Art Academy of Cincinnati a Venue in National Program Encouraging Political Activism

"Ohio Artists for Freedom" exhibit opens Aug. 31 and personalizes hot topics such as gun control, immigration, neighborhood development and more.

Aug 29, 2018 at 1:00 pm
click to enlarge Anissa Lewis' "Neighborhood Crime Watch" - PHOTO: Provided
PHOTO: Provided
Anissa Lewis' "Neighborhood Crime Watch"

Does the presentation of political issues affect the way you think about them? Is a call to action louder if visual art is its form of delivery? Can opposing opinions find common ground within a creative medium?

A group exhibition at the Art Academy of Cincinnati opening Aug. 31 aims to probe those questions. Titled Ohio Artists For Freedoms, it is one of over 200 installations around the U.S. comprising the For Freedoms’ 50 State Initiative, a New York-based platform for civic engagement, discourse and direct action for artists. Started by conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas and photographer Eric Gottesman, it seeks to stress that citizenship is defined by active participation in support of a democracy’s values. The name “For Freedoms” comes from Norman Rockwell’s paintings of the worldwide freedoms President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed in a 1941 speech — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. The Art Academy show runs through Sept. 21, with a panel discussion at 11 a.m. on Sept. 6.

After combing Ohio, the Cincinnati show’s curator (and Art Academy professor) Emily Hanako Momohara found eight participating artists or teams whose work represents major issues in today’s society. This display personalizes hot topics such as gun control, immigration, neighborhood development and more.

“No one makes work in a vacuum; the work is a reflection of society and society is also reflected in the artists,” Momohara says. “Being able to create that kind of engagement around ideas of politics and power is a really amazing prospect for an artist, because then you can maybe have discussions with people you don’t know who might come to the gallery and have different opinions.”

One of the largest installations will be a wall-size painted mural of Lady Liberty shedding her colonial identity, created by Jenny Ustick. Another work is from Camp Washington’s Wave Pool gallery, whose individual artists are being considered collectively as one of the eight participants. It showcases actual “gun flutes” — adaptations of artist Pedro Reyes’ recycled gun barrels — while a video from this year’s Cincinnati March for Our Lives protest shows the flutes being played at City Hall.

Wave Pool’s executive director, Calcagno Cullen, says the gun flutes are a transformation of something destructive and violent into something beautiful. She calls it a sign of hope.

About two years ago, artists Anissa Lewis and Mary Clare Reitz sought to activate empty spaces in Covington, Ky. because they believed they represented the effects of uneven distribution of resources. So they installed colorful yard signs as a form of guerilla art — they resembled standard neighborhood warning and street signs, but held positive and motivational messages. Since then, they have spread the work to galleries and the yards of supportive community members. Examples will be in this show.

One of the signs reads, “Don’t apologize for the skin that you’re in,” under bold red letters proclaiming “Private Property No Trespassing.” 

“Every time you see an open lot, you have (not just) a physical structure that’s gone but a family that’s gone,” Lewis says. “Those are actual physical little holes in the community fabric. I wanted it to be viewed as a space for potential and possibility.”

The other Ohio-artist participants are Ryan Dewey of Cleveland, Scott Hagan of Jerusalem and Darice Polo of Kent; and Cincinnatians Melvin Grier and Terence Hammonds.

This exhibit is just one way that the For Freedoms’ 50 State Initiative is calling upon its participants to exercise their voices. Elsewhere, participants are organizing concerts, circulating informative posters, using billboard messages and holding town halls, according to Emma Nuzzo, a New York-based For Freedoms team member.

“There are so many issues that divide us, but we can center around these universal freedoms that we believe we have access to and believe our neighbors should as well,” Nuzzo says. “There aren’t two sides to the aisle. We are all really standing here together, and these complex issues are going to involve more nuanced answers than partisan politics is currently allowing the space for.”

Ohio Artists For Freedoms opens Aug. 31 with a 5-8 p.m. reception at Art Academy of Cincinnati (1212 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine). It is up through Sept. 21. More info: