Wyoming art teacher Paige Gustafson found her happy place at the 2019 NEA Representative Assembly (RA) in the delegate experience area, where paintbrush in hand and dozens of cups of paints around her, she put the final daubs on a fabric panel saying “Fund Public Education.”
“I love it. I feel like, especially as an elementary art teacher, we’re often forgotten, and art is so incredibly important,” said Gustafson. “Creating images that go along with a movement, whether it’s racial or social justice [or the national #RedforEd movement], brings people together, and creates ownership in the movement.”
While attending the annual meeting, this year in Houston, Tex., hundreds of NEA members worked with artists from the Milwaukee-based Art Build Workers to create and contribute to graphic depictions of collective action. Together, they turned massive parachutes into protest banners saying, “Ready to Strike” and “Red for Ed,” or painted patches with slogans like, “Teachers—We Work for The People” and “Public Schools—The Heart of Our Community,” to take back to their classrooms and communities.
The RA-based “art build” is the latest in a line of art builds across the country, supported by NEA and organized jointly by Art Build Workers and local unions, such as the United Teachers of Los Angeles, California’s Oakland Education Association, and the Prince George’s County Education Association in Maryland. The way it works is that the professional artists associated with Art Build Workers first talk to union leaders and community members about the needs of their community, brainstorming slogans and images, and then they work with local educators, parents, students and others to create the art that amplifies their message and goals.
“I want them to feel connected to something larger,” said Paul Kjelland, a Milwaukee artist and Art Build Workers member who manned the screen printers in Houston, churning out hundreds of fabric panels that delegates could finish with their own brushed paints. “Especially when we’re working with unions prepping for strikes, we want to bring people together. We want to create a safe space where educators and community members can bridge gaps in their community, spend time together, and make something together that’s meaningful.”
Often, what’s most important is not the art itself, but the process of making it, said Milwaukee art teacher Jeannette Arellano, who provided the template for the “ready to strike” parachute, based on an image of her sister, a Houston community organizer. “Gaining community, building relationships—that’s the powerful part.”
The first art builds were done in Milwaukee, in partnership with Voces de la Frontera, a local advocacy group. Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) members assisted with the process, and were inspired to do the same for state budget hearings, said Joe Brusky, a MTEA member who travels with Art Build Workers to document their work in photographs. In 2017, at the Wisconsin State Capitol, they built 600 picket signs and two parachute banners to carry through the streets.
Last year, art builds supported #RedforEd strikes in Oakland, California, and in Los Angeles, where hundreds of community members, over three days, created eight 24-foot parachute banners, 1,600 silk-screened picket signs, 1,000 posters, and 30 banners that decried school privatization and corporate greed, and championed smaller class sizes.
At the RA, Ohio kindergarten teacher Ashley Whyte selected a “Fund Our Schools” panel to paint. “I am crafty, but I am not an artist,” she said. “But I was attracted to this because it gives me some time to sit and relax and create art for my classroom.”