Art as an expression of political and social issues won't likely be found in a gallery on Main Street. But that's exactly what should be hanging on the walls if an artist is involved in her or his community, according to Saad Ghosn, a pathologist, University of Cincinnati professor and self-taught artist. During the course of organizing art shows at the medical library, Ghosn came in contact with quite a few local artists. The notion of political expression in art entered their conversations during the 2001 uprising and riot.
"Many of (these artists) are more on the progressive side," he says. "Some of them were living downtown and were very critical of what was happening. I kept asking, 'How come none of this transpires in your work?' I really felt that, as an artist, if you live these problems and art is an expression of yourself, how come this important part isn't coming through?"
An obvious factor is salability for a working artist.
"More and more in our society, there is no venue for political expression in art," Ghosn says.
"There's no venue for social expression because probably our society doesn't want it. It's more threatening. Galleries would not show it, people would not buy it.
"People say, 'We don't want to worry about politics and social issues, and art is really to be looked at and beautiful.' But it misses the point of expression. I became very interested in art as an expression of socio-political issues."
'We get stronger'
Enter Save Our Souls (S.O.S.) Art, "an art show of socio-political expression for peace and justice" started by Ghosn as a three-day art exhibit at Brighton's Mockbee building in 2003. Almost 50 artists participated the first year.
Four years later the two-week event, still at The Mockbee, boasts more than 200 artists, 300 children from seven different schools, a collection of poetry and sketches in addition to poetry readings, live music performances, documentaries and discussion groups.
What's the goal of such a multifaceted event? To get people thinking and talking about issues of peace and justice, Ghosn says.
The broad theme results in a variety of interpretations by the artists and poets who responded to the open call for submissions. A few of the past issues addressed in visual form include animal rights, gambling, Native American rights, police violence, post-traumatic stress disorder, slavery, torture and abortion — both pro-choice and anti-choice.
The national debate over the U.S. war in Iraq has been a dominant theme in the most recent shows, according to Ghosn. As a U.S. citizen originally from Lebanon, he's concerned about the direction the government and country are taking.
"It's not the country I dreamed of," he says.
The purpose of S.O.S. Art isn't to persuade pro-war advocates to change their minds. Instead Ghosn wants to build support for peace and justice.
"Someone who is 100 percent pro-Bush or for the war in Iraq is not going to be dissuaded by anything," he says. "There isn't any room for dialogue by looking at this (exhibit). The real importance is to create a community of people.
"We were so isolated when I started all of this. We need to come together. We need to show our work together. We need to strengthen our voice, to sharpen it. As a group, we get stronger. That's the purpose of S.O.S. Art."
The self-titled peace activist says he's willing to use whatever means he has at his disposal to effect change, including art, poetry and dialogue. He's also building a library of the art and poetry prepared for each show to preserve a snapshot of socio-political history.
At his own expense, Ghosn publishes a collection of the art from the previous year in a bound volume as a gift to the visual artists. He also compiles a book of the original poetry and drawings in time for the opening of each S.O.S. Art.
'What art brings'
This year's poetry includes three original pieces by Jazz aficianado Oscar Treadwell. Ghosn was initially skeptical, suspecting someone else was using Treadwell's name.
"I sent a call to poets, and he sent me his poems," Ghosn says. "I contacted him, and I found out that it was him. This was in February. He submitted four poems, and we were accepting up to three. I called him right after that, said, 'We're using three of your poems,' and he was so excited."
The day Ghosn called to schedule Treadwell's reading, he learned about his death the night before. Although saddened by Treadwell's passing, Ghosn is looking forward to publishing what could be the final public works about peace and justice from a poet he admires.
Determined to remain true to the mission of S.O.S. Art, Ghosn will continue to foot most of the bill until he retires. Then he hopes to devote all of his time to creating a nonprofit organization that will support his dream of using art as a vehicle for social dialogue.
"The beauty of art and dealing with all of this is the diversity of expression, the diversity of views," he says. "Anyone who becomes sensitive to art could never ever agree with what our president says — 'With me or against me' — because you realize that, when you have 20 different people, you have 20 different nuances to a situation. It cannot be just one way or that way.
"That's what art brings. Art brings nuances, art brings tolerances, the appreciation that it's beautiful and it's your own way of being beautiful. You're bringing something to the table. I really think art has a lot of value to make people appreciate others, to create the dialogue, to appreciate diversity, to be tolerant, to bring also a spiritual connection to the value in this world."
S.O.S. ART opens April 21 and runs through May 7. For gallery, reading, discussion and event times, contact Gary Gaffney at [email protected] or Saad Ghosn at [email protected].