ASFA-CW’s Ashley M. Jones is partnering with UAB Art & Art History professor Doug Baulos on a project investigating the language of peace and hope. In conjunction with the 2017 Peace and Justice Studies Association (PJSA) Conference, an international gathering of academics, K-12 teachers, and grassroots activists that will be held later this month on the UAB campus, Doug is curating an exhibit entitled “RE/Present Peace.”
Having worked with ASFA-CW in the past on our 3-D Poetry Initiative, Doug knew this was a project that would not only pique our students’ interest but tap into their multiple talents. To that end, he visited with us this past Thursday and asked ASFA-CW students and faculty to use visual and textual elements—namely, the tools of printmaking, typography, drawing, and poetics—to investigate themes of peace and social justice.
The work we created will be included with that of the conference attendees and then showcased at the exhibit opening on October 27 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Project Space in the UAB Humanities Building. Ashley coordinated Doug’s ASFA visit and will also give a poetry reading and lead discussion on these themes at the exhibit opening. The event/reception is free and open to the public—so come on out and “RE/present Peace” while supporting ASFA-CW’s growing arts-activism and community-building efforts!
But wait, there’s more! To offer some further insight about the event and the issues surrounding it, Ashley took some time to answer a few questions about her involvement with the PJSA and her thoughts on the role of the arts in social justice initiatives. Here’s what she had to say.
ASFA-CW: How did you get involved with this project?
AMJ: I got involved with the PJSA last fall, when I presented some of my poetry as a part of the UAB University Honors Program’s Symbols of Hate Symposium. For their fall interdisciplinary course, they assembled various artists, scholars, and community members to present work about or in reaction to symbols of hatred and discrimination in the US and abroad. Doug Baulos, who works in the Department of Art & Art History and in the University Honors Program, was in the audience that day, and after hearing my poem “Election Year 2016: The Motto,” he asked me to collaborate with his typography class and to be a part of the PJSA. His students did illustrations of poems from my book, Magic City Gospel, and those illustrations will be displayed on Friday, October 27th at UAB BLOOM Project Space, where I’ll read from the book and sign copies of the book, and attendees can meet the artists who illustrated the poems.
ASFA-CW: With all the cultural upheaval that seems hellbent on confronting us at every turn these days, what difference does it make—why do the arts and arts activism matter?
AMJ: The arts make all the difference, all the time. I think art has a unique ability to create real transformative, empathetic thought in its viewers/listeners/readers and practitioners. In my life, I’ve found the most catharsis and clarity when viewing art, when listening to music, when reading and writing poetry—you can’t read Audre Lorde’s “Power” and not begin to understand (or at least, to empathize with) what it means to be Black, female, powerless against White patriarchal police practices and what it means to be deeply angry about that powerlessness. Art matters because it names feelings that are hard to name, and it helps those of us who create it to more fully understand and talk to the world. That, and art is a mirror to society—it’s up to us to show the world exactly what it is in the hopes of lifting the veil or creating, in its viewers, an impulse for self-examination.
Arts activism matters for many of the same reasons—for me, art is my main form of activism. I write poetry that challenges the status quo and poetry that educates. I am involved in my community, creating opportunities for people to come together or have real discussions via art. Sometimes it’s hard to reach someone by just talking to them or standing in front of them with a picket sign. Not to say that these aren’t valid forms of activism, but I find that people can swallow a poem easier than an argument. If our goal, as activists, is to reach into people’s hearts/pockets/lawmaking bodies and aggravate the parts scabbed over with prejudice, ignorance, hatred, etc, I don’t see why we can’t use something that slides down easy at first, then opens out into a fiery flower. Sometimes, people need a way in to the difficult conversations or into issues they can’t access because of their privilege, willful ignorance, lack of exposure, and sometimes, art can be that way in.
ASFA-CW: Do you find your students write about these matters a lot?
AMJ: Yes, they do. Students aren’t blind to the issues we’re facing today, and they’re constantly thinking about what the world is and what it could be. They take these considerations to the page, and I’m thrilled to see it! There was (and perhaps, still is) a misconception that poetry is only poetry—that it’s just an exploration of language, just an arrangement of metaphors and iambs and line breaks on a page. But it’s so much more than that—we can be political and poetic simultaneously. It can reach beyond the page, and the students are participating in that movement. I used to be afraid that I was teaching too much politically charged work, but I think the students respond politically if I share political work with them or not. Simply being alive in this world, in this political climate, and in this state which is so full of complicated politics is enough to turn a person’s poetry to the political, and that’s a-ok with me.
ASFA-CW: Birmingham’s historical place in matters of social justice is well-documented, and I gather that played at least some role in the PJSA choosing the city for its annual conference this year. You’re from here. You write about Birmingham a lot—and/or, to paraphrase poet John Ashbery, you seem to write not necessarily/always about Birmingham but (always?) out of it. Having said all that, what role do you think a place like Birmingham can have in guiding us toward peace and hope?
AMJ: I think Birmingham is a great place to begin or continue the conversation about peace and justice in our country. We are most famous for the events surrounding the Birmingham Campaign of the Civil Rights Movement, and although we’ve made great strides in the struggle for human rights and equality, the struggle is nowhere near over. Birmingham is often held up as an example of how racism can be eradicated completely, and while we know, by living here day to day, that racism and discrimination is still alive and well, it would be meaningful to show a larger, international audience that we’re still working toward equality. Even Birmingham, that went from bombing churches to a majority-Black government, has work to do to reach a more peaceful, accepting, and respectful environment. Hopefully this conference will be a useful piece of that work.