Feminism. Beauty. Queer. Art. Patriotism. Democracy: A Conversation with Local Artists John Gutoskey and Jen Talley

The election of President Trump has had an unexpected outcome: vigorous art production. Expressive signs, creative slogans, snappy comebacks, elegant visuals, perceptive one liners, parodies, comedies, dramas across all art forms, expressing particular values, have emerged, especially among social groups the President mocks, degrades, and denies. In response, artists celebrate their existence, dreams, loves, goals, aspirations, and an expansive idea of “freedom and justice for all.”

Living abroad gave me insight to our particular democracy. America has always been about expansion of freedom, acceptance and compassion, a dream to strive for, not a sinecure to settle into. Modern citizens expand that dream beyond anything our nation’s founders imagined possible. Lady Liberty extends her arms of love to all who arrive here, and patriotism reveals itself in more ways than military service. Art taps into all these dreams, longings, difficulties, and frictions, and artists birth forms expressing these desires. Art can, as one interviewee said, save democracy.

The title quote is from e.e. cummings, an artist whose writing, at the time, sent the literary world into a spin. Nowadays, social media allows images to have the largest impact. Inspired by this, I spoke with two visual artists about the role of the artist in a democracy in times of political conflict. I chose artists that I knew, though their work is very different. I like both highbrow and commercial forms of art, because sometimes I desire thoughtful reflection of the world and other times I want to make a statement and wear my worldview. 

When I met John Gutoskey, he was working as a massage therapist after a career in costume design. A bold outspoken presence, John then moved on to art, finishing a degree at the University of Michigan and winning the 2018 ArtPrize Juried 2D award for “PULSE Nightclub: 49 Elegies.” John lives on the Westside of Ann Arbor with his husband, Peter Sparling, and their home is an art piece in itself. I love the complexity of John’s works; the layers, textures, and variety of materials invite a lingering gaze to unpack the full meaning. Asked to summarize it, he said, “I’m an artist, a designer, a collector. I do assemblage work with found objects. I’m also a printmaker. Mostly I do mixed media. The PULSE Nightclub are all one of a kind mono-print mixed media. Meaning it’s woodblock, collage, linocuts, digital and photo lithographs, whatever medium I need to say what I’m saying.”

Initially I met Jen Talley through her work; her “May the Fierce Be With You” card was a perfect birthday message for my niece. More cards, a couple of t-shirts, and stickers followed. Jen’s images are clean lines, mostly pop culture characters with feminist messages — how can I not buy a “Here Comes the General” sticker with General Leia Organa on it? In person, Jen is soft spoken, as you would expect of a librarian at the University of Michigan. She summarized her art like this: “I make art for people who like stuff. It’s really simple, bright, cartoony, colorful — [with a] short and sweet kind of message. It can go on magnets and shirts and buttons. It’s an entirely commercial venture.” Her work often highlights diverse historical figures and makes them accessible. She is the owner of an eponymous store on Etsy, sells her designs through TeePublic and Redbubble, and lives with her family in Ann Arbor. 

We got together in November of 2018, immediately after the midterm elections, at the Westgate branch of the Ann Arbor Library.

Kirsten Mowrey: Does anyone ever ask you about the political nature of your art?

Jen Talley

Jen Talley

Jen Talley: Yes. I do a lot of comic-cons, craft shows, art shows, especially this time of year. I do a lot of riffs on superheroes or women identified. Because my girls, when they were growing up — they are teenagers now — they wanted superhero stuff and it was hard to find, even ten years ago. I started drawing for them, making little things for them, and it branched out from there. I didn’t start out trying to be political, but even doing that much, some people saw it as political, when you were looking at superheroes for girls. 

I usually get a pretty positive reception. Sometimes I get people who roll their eyes and keep walking — that’s fine, they aren’t my target market. For the most part, people are pretty receptive: “This is great, I’ve been looking for this kind of thing, I can’t find stuff like this.” One of my best-selling things is a bunch of different girl characters that says, “She needed a hero, so that’s what she became.” I’ve had people say, “Why don’t you make this stuff for boys?” Well, boys have this kind of stuff. It’s interesting that even without an overtly political message, people see it as political. I’m just trying to be empowering for women identified people and non-binary people and people see it as being overtly political instead of just being inclusive.

