Charles Willson Peale fought in the American Revolutionary War. He saw George Washington cross the Delaware River. He carried a musket, but he also traveled with another item that proved equally important in the battle for freedom: a paintbrush.
In those crucial years before and after the war, Peale painted Washington more than half a dozen times, resulting in a collection of nearly sixty portraits. The most famous of them, Washington at Princeton, currently belongs to Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Peale was one of many artists who helped document and shape our young country. During those pivotal first years of our nation’s history, American artists became revolutionaries in their own right. “Works of art were essential to the founding of the United States,” American author and lecturer Paul Staiti once said. 243 years later, artists still play a fundamental role in protecting our unalienable rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
In celebration of the Fourth of July, we spoke with fourteen artists across the country. Each of these artists has a different experience and perspective, but they all share the same nation, home, and future. Read on to learn more about their work.
Matthew “Levee” Chavez creates installations in public spaces. He started as New York City’s Secret Keeper by inviting subway commuters to write down their secrets. As more people approached him over time, he became the Subway Therapist. While Levee is not a licensed therapist, anyone is welcome to talk to him about their innermost dreams and struggles.
More recently, Chavez has expanded Subway Therapy into a larger installation of sticky notes. Again, he invites people to share their thoughts and, at times, respond to specific questions. More than 50,000 people participated when the project was first introduced in the wake of the 2016 election, creating a sprawling tapestry of notes. Similar initiatives have followed around the nation.
“To me, being an artist in 2019 means trying to create opportunities for people to step out of the rat race, feel less stress, and form connections in a divided time,” he tells us. “As an American, I feel like I have a responsibility to encourage discourse by creating work that makes people think about others in a way that builds empathy. The divisions between us create weakness, and I have a strong desire to do something about it.”
Daisy Patton’s fascination with history began during her childhood in California and Oklahoma, where she spent her days reading adventure stories. For her long-term series Forgetting is so long, she works with found family photographs, using painting, patterns, and embroidery to give new life to anonymous people who have passed away.
“Art is about storytelling and making sense of our surroundings and experiences,” she says. “I hope that my work has access points where, regardless of their familiarity with art, viewers can understand some of what the work is about and reflect on their own experiences and history. I strongly believe that art can be a catalyst for questions, as well as possible starting points or ready-made symbols of change and equity.”
Photographer Andrew L Moore has created pictures throughout the United States, with long-term series rooted in regions that are sometimes overlooked, including Detroit and the vast area known “Flyover Country”–the middle portion of the country comprising Nebraska, Wyoming, Texas, Colorado, South Dakota, North Dakota, and New Mexico.
Moore’s forthcoming book, Blue Alabama, is the culmination of years spent documenting life in lower Alabama–a significant state in the nation’s struggle for Civil Rights and the former stomping ground of legendary American photographers Walker Evans and William Christenberry.
The years have changed this landscape geographically and culturally, but Moore hones in on its quiet and enduring spirit of resilience. He has spent many mornings and afternoons listening to residents of this part of the American South, capturing intimate portraits of individuals, families, and the places they’ve called home for generations.
“I want to give recognition to the deep history of the ordinary,” he tells us. “I want to recognize the places and people who surround us all the time but remain unseen. As an artist in America, I strive to align faith and imagination in these troubled times.”
At seven years old, Fidencio Fifield-Perez arrived in the United States from Oaxaca, Mexico, and the course of his life and work changed forever. As a DACA recipient, the multimedia artist and professor has used his platform to investigate themes like belonging and freedom.
Among other materials, Fifield-Perez uses paper maps, documents, and envelopes–like those he once used to prove his identity–to create installations around the idea of home and migration. “The question of being an artist in America right now is layered, and I can only speak for myself,” he tells us. “It means using the privileges that come with being an artist to talk about topics that are nuanced and subtle.”
“There is plenty of intentional misinformation about what a person who holds Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals looks like, so I see my role as one that must constantly chip away at those misconceptions. I have a studio, a job, the ability to travel, because of DACA and so it’s hard to separate my personal life from my role as an artist.”
Atlanta photographer Peyton Fulford’s project Infinite Tenderness paints a portrait of the South, through the eyes of LGBTQ+ young people. Her portraits of friends and acquaintances are a testament to strength and vulnerability, pride and empowerment.
“As a queer individual living in the American South, creating narrative portraiture of other queer people, I feel a sense of responsibility,” she tells us. “My hope to bring light to more nuanced representations and to show that America is not black and white. I am attempting to find fluidity and capture the complexities that exist within this land and its people.”
Many of Scott Listfield’s paintings feature a solitary astronaut, forever wandering the planet Earth. The artist draws inspiration from science fiction films and television shows of the 1960s, including Lost in Space, The Jetsons, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Instead of journeying to the far reaches of space, however, his lonesome hero explores American highways, megacities, and fast food chains.
Listfield’s work illuminates the futuristic world we inhabit today, but beyond that, he also reminds us of the hopes and dreams of generations before us. While composing his scenes, he draws on both popular culture and national headlines, using nostalgic elements to address timely events.
