To those who WANT their art to be beautiful AND convey a larger meaning or message I challenge you to reflect on your art: how can you use your art as a tool for communication? "We the People" by Nari Ward does exactly this.I have piles and piles of notes that I take when I attend exhibitions, when I sit waiting in doctor’s office waiting rooms… you name it and I’ve taken notes thinking about topics we can discuss here on Artist Strong.

One exhibit that still stays with me, even though I visited it in 2019, is the “We the People” at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

The exhibition showcased over 25 years of work by the contemporary artist Nari Ward.

His work resonated with me for several reasons.

Art materials do not have to be expensive to make good art.

So many artists I speak with feel being an artist is cost prohibitive. Nari Ward consciously uses found objects, like strollers, to convey his message and meaning. In his work Amazing Grace he collected and arranged 310 abandoned strollers from the city of New York. This work is an installation piece that includes a walkway made of fire hoses. The song “Amazing Grace” sung by Mahalia Jackson plays in the background.

The idea behind the work? The strollers were first used by parents and then by the homeless. They were used to transport possessions. The collection and arrangement is a means of bringing comfort to these now neglected and discarded items.

At the time he created this work, the AIDs and crack epidemics were both going strong. This was a response to those hard times and reflect on notions of community and togetherness.

You can see images of this work here.

Another work that is a great example of using affordable materials is Ward’s artwork We the People, which is made entirely of shoelaces.

Take a look at this work here.

Not only did he create an artwork with shoelaces that he collected in Harlem from shoes strung over electricity lines. The work is beautiful, big, and brightly colored, encouraging viewers to reflect on who is meant to be reflected by the word “we.”

Artwork can be beautiful AND have a deeper meaning

The work I was most drawn in by were his round copper works. They were absolutely stunning to look at in person, similar to Breathing Concertina 6x Blue

The piece is 48 inches in diameter.

There is powerful commentary hidden under layers of pretty copper and patterns.

The layers of his copper circles are made of beautiful patinas but when you look closer, it’s not what you expect. It’s made of footprints and shackle marks. 

Upon further investigation I learned the patterns in these works are inspired by the breathing holes carved into the ground of the first African American church, which helped hide slaves escaping to freedom.

You can observe several of these works here.

Ultimately, I hope his work is an example to us that artwork can be beautiful and full of deeper meaning (and the materials you use do NOT have to break the bank).

Art can be a tool to express the feelings and experiences of groups of people, like the homeless or immigrants, in a way that doesn’t alienate, but actively engages.

For people who aren’t as interested in contemporary art, and sometimes feel alienated by installation art and other work using nontraditional media, I hope Nari Ward’s art has you consider the value of taking time and digging a little deeper. You might be surprised by what you find.

This exhibition ran August 16, 2019 – November 30, 2019 and has toured all over the US.

To those who WANT their art to be beautiful AND convey a larger meaning or message

I challenge you to reflect on your art: how can you use your art as a tool for communication?

References for today’s conversation:

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