John Gutoskey: That’s how you know it’s political: because you are talking about gender and the empowerment of girls and women and it pisses people off.

Kirsten Mowrey: John, you did “49 Elegies” about the Orlando nightclub shooting (this piece won ArtPrize Juried 2D in 2018). Did that get taken as a political piece?

John Gutoskey

John Gutoskey

John Gutoskey: To me the core of that piece is about gun violence, but it’s not spoken about because it’s a memorial piece. To me it’s the elephant in the room about that: I am making elegies to 49 people because they were gunned down in a nightclub. I didn’t think of that work when I made it as political. I understand how it can be interpreted that way and now I do see it as political, but making it, I wasn’t approaching it politically. I was coming at it from the queer angle: this was an event that happened in a sacred space, akin to it happening in a mosque or a temple or a church. That’s what nightclubs are for most gay people, especially people my age and older, pre Internet — that was where you met people. That was where politically we organized and got together and start(ed) fighting for our rights and came out of the closet. And it really hit me hard when it happened. 

I made it because I didn’t know how to talk about it and I realized it resonated with the amount of death I experienced during the AIDS crisis. It was such a huge amount of gay people, killed so quickly. Initially I was furious, so I sat with that: Why was I so mad about this? And I started to think about the AIDS crisis. All those people are forgotten, and most likely these people are going to be forgotten. I’m in a place where I can make them not be forgotten and this could help me work through what I was feeling. What I wanted to say, I thought I could say it better visually, and I thought it would be an interesting thing to try to attempt to do. 

An elegy form is more for a group as opposed to a eulogy, which is often just a person. It’s an old Greek poetry form and the first section is you grieve, you grieve what was lost. The second section, you praise and admire, lift up what was lost. And then the last section is about consoling the people who were left behind. Which is what the whole idea is in the end, because it’s the living who will see the piece. In the end, it is a political piece. It can’t not be.

Kirsten Mowrey: You speak of consoling. Did you reach out to any families or have they heard about it?

John Gutoskey: I think they are starting to hear about it. I tried to get it in Orlando for the first anniversary. Nobody even wanted to talk about it. I think there was this fear that they were going to be known as this town where this massacre of gay people happened. In the second year I was able to find a place in Ypsi to show it and I think it was enough time from that event where people were starting to look at it. 

I was contacted after the Ypsi show by someone at the historical society in the county that Orlando is in and they have a visual archive of Pulse and they wanted to have it in the archive in some manner. I responded to them, but I haven’t heard back. It’s actually going to go on tour, a company is going to take it up and promote it to museums. It’s going to have a life, which for me is the best-case scenario for that piece. I don’t want to sell a piece, because then it’s 48 elegies, so the best thing to do is keep it together. I would like it to be seen. My hope is that it will get down to Orlando, at some point. (In February, John announced on Facebook that 49 Elegies will be in Orlando on exhibit June 1 through September 22, 2019.)

The biggest question at ArtPrize is: Did you know these people and is there a piece for each one? When I initially thought about it, I thought I would do one for each of them, and within a day I was “this will never work.” So, I did it in a different way, more poetically, more visual narrative.


Kirsten Mowrey: Your work is very different. [To Jen] Yours are clean lines.

Jen Talley: Mine are trying to be commercial. I’m trying to sell stuff.

John: We’re doing different things, coming at it from different angles. My art fair work was a lot different from what I’m making now. Because I was trying to make stuff that would sell and that was part of the equation.

Kirsten: Your pieces take me a while to unpack.

John: On purpose. I’m definitely a more is more in my fine art. I like layers, a lot of you can’t figure it out, a lot of clues. 

