Politically active his whole life, Eric Joselyn is known among an extended community of activists as an invaluable resource. Rarely credited publicly, he is a prolific working artist who has been turning peoples' demands and dreams into eye-catching (and conscience-catching) physical and visual expressions for decades. Without recognizing it, you may well have seen his work displayed street-side: at local demonstrations for immigrants' rights, at antiwar protests, at street theater against racism. Thousands of Chinatown residents and allies fighting to stop the city from putting a stadium in Chinatown wore t-shirts Eric designed. He crafted many of the cardboard bulldozers, puppets, costumes, and signs that local people carried to City Council chambers to protest against the city's use of eminent domain to displace poor and working families from their homes. Aiming to even the odds for social justice movements, his deceptively simple arts and crafts are "good tools" for popular struggles.
You don't usually find Eric's work in a gallery. The Folklore Project's exhibition this winter is a rare chance to see a sampling of more than 25 years of his efforts all in one place: high-spirited handmade props for demonstrations, stylish do-it-yourself banners, a forest of words on signs, and texts filled with painful reminders of the constant need to fight for justice. The exhibition catalogues time-honored and newly-minted forms of political expression - banners, placards, t-shirts, buttons, badges, puppets, and toys - each representing some pressing concern of the last two decades. The exhibition is also a compelling inventory of some of the struggles of local communities.
Eric Joselyn's work challenges common notions of art-making in many ways. His work is not about individual creativity for its own sake, or about novelty or reputation. Creative, inventive, and fundamentally about what a principled individual can do, Eric has a clear commitment to standing with others. The words on signs and banners don't just come from this artist alone or represent a singular vision: they come from groups of people mobilizing together. As an artist, Eric is about facilitating community expression on issues that matter. He says, "Putting visual tools into the hands of people working to turn this system over gives me a big dose of my kind of aesthetic pleasure. Traditional community skills and popular cultural traditions have taught me a lot about building a happy and democratic opposition to the greedy, hateful society foisted upon us. I'm offering ideas for tying our art to the ceaseless drive of regular people everywhere to build a better world. I am excited by seeing the things we make put to righteous use towards a righteous end."
Folk arts play an important role in his politics and style. Growing up in a politically progressive midwestern family, Eric was exposed to examples of busy people who made beautiful and useful family-sustaining things by hand. His grandmother encouraged his artistic inclinations, and provided many examples of how everyday folk arts, lovingly made, could bring beauty into people' lives, while also sustaining a family. He remembers her quilting, sewing and canning (many-colored jars of fruits and vegetables preserved like exotic specimens in the basement). The Minnesota State Fair, with its annual gathering of the work of peoples' hands - prize vegetables, youngsters with animals they had raised - is another valued touchstone for him of how ordinary peoples' artistic productions can be publicly celebrated and appreciated. These grassroots contexts for art-making, rather than galleries and formal institutions, were important models for him, as he tried to define his own role as an artist.
It wasn't an obvious road. Eric's talents and inclinations set him on an artistic path, but the conventional role of a school-trained gallery-bound artist just didn't feel right. He studied art at the University of Minnesota, but resisted the push to disconnect from the world, retreat to a studio, or hone a personal vision and skills. He says, "That I almost need to make stuff is a fact. But I just couldn't spend my days in some one artist-one product-one consumer equation. I eschewed the label of ‘artist.' I was something else." Eric says that it took time to find a way "to break through such a closed circuit."
He eventually came to see himself as part of a long line of cultural workers: "from naughty balladeers in pre-Revolutionary France, to woodblock cutters and jugglers spouting mass line in turbulent China, to the wives who sewed those gorgeous union local banners with all the gold tassels carried before the 8-hour day was won." And then there were broadside printers and artists, who turned out pointed political messages on hand-printed sheets. Like all these artists, Eric found a place, shoulder to shoulder with others, helping to shape and broadcast peoples' messages loud and clear. By now, he has serious street credibility as a community-based political artist. As the show makes clear, he has contributed his artistry and political savvy to countless progressive efforts, creating "multiples" (flyers, t-shirts - work that can be handed up or posted in large numbers) and "highly visables" (banners, puppets, and the like). He aims to change the world, to make popular movements "look better" (adding aesthetics and style), and to encourage people to have fun in the process.
These values also infuse his teaching, another way that he "engages with big numbers of others." He has now spent decades working with young people, painting walls, making prints, and teaching in public schools. (He currently is the Art Teacher at the two-year-old Folk Arts Cultural Treasures Charter School, a project of Asian Americans United and the Philadelphia Folklore Project.) As a teacher in and outside of the classroom, he democratizes art-making, making it do-able, fun, and a way for young people and activists alike to exercise power. And of course, nothing is wasted. Eric uses (and re-uses) materials at hand - cardboard, wit and will. There are lessons, and politics to everything.
Twenty-some years after he left Minnesota, Eric has transferred many of the politics, values, and ethics of eclectic folk arts to Philadelphia's gritty streets, and to the communities among whom he has made a home. He continues to produce arts that are accessible, meant to be used, grounded in freely-shared knowledge, essential to sustaining meaningful relationships, aimed at making a better world. In his hands, art continues to advance collective efforts and alternative perspectives. In a saner world, in another time or place, he would have been a village potter, or made things with cloth, he says. Given these times, his approach to art-making is to use native wit, a keen sense of politics, and a storehouse of traditional arts and expressions to amplify people's capacity to speak to one another and to be heard. His work remains human-scaled, democratic, subversive, and quite literally community-based: his head and hands and skills are invested in the capacity, and struggles, of communities to make pressing and necessary changes. [Adapted from "Eric Joselyn: What you got to say?" in PFP's Fall/winter 2006 Works in Progressmagazine (19:3). By Debora Kodish ]
In 2013 Eric received The Rosemary Cubas Award for Folk Arts & Activism as part of PFP's 26th Birthday Bash and Folk Arts & Social Change Awards. See the below, created for the Bash, of Eric in action.
Eric has created subversive bingo games for decades: to be used on family road trips, and given as gifts to friends. He participated in PFP's 2012 Community Supported Arts (CSA) program, making a "Philadelphia Bingo" game guaranteed to help people look at the city in a new way.