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 people’s demands and dreams into eye-catching (and conscience-catching) physical and visual expressions for decades. Without knowing 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 Mr. Joselyn 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.
Mr. 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, his work 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, Mr. Joselyn 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, Mr. Joselyn was exposed to examples of busy people who made beautiful and family-sustaining things by hand. This is particularly true of his grandmother– 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 people’s’ 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. Mr. Joselyn’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. He 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, Mr. Joselyn found a place, shoulder to shoulder with others, helping to shape and broadcast people’s’ messages loud and clear. By now, he has serious street credibility as a community-based political artist. 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. 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 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 doable, fun, and a way for young people and activists alike to exercise power. And of course, nothing is wasted. Mr. Joselyn uses (and reuses) materials at hand—cardboard, wit and will. There are lessons, and politics to everything.
Twenty-some years after he left Minnesota, Mr. Joselyn 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. 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 Progress magazine (19:3). By Debora Kodish ]
In 2007, PFP exhibited Mr. Joselyn’s work in What You Got to Say?. 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. In 2013, Mr. Joselyn 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 video below, created for the Bash, of Mr. Joselyn in action.