Jen: If you buy it, I will draw it. I feel like so much of our communication these days is through memes. It’s a visual culture, and so many of those are negative. We are just bombarded with negative messages. If you look at any discussion forum for any length of time, you feel like you need a shower. People boil those down to the talking points, the memes and just the stupidest s--t, frankly. I’ve got to put something out there to counter that, in whatever small way. Looking forward I feel that’s the only thing I am equipped to do right now, so that’s what I’m doing. That “she needed a hero” image went moderately viral — it didn’t get a million bazillion hits, but for me, it was 15 or 20 thousand times it was shared. That speaks to people looking for something positive, for these empowering messages, hopeful messages. 

That’s one of the things I love about doing comic-cons. It’s just people who really love whatever their thing is. People make fun of that niche group, but those people are the most welcoming, most accepting, most generous groups of people. You get women doing cosplay as male characters, men doing women characters, you get cross racial stuff, all sorts of positive wonderful things. People doing all kinds of art, so enthusiastic. People come up to my table and squeal and that’s so affirming: OK, I’m doing the right thing. I’m making people happy just looking at it.

jenn 2.jpg

John: They are seeing themselves reflected, that’s the other thing.

Jen: That’s the most important thing of what I’m doing. Giving people that message, that little bit of joy and hope. There are good things in the world, it’s not all just a trash fire. You need that so much right now. 

John: I think that’s the thing that was so gratifying about ArtPrize, was to be able to stand there and see people respond to the work in the way that I hoped they would. That it was meant to be uplifting. It wasn’t meant to be morbid, it was meant to make people think and be reflective and give people hope. It was gratifying have those conversations with people, see them weep at the work, want to talk about the work and being moved by it. Also giving them all a sense of hope. Everybody wanted to talk about guns. That was the other interesting thing, even though it’s not there. In the time my piece was up, in a month, there were 25 mass shootings. In that four weeks. People are looking for hope because the world looks really dark in a lot of places right now.

Kirsten: This interview is prompted by a Toni Morrison essay talking about her feelings in 2004 after George Bush’s election. She talked with a friend about her despair and inability to write; they tell her that those conditions are precisely when artists are needed. (You can read the full essay online: “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear.”)

John: I read a quote after Trump was elected where an artist said if you have no ideas about what kind of work you should be making right now, you have no f-----g business being an artist right now. There’s a lot of rich stuff to talk about. It’s the upside about it, I think comedians feel the same way.

Jen: I have a Facebook page. Every time somebody says something stupid, someone tags me and says, “When am I going to have a t-shirt that says this?” and I’m like, “Give me five minutes!” They just keep coming up with more material for us. 

John: Right, it’s like they are writing it for you!

Jen: I did a “nevertheless she persisted” shirt.

John: I did those too.

Jen: At a show last year, because I have a Hillary Clinton magnet with a quote on it, [a man asked] if I had any Trump stuff. I said no. He got angry with me and said, “Well, you can’t just have one or the other, you’ve got to have both.” I said, “No, I can, this is my business. I can do whatever I want [John chuckling]. This isn’t like airtime, I don’t have to represent both sides here. I’m sure you can find plenty of Trump stuff somewhere else, go find that.”

John: What happened to me after the election was I was devastated. I couldn’t make what I was usually making, so finally I ended up doing posters. I made some to send to the women’s march, some to use locally. I started selling them and donating the proceeds to ACLU, Planned Parenthood, RAICES, Southern Poverty Law Center. It was a way to get in my studio and make and also feel like I was doing something. Those were all overtly political and that was intentional. I got a couple of friends to come and help who were artists: “C’mon, we can make posters. I have a press. Let’s make stuff.” But I had been making stuff about gay issues for a decade or more. 

I used to do the fair circuit and I would meet a lot of queer artists, but nobody was making anything about us. I thought, OK, I can understand why, probably be hard to sell at the art fairs, but I’m making that stuff, I should just bring some of it. Two things happened: I started to get into every show I applied for because they want diversity. Here I was putting this openly queer work in front of them, about gay marriage and “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I was making work and it would get me into shows because nobody was doing it. And it sold. It wasn’t my top seller, but it sold. And it didn’t always sell to gay people, which was interesting to me, but it also pissed people off.