“Being an artist in America in 2019 is probably not that different from being any other type of person in America in 2019,” he tells us. “We’re all trying to do what we do, but with an added sense of urgency.”
Yasmine Diaz is a Yemeni American artist currently based in Los Angeles. She found her passion for painting growing up in Chicago, and now uses collage, installation, and other media to explore the intersections of gender, religion, freedom of speech, and cultural identity.
“I’m often inspired to make a specific work when I think about something that frustrates me,” Diaz explains. “Art has become a tool to work out that frustration and communicate–something I have always had trouble doing with words.” At one point, the artist was forced to change her identity after fleeing to avoid an arranged marriage. It’s an event that has motivated her to confront complex and difficult topics with her work.
Looking forward, Diaz sees more diverse voices flourishing across the country. “There is a growing appetite for work that reflects a broader representation of experiences and voices,” she says. “There is so much wonderful, nuanced work being made. I see it challenging artists, myself included, to push boundaries–in the best way.”
Photographer Michael Knapstein longs to capture the spirit of the American Midwest. His ongoing project Midwest Memoir comprises hundreds of rich black and white images, many of which look as though they could have been made centuries ago. Over the years, some of the homes and farmsteads he’s photographed have been destroyed, but his images remind us of our connection to the past.
“My work has been influenced by a wide range of American artists, especially by those who formed the American Regionalism movement,” he tells us. “As an artist firmly rooted in the American Midwest, I feel I owe something to that tradition.”
As the landscape of the nation continues to shift, Knapstein reminds us of the value of freedom, solitude, and the open road. He explains, “While many artists today create work that addresses politics or current affairs, I purposely avoid those topics and try to tell visual stories that are more timeless in nature.”
Shawn Theodore is a photographer, collage artist, sculptor, and poet based in Philadelphia. Inspired by the great minds of the Harlem Renaissance, he’s made pictures in African American neighborhoods throughout the country. In many cases, these neighborhoods are changing rapidly due to gentrification, so his pictures serve as a powerful testament to their heritage and legacy.
“Being an American contemporary artist, for me, means that one is simultaneously fighting the system, while the system is fighting you,” he tells us. “Making art is more important than ever before. Our voices in this era will become the source of the next generation’s rally call.”
Boston-based photographer Claire Beckett says, “Fundamentally, my work is about what it means to be an American.” Her projects In Training and Hearts and Minds take us behind-the-scenes into the US military, while her long term body of work The Converts tells the stories of Americans who have converted to Islam.
Together, they weave together a complex portrait of the United States as a diverse and evolving nation. “Most of my artwork is concerned with photographic representation across themes of citizenship, perceptions of identity, and power,” Beckett tells us.
Kyle Surges, who is also based in Chicago, creates detailed oil paintings incorporating classic American iconography: Hershey’s chocolate bars, Twinkies, Coca-Cola bottles, and even Beach Boys records. “My work has always been rooted in nostalgia, mainly items from the 50’s and 60’s,” he tells us. “This includes pieces of discarded Americana, collectables, and sometimes witty items. America is a mecca for all things mass-produced. With a capitalistic economy, there is a plethora of interesting subject matter to paint.”
Surges knows we’re living in a politically fraught time, but he isn’t interested in making work about that. Instead, he hopes to entertain people, while celebrating some of the things that make our country unique.
Ervin A. Johnson is a mixed-media artist based in Chicago. He combines photography and painting to create evocative portraits that draw on ancient mythology, art history, and current events. As a queer person of color, and he’s used his art to promote healing and celebrate strength in the face of oppression.
“Growing up, I hadn’t seen images that I considered beautiful of people who were like me,” he tells us. “So I thought I’d create them for myself. It is so important to be visible, especially if you felt that you never were. My practices as an artist are about reclaiming my own power and inspiring others to do the very same.”
San Francisco-born artist Peregrine Honig is a painter, printmaker, and sculptor who curates large-scale public projects exploring the nuances of consumerism, gender, and sexuality. Honig currently lives and has her studio in Greenwood Social Hall, a renovated Baptist Church, where she hosts small performances and temporary installations.
“The United States of America is dependent on its artists,” Honig says. “Historically, restrictive environments and nationalistic trends have built stronger creative movements. We collectively explore bolder and broader conversations when we are advised to be afraid. Incredible writing, cinema, theater, painting, architecture, and sculpture are born of dissidence. The artist today has a pivotal role to play in the identity of our environmental and political future.”
Soraya Zaman was born in Australia and has worked around the world, but they call the United States home. Their recent book American Boys features photographs of transmasculine people across 21 states in the country, accompanied by essays and first-person accounts.
Like a few of the artists we’ve featured here, Zaman has seen their personal work bleed into public and political discussions. “I think any artist’s work in 2019, that leans into documenting people and the world around them in an attempt to inform, expand, and question, is a form of activism,” they say. “And I think that’s so important today, has been critical throughout history, and will continue to be necessary into the future.”
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Cover Image: Detail. Untitled (Family Portrait on the Rocks) © Daisy Patton. For more information on Feature Shoot, click here.