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Bread, roses and how St. Louis artists are illuminating timely social issues

From left, Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, Miriam Ruiz and Colin McLaughlin joined Thursday's show  for a focus on immigration, labor and identity through a creative lens.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
From left, Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, Miriam Ruiz and Colin McLaughlin joined Thursday's show for a focus on immigration, labor and identity through a creative lens.

While planning for the 20th anniversary of the Sheldon Art Galleries, director Olivia Lahs-Gonzales and her team could have looked to the past, drawing material for this fall’s exhibits from hundreds of retrospective possibilities. But they opted to celebrate the future instead.

“I thought, ‘What better way – since we serve our community – [than] to focus on our immigrant communities and celebrate them and show all of the range of contributions and the issues that surround [immigration], especially in today’s world?’” Lahs-Gonzales said Thursday on St. Louis on the Air. “I think it was really fitting to kind of look out, forward, rather than looking backward.”

She joined host Don Marsh alongside Miriam Ruiz, community programs manager for the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, and Colin McLaughlin, musical director for Bread & Roses Missouri, to discuss how the Sheldon and other artistically inclined entities and individuals are deepening St. Louisans' understanding of social issues in creative ways.

A wide-ranging handful of new exhibits at the Sheldon reflect on the immigrant experience – one featuring musical instruments from Mexican, Eastern European and Indian communities, another big-name artists from throughout the history of photography, and a third the work of local artists who are either immigrants themselves or born of immigrant parents.

Ruiz is one of the visual artists involved in that project, titled “Re/Constructing Identity.” She and CAM colleague José Guadalupe Garza collaborated on a dual-channel video piece titled “Anhelo,” or longing, for the exhibit.

“It is so rare to find Latinos actually working in the art world and in administrative capacities,” Ruiz said of working with Guadalupe Garza, “so when we found each other, as fellow Mexican-Americans we were ecstatic, and we thought ‘We’re both in this position, and we have this ability to influence our environment, and so we need to really take advantage of this.’

“And so we started thinking of ideas, concepts – really thinking about our identity as Americans, as Latinos, and how we navigate that space.”

The video itself involves more than just their work, Ruiz added.

“It isn’t just our voices, and that was very important to us, because neither of us actually are immigrants,” she explained. “And you spoke with Ness Sandoval earlier this week, on Monday, and he was talking about how the majority of Latinos in the United States [are] born in the United States … so what we wanted to do is bring in a chorus of voices, so we invited five performers from the St. Louis area, all of whom are South American immigrants, to come in and share their history, share their story with us.”

The fourth exhibit now on view at the Sheldon, “St. Louis Through the Lens of a Child: Photographs by Students of Forsyth School,” is the work of children who attend Forsyth School and recently were learning about immigrants in St. Louis.

Two of them – Oliver "Finn" Beard and Luisa Parietti – shared what they learned while exploring local neighborhoods and taking photographs depicting vibrant communities as part of Thursday’s show.

Luisa Parietti's photograph taken in the seafood aisle of a Chinese market in University City is currently on view at the Sheldon.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

McLaughlin, a community social worker, is in interested in the question of “who gets to partake in art and humanities events,” and he said he’s focused particularly on the labor struggle in his current role with Bread & Roses Missouri.

He’s helping to spearhead the organization’s upcoming “Workers’ Opera,” which will feature a cast of everyday, working St. Louisans.

“We know that working people have rich histories, and they need to be able to express themselves creatively, even if they’re working nine-to-five jobs,” McLaughlin said. “Maybe they think of art as a luxury or they have not had the opportunities to tell their stories. So we have reached out to folks in sanitation and lawn care and food service … our cast includes members of the Service Employees International Union, Communications Workers of America [and] the United Media Guild.”

Oliver "Finn" Beard was exploring the Soulard neighborhood when a strikingly colorful storm grate caught his eye.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Describing the opera set for later this month as “a series of sketches,” McLaughlin noted that the show combined historical reenactments, poetry, song, dance and movement. He also touched on Bread & Roses Missouri’s mission and the overlap between art and social movements.

“We got our name from a labor strike that took place in 1912, and it was striking textile workers, and the strike was largely led by women immigrants,” he said. “And their key phrase that has lasted was ‘give us bread, but give us roses.’ By that they meant they didn’t want to just be paid the bare minimum to secure enough food and shelter to keep surviving – they wanted bread and roses, too.

“They said, ‘We want to have dignified lives – fair wages and safe working conditions – but if we can’t express ourselves and have beauty, poetry and music, then we’re also losing that biologically necessity.’”

Ruiz emphasized that artistic efforts, and particularly visual art, can be very effective when it comes to illuminating and addressing social issues and movements.

“I think one of the things that helped, for example, Barack Obama have such a successful campaign was Shepard Fairey’s ‘Hope’ poster … and that’s just one example,” she said. “The way that I think of the arts is kind of like a Trojan horse – it’s something that is aesthetically pleasing, people for comfortable with it – but once it’s in, once you let it in, it has a message and a conversation that it wants to have with you.

“And so when, for example, José and I are creating these pieces of work, we want to have these objects that can pull you in and are arresting formally. But at the same time, once you’re sitting there and looking at the video … it’s going to start taking you on a journey you were perhaps not planning on going on.”

Related Events

What: The Workers’ Opera
When: 10 a.m. Saturday, October 20, and 1 p.m. Sunday, October 21, 2018
Where: CWA #6300 (2558 Grissom Dr.) and Laborers #110 (4532 S. Lindbergh Blvd.), respectively

What: Gallery Talk with Zlatko Ćosić, José Guadalupe Garza, Miriam Ruiz, Priya Kambli and Rachel Youn 
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, October 30, 2018
Where: Sheldon Art Galleries (3648 Washington Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63108)

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillCaitlin Lally and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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