At the Brunswick, We the People sends a message for the ages—and for the age of Trump 

We the People, a new exhibit at the Brunswick Building, originated with a group of disgruntled artists in the months after Donald Trump was elected president. Even so, the seeds of the show can be traced back almost 60 years ago to when artist and Brunswick owner Leslie Van Stavern Millar was just 8 years old and living with her parents in Iran. She recalls visiting a palace in Isfahan built in the late 1500s by the Persian ruler Shah Abbas, known as a patron of the arts. The walls were covered in murals, including one depicting several men on horseback. Millar noticed there was something off about it.

“There’s [Shah Abbas] on horseback, but instead of his head, there’s a hole punched in the wall,” she says. “And it turned out that his successor had removed his head to erase him. That made a really strong impression on me as a kid—as somebody who did art and liked art—to realize that politics could come in and negate it.”

This is one of the stories that reminds Millar of the power of art. We the People is a group show conceived by Millar and artist Jenny Parker and featuring several established Missoula artists—Millar, Bev and Steve Glueckert, Dana Boussard, Stephanie Frostad, Kristi Hager, Kathy Herlihy-Paoli, Beth Lo and Martha Powers Swanson—all working in their respective mediums to address the new administration.

click to enlarge Kathy Herlihy-Paoli's "Eanie, Meanie, Miney" is one of several works in We the People, a group exhibit at the Brunswick Building about politics.
  • Kathy Herlihy-Paoli's "Eanie, Meanie, Miney" is one of several works in We the People, a group exhibit at the Brunswick Building about politics.
On a recent Friday afternoon, I visited Kristi Hager’s home as she prepared pieces for the show. Her living room, where you might expect a couch and flat screen television, is instead set up as a staging gallery. Three small paintings hang on the wall. Two depict Trump as a genie coming out of a lamp while missiles float above him. The third shows Trump conjuring Vladimir Putin.

“When Trump ordered the airstrike in Syria, that’s when I first thought of Aladdin, which is a cautionary tale,” Hager says. “The genie comes out of the lamp to grant you wishes, but you have to be careful what you wish for.”

Like Millar, Hager has been thinking for a long time about the intersection of politics and art. She started collecting camouflage handkerchiefs after 9/11, when she noticed army surplus stores carrying camouflage fashions.

“Fashion for kids,” she says. “For babies. And in these ridiculous colors. Personally, I found it offensive. But it’s part of popular culture. I thought, ‘What does this mean?’”

To drive home the fetishization of war, she made American flags out of the handkerchiefs and, in the middle of her living room, set up a table topped with camo handkerchiefs folded like fine dining napkins at a tea party. In another part of the room she laid out several “Duck Dynasty” puzzles, one featuring the show’s women dressed in pink camo. She was still trying to figure out what to do with them when I left.

“I had the realization that we’re living in continuous undeclared war,” she says. “It doesn’t really affect my day-to-day life very much, so I started doing this work to remind myself of what’s happening.”

Dana Boussard, another artist featured in We the People, has created new mixed-media work for the show. She is also revisiting photographs of herself and her daughter that she exhibited several years ago, which she says speak to Trump’s misogyny. And, as a show of resistance, Boussard designed a stamp that reads, “Hey, Donald! Show us your taxes.” People can bring dollar bills to the show and Boussard will stamp them, sending the message out into the world as the bills go back into circulation.

“I think that’s a huge key to finding out about what’s happening with Russia,” Boussard says.

For her part in the exhibit, Millar has updated an old project that also aims to send a message. Her gouache paintings, which she calls “The Ideal Girl Series,” are meant to address the blatant misogyny she’s seeing in the Republican Party, and to remind people to vote, protect the earth and encourage women and girls of all ethnicities to unite. She’s turning those paintings into postcards so they can circulate by U.S. mail. We the People has been a long time coming for her: A few years after the experience at the Persian palace when she was 8, she remembers listening to an episode of “The Lone Ranger” on the only English-speaking radio station in Tehran, when the signal was jammed by the Russian government.

“My comprehension was limited, but I knew that something I was enjoying, this pop culture, was removed from my grasp by a political event,” she says. Since then, she’s kept a close eye on how politics engage art and vice versa. The exhibit is a reminder, she says, that art is always at risk—even in the free world—and that it can also be a tool of change.

“This exhibit is about that freedom of expression,” Millar says, “and it comes from knowing firsthand what can happen when that’s not valued.”

We the People opens with a preview at the Brunswick Building, 223 W. Railroad St., Thu., Aug. 3, from 5 to 8 PM. Opening reception Fri., Aug. 4, from 5 to 8 PM.

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