King inspires activism through art

MLK
Photo by Yale University.

After coming across the stories of children affected by war in Somalia and the Congo online, Alisa May FES ’12 said she hoped to bring a conversation about the conflict in Africa to Yale — art became her medium for doing so. On Tuesday, May’s ink and chalk painting, titled “On the Shoulders of Giants,” won first prize at an event called “Visualize the Dream: An evening of art and conversation in honor of MLK,” sponsored by the Office for Diversity and Equal Opportunity of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. May, who said she found inspiration in Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for “peace, justice and civil rights,” spoke about her artistic work and the importance of fostering an activist culture at Yale.

Q. How did this painting and its aesthetic develop out of your activist concerns?

A. During the civil rights era, peaceful protests included a lot of young people, some as young as 8. That led the president to come on national television and say, “We can’t do this anymore. We can’t use violence against children.” It’s the same thing in Africa [today]. Children are becoming a cause [for] stopping international conflict. Kids are symbol of innocence — [they’re] not involved and not choosing a side, but still suffering. That’s why I included children [in the painting], reaching to birds in the sky. They’re reaching to the distant promise of freedom.

I work a lot on a toned background, so the painting is actually on cardboard. That means I don’t have to paint the middle range of the colors: all the brown is the cardboard, the black is Japanese ink and the white is chalk. I’m trained in Chinese brush-painting but now use Western materials and change the technique by incorporating watercolors.

[I was] given a book as the prize. It’s titled “A Testament of Hope” — I think that’s a very fitting title. What I was hoping to do was use the MLK holiday to speak about broader international issues of peace to Yale audiences.

Q. How was that perspective received at the competition?

A. Curtis Patton is this Yale professor who’s old enough to have met MLK in person when they were both very young, in their late 20s, early 30s. What was amazing for me as an artist was to have him say that my portrait evokes the sense of having met MLK, [which] he doesn’t get from lots of portrayals.

All I can [say] is that I used two portraits, one with King young and peaceful, and the other showing him older, with furrowed creases in his forehead. I don’t know if the mix of the two was what created the likeness, but Patton’s comments were really valuable.

Q. When did you first begin conceptualizing this painting, and how did the process work?

A. It was a confluence of things. When the contest was announced, I knew that I wanted to submit a painting, because Dr. King was such a meaningful leader and such an inspiring person. But I wasn’t really sure what to make my submission about. At around the same time, I was looking at sites like “Invisible Children” [an organization that takes action against the use of child soldiers in central Africa through the use of film and creative media]. Even though I had seen them before and knew about [the] conflicts, they touched me in a personal way at this time.

Separately from that, I was reading some of King’s quotes. They reach beyond his era, particularly when he discusses wars as “poor chisels for peaceful tomorrows.” When I thought about that, I immediately realized King’s mission could be related to children in Africa.

Q. What message do you want people to take away from your painting “On the Shoulders of Giants”?

A. I didn’t really expect to win the award. For me, it was a matter of just getting really passionate, having a fearless few minutes when you start a project. It’s that first fearlessness and inspiration to do something that you care about. It’s much easier to [take a stance] that from where we stand after all the work so many leaders have done — in any cause, great leaders and pioneers [allow] for us to take [their work] on and continue it. We do stand on the shoulders of giants.

Q. Is the plight of war-torn Africa an issue you have explored before in your work?

A. I’m an artist and architect, but I bring in a humanitarian aspect. I’ve designed schools in Haiti and Cambodia, though the latter wasn’t built. I also recently submitted an entry to a Nike Gamechangers challenge [which promotes development by establishing youth sport initiatives around the world], proposing that Nike fund a sports facility in Rwanda. I hope the facility can be an opportunity for children to have a place … that inspires self-esteem, and provides a way that adults can also speak to children. They’re currently down to 19 projects out of hundreds, and I’m still in, so … fingers crossed.

Q. Not many people would assume [that School of Forestry & Environmental Studies] students have art backgrounds. What has your personal trajectory been like?

A. I went to an arts high school, which meant four years of producing a body of work. I didn’t feel ready to be a freelance artist right out of school, so I pursued architecture to combine my artistic passion and my other interests. Now I’m in school studying sustainability. I continued drawing and sketching, though. I see art as a way to reach out about issues that really inspire me. For example, I was recently approached about doing a cover for a book about … natural resources while valuing them appropriately.

Another project I’m now potentially involved [in] is with a student at the School of Public Health. She’s doing research on melanoma, which affects a lot of young people, especially young girls — it’s been linked to tanning beds. She wants to create an art campaign that would use images to speak to that audience. So that’s basically an artistic public health campaign. Projects like that have tended to come my way since I have started using art as a way to address bigger issues outside my particular school, like humanitarian and health issues that relate to everyone. Students and faculty at the school tend to seek me out and come to me with projects.

Q. Are people at Yale interested in this kind of artistic activism?

A. Actually, I think it’s a very small group that is. More people are in academic circles, focusing more on research. Sure, that informs activism and other things like policy, eventually addressing the issue. If there is activism at Yale, I feel like it tends to be a lot more political, such as the 99% movement. In terms of culture, society and health, initiatives do exist, but they’re smaller. The School of Public Health does some work with the School of Art. Also, you see the Environmental Film Festival getting bigger.

Q. Do you think Yale has been a good environment for you as an artist-activist?

A. It is a very good environment. It’s very open. It’s just that it’s a very academic environment, and not very many of us are pursuing activism or speaking to a broader audience, or even writing to nonacademic audiences. I think that’s an important way to address issues that are cutting-edge. Still, there’s a really promising [activist] side of Yale that I’m still discovering.

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