Kirsten: Did you get same confrontation that Jen did?

John: Rarely did I put it at the front of my booth. Usually I put pieces at the front of my booth that would get people to come in, like my mandalas. Stuff that would get people to talk to me. They would be so friendly and talking about my work and ‘la la la’ and then they’d go in my booth and see all my gay work. Turn around and f-----g just walk out. Not even look at me. Rarely did people get mad at me, occasionally they’d go ‘hunh hunh hunh’ but nobody every confronted me, most just walked away. They weren’t in your face kind of stuff, but it still upset people. I started to do that when Bush was president.

Jen: I think people are more likely to be confrontational now. Ten years ago they might roll their eyes and walk away. They are more empowered now to say something nasty and to feel like they have a right. 

John: Like that guy telling you you should represent everyone, right, because his beliefs are different than yours. Which misses the whole point of free speech, but how do you educate the stupid? I feel like so much of my work now is political because I’m addressing queerness. Just by doing that it’s political. I’m doing that because it’s interesting to me.


Kirsten: Has queerness changed with the election of a gay governor or gay marriage?

John: I was at a party last week and an enormous amount of my friends are raising transgender kids, many of them teenagers. A phenomenal amount, it blows my mind in a way. It’s not just kids who are gay; they are trans, they are gender fluid, they don’t identify in either way. Think about it, that’s a gigantic leap forward. I really believe that’s why the Right is so furious, it’s really about the trans issue, because it pushes all their buttons.

Kirsten: I see you nod [to Jen].

Jen: My 15-year-old is nonbinary, came out last year as nonbinary. Ann Arbor is a hugely supportive environment. I’m so grateful we’re someplace where they [Jen’s nonbinary child uses they/them pronouns] are accepted. Since they’ve come out they are happier and more content than I’ve ever seen and still it’s not easy. My entire family is accepting. My parents, who are traditionally conservative, are “we want them to be happy.” But I see my child worrying about things like: Are trans people going to be considered people? Which is not something that a fifteen-year-old should be worried about.

John: I worried about that as a queer kid, coming out in the ‘70s and ‘80s, coming out to myself. That’s what you worry about. I know that’s what my parents were worried about. I think it was less that I was gay than how hard my life was going to be.

Jen: For my kids, I want them to be happy, I want them to be who they are. I also don’t want them to be persecuted, obviously, because they are my children.

John: It’s because of [active shooter training] and the trans stuff that I can’t not be political right now. I’m making pieces right now with American flags. I never thought I would do that. I’m not big on that as a symbol, I’m not a ‘rah rah’ patriot type of person. Because I’m gay, I’m always skeptical of the government and I don’t trust them. I’m not paranoid and conspiracy, but they have to be watched because they do not have our best interests at heart most of the time. I feel like there’s too much to speak about right now.

Jen: I feel like everything is political — your life is political! When Dana Nessel brought up her wife on stage and kissed her, I saw comments that said, “Well, why do you have to shove it in my face? I don’t care what you do in your bedroom.”

John: Well, every time you talk about your children you are shoving your heterosexuality in front of my face, and every time you talk about your wife, you’re doing the same thing.

Jen: But they don’t think of that as political, it’s just “the norm.” I was raised really sheltered. I grew up in a fundamentalist church out in the country. I grew up in Michigan, but my parents are from Alabama and Tennessee, super conservative, super religious. Until I went to college I didn’t know any of this. There were no kids who were out in my high school. There were a couple who came out after high school and it was huge gossip: Did you hear?... There wasn’t a lot of diversity. 

It wasn’t until I came to U-M for college and it was “look at all these people from everywhere” and it’s amazing. I can see how some people have the opposite reaction, they want to go back into a huddle where they understand everything. That’s why I can’t ignore that stuff. I can’t just make cute art and not have it reflect my life, my kids’ lives, and lives of the people who want to wear it and hang it on their wall.

John: Even where I grew up [in Cleveland] it was barely talked about. The kind of work I need to make as a gay person — it’s not going to get made otherwise. The reason I was so out early, I just feel like it was important to be out, to normalize it in a way, to start being the gay person in the room, to make people realize we are everywhere.

