Artist Jordan Weber Inspired By Close The Workhouse Campaign In Racial Justice Project
The new artist-in-residence at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation and Washington University will focus on environmentalism and racial justice.
Des Moines-based visual artist Jordan Weber creates art that uses sculptures, green spaces and installations. Weber’s work in St. Louis will focus on the Close the Workhouse campaign.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Chad Davis spoke with Weber to discuss his St. Louis residency, his career beginnings and how he transitioned his work from pop art and surrealism years ago to art he hopes will spark social change.
Chad Davis: What made you want to shift to political art that incorporates social commentary?
Jordan Weber: I was doing very environmentally focused work when I was doing larger paintings, but the turning point was Ferguson. It was Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. It was going down to Ferguson, not the first weekend of the protest, but the second weekend of the protests. Seeing people at their wit's end at that first Friday and then going into Saturday in Ferguson completely flipped every particle in my body into really knowing that I had to produce works that weren't just 2D, that these words couldn't just speak on blackness and black suffering and environmental degradation. I had to actually do something
Davis: How does the Close the Workhouse campaign reflect environmental racism? How do they connect in your opinion?
Weber: One of the main things that Close the Workhouse has as a demand or as a complaint is lack of nutritional food. Another thing is just the sheer amount of mold and air quality within the workhouse. I think that when you go back to violence on the land and violence in the body, there's that very distinct connection with the things that are happening in the complaints at Close the Workhouse and things that are actually consistently happening in our communities are black, brown and Indigenous communities that we might not as a whole, be completely aware of.
Davis: Do you have an idea of what a project would look like?
Weber: Man, I'm obsessed with Spring Church. I have family members in St. Louis, and I've been looking at that church for a good 10 years. Like man, I've got to do something in this space. The second I saw that the Pulitzer acquired it, [I asked] is there any possibility that I can do a project in collaboration with Close the Workhouse that would deal with healing and also connect individuals that were formerly incarcerated at the workhouse to some sort of programming, with either farming or urban gardening?
We're really looking at that Spring Church as an activation in a way to build some sort of structure for spiritual healing, and giving tools for spiritual connection or just decompression and dealing with trauma in general and connecting that to some sort of work or some sort of connection to land. We know that green space really helps the psyche deal with trauma and with stress, and we know that we have a lack of that in our Black, brown and Indigenous communities. So that's going to be the main focus of the project to build something. I have all these grand ideas I don't even know. We don't know what's possible. But we're really hoping that whatever we build inside that church, we can deconstruct and then reconstruct on a site like THA MUTHASHIP or inner city farm.
Davis: What was it that kind of sparked your focus on environmental racism within your work? How do you describe environmental racism?
Weber: There's no difference to me between violence on land and violence on the body, because when you dump toxins into the land, the majority of the time that land is going to be occupied by Black and brown folks. And it's going to deter certain health mechanisms of the Black and brown body.
So there's all these connections between violence on land and how that affects the Black, brown and Indigenous body. I think that directly relates to overpolicing in the same neighborhoods that are being overpolluted. I've always been an environmentalist being from Iowa. My mom, my white side of family, her sister owned land south of Des Moines, and our way of getting out of the north side as kids was to go to this farmland. My uncle had the foresight to know that we were in these concrete mechanisms where there's no green space and he would take us to the woods and just dropped knowledge on us all day about the different species of trees, and just spending time in green space. That always was something that I held onto throughout my entire life, just knowing the importance of green space. So it was only a matter of time, like I said, with meeting [artist] Ron Finley, to combine those two things in a way that would interest people to want to approach art in a completely different way than they normally would. And also approach the natural environment in a way that they normally wouldn't approach it
Davis: What got you interested in pursuing art as a professional career?
Weber: It was nothing serious. Growing up, it was always just being taught the basics of painting, charcoal drawing, colored pencils and all that. But it really kind of took off when I got injured in college. I was a collegiate basketball player.
I didn't really have a fallback plan. I dropped out of college after my injury and fell back on art naturally as some sort of coping mechanism. My mom was like, you need to get a job or pay rent. When she told me I had to get a job, you know, I immediately hit my uncle up and started working construction. And I'd work construction during the day and paint at night.
Davis: What were those first artworks that you produced and what did they look like?
Weber: They're still around, man. It's like a lot of very pop, Black culture pop work mixed with surrealism, oil paintings, and then the oil paintings kind of started blending into a lot of street art. So a lot of spray paint, oil paint, acrylics on these large canvases.
Davis: How do you see the arts inspiring social change and social justice with the work that you do, and the work of so many other art activists?
Weber: I really think that having the backing of the community and having the backing of institutions like the Pulitzer and in having the backing of other arts organizations that can push in funding, and sustainable funding into a space. I really think that art can push them to these social, societal [movements of acting to counter] great oppression in a way that would hopefully impact them.
Follow Chad on Twitter: @iamcdavis