untold stories, histories, and experiences of people of color and women in this country.” Her art frequently incorporates bright colors, resisting Eurocentric design traditions, and weaves together multiple languages, as in her installation, “Our Tierra Livri.” She says she uses language in her art to “elevate multilingualism and push back against purism and nationalism in language,” which delegitimizes folks for “not speaking in a certain way or not using the ‘right’ language.”

Nansi describes the process of drawing as a medicine to her body and sees the creation of new worlds through art as something that’s also essential to activism. Socially conscious artists are at the forefront of movements and change, pushing boundaries and bringing the seemingly invisible to light. They “are the pulse of the community and art has the power to help us imagine a better world. It is essential in our fight for justice because we need to be able to first imagine change in our minds in order to create it.”

Nansi Guevara, Muxeres lideres de Brownsville, Texas, 2016, print, 24″ x 18″. See more of Nansi’s work at: nansiguevara.com.

Additional samples of Nansi’s work can be found at: nansiguevara.com