Kirsten: You doing that makes it possible for [turns to Jen] your child to come out as nonbinary.

John: We are on each other’s shoulders. I was at this party and this friend was saying about how worried she is about her child who had come out as trans and I was [saying], “Oh, I totally understand how you feel that way, but listen, how far we have come! We have come so far in my lifetime. I’m gay married! I never even thought that would be a possibility when I was a young man.” 

That trans kids can out themselves and be OK in the world, that’s a miracle to me. I think that’s also why we are experiencing the backlash. We’ve experienced it before, whenever there’s great progressive social movement, there’s a huge backlash. It’s always what happens.

These trans kids saying, “I’m not going to live in your binary, I’m not going to live your heteronormative lifestyle because that’s not who I am,” it scares the f-----g crap out of them (Conservatives, Trump supporters). It just does, because then they have to start looking at male and female and how they approach it. And they don’t want to look at it, they want to stay in it. It shows the lie of heteronormativity. It shows how gender is not natural, not essential, you are not born gendered, it’s learned. It’s so entrenched in our culture. But that we are seeing this, that’s hopeful to me. I know a lot of people are worried about the world, but really, we’re not going backwards. It may be a tough fight, but it’s always been. It’s never been easy to get our rights.

But it’s changing, we’re changing. It’s better, it’s definitely better. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. As we were leaving the party, her husband came up to me and said thank you for saying that to her, because she’s been so worried. She forgets how much progress has been made in sexuality and the acceptance of people outside of that heteronormative. [To Jen] I hope you feel that.

Kirsten: I was reading about e.e. cummings. He wrote: “Each epoch creates its own special pulse beat for the artist to interpret.” Is trans one of those pieces for artists to interpret?

Jen: A huge part of the conversation right now is representation: How far do we go, where is the line between representation, [what’s] representative, and taking that representation away from artists who represent that piece? 

I’ve confronted that in myself. I’ve done a little sketch of Maxine Waters (the most senior African American woman currently serving in Congress), that said “reclaiming her time” and even [with] that I had to interrogate myself: OK, is this something that’s OK for me to make? I said, OK, yes, I can do this. 

Then somebody asked me to make something about how white women have voted versus black women and how white women, we need to come collect ourselves. Somebody asked me to do something [like] “vote like a black woman.” I can’t do that. That’s something a black person needs to make and profit from. It’s nebulous and hard to explain sometimes and you just have to know where that line is. I make little cartoon characters and I try to represent people of every nationality, race, gender, and presentation and I’m presenting them as who they were or are. I’m not trying to make art that speaks for them.

John: You should be sensitive, you should be conscious. I think that’s a good thing. You have to parse that when you are making work: Is this stuff I can talk to? Can I speak to this in a way that isn’t going to offend people? Is it my culture to speak about? I can’t go make art about trans people; I’m not trans, it’s not my life experience. It’s why that work needs to be made. 

There was just a show in New York at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, LGBTQ art by trans people. Even doing the PULSE Nightclub, I’m not Latino, it was Latin night that night. I tried to incorporate that into the work, to be sensitive to a culture that’s not mine. Though I was raised Roman Catholic and there’s a lot of crossover in terms of the symbolism, but I didn’t go into it lightly. It took me a few weeks to decide how I was going to do it. 

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Jen: Since I’ve started wholesaling, I’ve had people buy my posters and things for stores in Detroit, Wayne County, and Lansing that are more oriented toward people of color, because they are represented. I feel great about that, that women of color have looked at my art and said, “That’s fantastic.” 

Somebody at a show I was at, a black woman, got really happy because I had Yaa Asantewaa, an African queen who battled off colonialists for years. She said, “I can’t believe you know who that is!” She bought the poster and said, “I’m going to hang it in my classroom!” That made me feel great, because that’s what I’m going for. And some white kid is going to look at that poster and find out who Yaa is and look her up and say, “Wow, I didn’t know African women did this in the 1800’s when women in the United States couldn’t vote or own property.” They will find there are other ways of looking at things, other ways of thinking about things. I try to make that accessible. 

That’s a way of using my privilege. I’m a middle aged, middle income white woman who can be approachable to people who might be scared of talking to the black artist or the gay artist or whatever and I can say: Here’s some stuff for you to look at and think about that may take you down those paths.

John: I think I spoke to that when I spoke about being out. It’s that same thing; it’s using my privilege as a white man, because I can go to places and out myself. It’s not always comfortable. It’s certainly not a problem anymore, but two decades ago it was a very different experience. 

The license people feel they have now to be violent verbally, to express their rage and intolerance publicly, that’s what’s scary. That’s what’s different. People don’t feel they have to be polite, decent, or civil anymore, and that’s the part that makes me nervous. There’s too much hair trigger, too many guns, and we’re seeing what the effect of that is.

Kirsten: Do you feel it’s scary to be an artist making these kinds of statements, with that?

John: I do — a lot of my Trump stuff, I put ART, Artists Resisting Trump, and not my name. Even though I’m posting it, I’ve not wanted to identify my name with it, because of that.

Jen: A little bit. When the Kavanaugh hearings were going on, a friend who lives in Salt Lake City was doing a protest at a public park, protesting every day. I was inspired by her, but my life doesn’t allow me to go stand on the same corner every day for an hour. So I got oil paint markers and wrote on the back of my car: Believe women. Believe survivors. The first couple times I drove around, even in Ann Arbor, I felt nervous. 

This statement should not be controversial, but I felt like “Is someone going to ram my bumper?” If that makes me nervous, to drive around here, it’s the least I can do to support the people who are really putting themselves out there.

Kirsten: Are you interested in doing street work?

John: The stuff I’m doing is with flags, so it’s more sculptural or installation stuff. Which is unusual for me. It’s not the kind of work I would normally make. I keep having ideas, and that flag imagery is so ripe right now with the football kneeling and the Nazis. It’s fairly confrontational stuff, actually. Maybe it will be beautiful, we’ll see when it’s done. Depends on how you feel about the flag.

Kirsten: What do you want to do when it’s completed? Do you want to show it?

John: No point in making it if it can’t be seen publicly, so then it becomes who will show it? There’s this place, a political contemporary political art gallery that opened in D.C. that I follow on Facebook, so I’m looking to see when they have their next call for work.

Kirsten: Is it difficult to find a place that will take political art work? 

John: Most people don’t want to buy that. It depends on where you go. We’re in a moment now where there’s a lot of interest in that kind of work. It may make it a little easier. You just have to keep your ears and eyes open, see what’s happening.

Kirsten: Jen, is your work a particular theme right now?

Jen: Same place been for the last year or so, just get as much feminist killjoy stuff out there as I can. To make feminist, anti-sexist, anti-racist messages as accessible as possible. It’s designed to be out there, on people’s laptops, cars, t-shirts, their kids. That’s my whole point, to get those messages out there in a way that’s not as threatening for most people and to give people a chance to look at that stuff and talk about it in a way that’s easier for them.

John: The other thing is reality is created through language. That’s how we create reality and whoever controls the discourse holds the power to create the reality. So by doing what she’s doing, and doing what I’m doing, and what any artist is doing, is putting out a different discourse. A way to challenge the patriarcal kind of discourse we’re seeing, its last gasps of it, we need to now have a language that creates this new reality.

Jen: There was a picture that went viral, a man voting in Mississippi in a shirt that had a Confederate flag on it and a noose and said “Mississippi Justice.” Somebody put this on Facebook, it went viral and the guy got fired from his job and all the things that happen now. I thought about that and how there’s somebody who draws those images and makes those t-shirts and makes money off of them. This is why I’m doing what I’m doing, because someone needs to balance out those people. Intersectionality is important. We need to get those messages out there and be as comfortable wearing them and putting them on our bodies and our cars as they are with their Confederate flags. They used to say ignore the bullies, and sometimes you’ll still hear it: Just ignore them. It never works. They never go away. You can’t ignore them.

John: No, it never does. They are empowered when you ignore them. You give them permission.

Jen: We have to overtly put something up against it…

John: Save democracy! Seriously, that’s how I feel! I really believe that!

Kirsten: What are your hopes for your political art? 

John: I want to speak about something that has meaning for me. I have to go where I am taken by my imagination, I need a hook of some kind. Emotional hook or mental hook, something that makes me want to say something about it. Some things just pop into my head, because I’ve been reading about something. I’m not good at making one-offs. I’m not good at doing shows where I make a work about tomatoes. I’m not good at working that way. I typically work in a series. I need to have enough investment where I can stay with it for a long time. I also feel when I work in a series my work is better, because that length of time allows me to get deeper and deeper into it. Which was part of the reason I liked the challenge of 49 Elegies. It wasn’t like “this is a lot” — it was “will I be able to finish it?”

Kirsten: Jen, do you do series like that?

Jen: I do things like my alphabet poster. I worked on that for a year, collecting the names, figuring out who would be represented. I do more themes; I did superheroes for a while and I’ve focused lately on real people. My goal looking ahead is wanting to inspire people by saying: “Here are these people, who were normal people, they weren’t born any more special than you are, and they did stuff, made an impact and changed the world. And you can do that, too.” You don’t have to be Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama, or whoever; you can do a little quiet thing, just keep doing your little quiet thing and still [make a difference]. I started doing this kind of work after I had kids and thinking about what kind of world are we making for them. It wasn’t so depressing right when I was having kids because Obama was president. Two years ago, I thought, What kind of world are we making for our kids? 

John: That’s what makes Trump so hard, coming out of that.

Jen: Looking at my kids, my kids are having a really hard time. Being 12 and 15, they’ve only ever really known hope and change, and Obama as president. Now they are like, “What the bleep is going on? What the heck is going on?”

Kirsten: Is it affecting your art?

Jen: It is. I’m trying to stay positive for them. Two years ago, after the election, waking up my then ten-year-old daughter and telling her that Hillary Clinton was not president was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. She was so invested: she had the bobble head figure, stickers — she was, “A girl is going to be president!” I know a lot of little girls who felt that way. You see those pictures of little girls meeting her and looking up to her [makes an awestruck face]; makes me cry just thinking about it. 

[My daughter] went to bed well before any of that nonsense happened. I was up half the night, unable to sleep and then I had to wake her up. I said, “Got some bad news.” She was just so angry, just so angry. “That’s not fair!” “No, it’s not. What are we going to do about it?” We have to channel that anger, channel this ten year old’s anger.

That’s what has really inspired me to do these: kids like them, parents like them, grandparents like them. It makes my message more palatable, more accessible to people who might not necessarily think about feminism or racism or intersectionality in those ways. But they might go “Oh, cool alphabet poster for my granddaughter’s room,” not realizing that one of them is a trans woman, one is a 19th century Swedish woman who joined the Swedish army and married a woman and went to trial for it and was clearly a trans man, but they didn’t have a vocabulary for them. Not realize some of the subversive messages that are in this comic sketch of these people. I feel like that’s what I can put out there. Like Mae Jemison (African American astronaut). My now 15-year-old did a poster on Mae Jemison when they were in second grade. I was like, “Why don’t we know about her? She did all this cool stuff!” 

John: Because white men write the history books.

Jen: There’s so many ways of usurping the patriarchy, of getting under the skin of the white supremacist, of making your point without it having to be a huge statement. You can still get your thing out there. That’s what I’m doing in my little way.

Kirsten: Any final things to say about art in these times?

John: We need it more than ever. Art helps create social change, art can express things memorably in ways that words can’t. We are a visual culture now. In some ways it’s the easiest way to communicate, but it’s how do you break through? That’s the downside, we are so inundated with visual images. But I think people are more savvy, more visually educated than they are verbally now, more comfortable with visuals than language.

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John Gutoskey’s recent work can be seen on his Facebook page or his website:
www.johngutoskeystudio.com. Jen Talley’s work can be seen on www.jentalley.com