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Project pins up political art publicly

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A cluster of the "button" designs for the recent public art installation, "Underpin & Overcoat" on the side of Rochester Contemporary Art Center in the East End. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • A cluster of the "button" designs for the recent public art installation, "Underpin & Overcoat" on the side of Rochester Contemporary Art Center in the East End.

From punk bands repped on leather lapels and hoodies to political slogans proclaimed in pin form, wearing buttons has long been a way to quickly communicate tastes and social stances. My personal collection includes a pin bearing Dubya’s image with the text “Daddy’s Little War Criminal,” another with a pro-Palestine graphic design by Adam Maida, and a vintage one from the ‘80s that says, “Against abortion? Don’t have one.”

Pins can convey distilled political and social stances, and in some cases, they can serve as conversation starters about various issues. My “I’m an Abolitionist” pin has provoked a lot of curiosity from confused folks (“But...slavery is over…?”) and provided opportunities to frankly discuss incarceration. The “Free Hawaii” button I bought for a friend has kicked off similar conversations.

This is the idea behind the recent public art installation of oversized buttons now adorning the outside walls of Rochester Contemporary Art Center (RoCo), SewGreen Rochester, and the Douglass Auditorium.

A cluster of pins currently “worn” by RoCo includes an image of local disability rights activist Luticha Doucette with the word “Freedom,” a rainbow shape made of a spectrum of flesh tones, an appeal to vote with your dollars by not supporting businesses (without defining which), and a combination of words and symbols that reads “I heart mask.” On King Street, the Douglass Auditorium is adorned with “Our freedom can’t wait. No one is free until we all are.” Among the buttons on SewGreen are the check-marked box symbol indicating voting has taken place, and an empty word bubble — an open, subtle prompt to speak out.

Last year Rochester Contemporary Art Center issued a call for public art proposals for a project co-organized with Susan B. Anthony Museum & House to be presented in 2020, commemorating the centennial of Suffrage. This month the selected project, dubbed “Underpin & Overcoat,” came to fruition.

More installed "buttons" from "Underpin & Covercoat" on the side of SewGreen Rochester. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • More installed "buttons" from "Underpin & Covercoat" on the side of SewGreen Rochester.

Co-created by artists Amelia Toelke (based in Chatham, New York) and Andrea Miller (based in the Midwest), in collaboration with several Rochester-based artists, the installation of these colorful, oversized buttons — exactly the kinds you’d stick to your jean jacket or backpack — spans a few different buildings downtown and on the West Side. It’s as if the buildings themselves are “wearing” the pins, promoting various slogans and imagery about enduring social justice issues and directives. RoCo as a site makes sense, since the center organized the installation, and the spots on the West Side are significant in that they’re located in the neighborhood where Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass once lived, in the vicinity of the block where Anthony and others illegally cast a vote in 1872.



All of the buttons were fabricated by Toelke and Miller, each of whom creates artwork in the intersection of jewelry and sculpture. This work in particular focuses on an exploration of adornments as signage. The two collaborated with Rochester artists Amanda Chestnut, Tania Day-Magallon, Erica Jae, Abiose Spriggs, and Thievin’ Stephen, as well as the Seneca Art & Cultural Center at Ganondagan, who each provided designs to be included on the buttons. The project is co-presented by RoCo, The Susan B. Anthony Museum & House, SewGreen Rochester, and Christ Church.

For Toelke and Miller, “Underpin & Overcoat” is one part of a multi-faceted exhibition the two have been planning for a few years, which will also manifest in “Worn,” an exhibition of sculptures, objects, and 2D works, to be held at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in the spring of 2021.

Toelke and Miller will also present a community-created installation called “Sash Memorial,” another nod to the Suffrage Era, which will be the result of workshops held this summer and, since COVID has complicated matters, some mailed-in contributions.

"OUR FREEDOM CAN'T WAIT. NO ONE IS FREE UNTIL WE ALL ARE," reads the oversize pin designed by Rochester artist Amanda Chestnut. Installed on the Douglass Auditorium on King Street by artists Amelia Toelke and Andrea Miller, the work is part of the "Underpin & Overcoat" public art installation. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • "OUR FREEDOM CAN'T WAIT. NO ONE IS FREE UNTIL WE ALL ARE," reads the oversize pin designed by Rochester artist Amanda Chestnut. Installed on the Douglass Auditorium on King Street by artists Amelia Toelke and Andrea Miller, the work is part of the "Underpin & Overcoat" public art installation.

The buttons on the buildings, which will stay installed through November 31, are “inspired by the role that wearable objects play in social and political movements,” Toelke told CITY. “We took our initial cue for the project from the memorabilia of the Women's Suffrage Movement, most often which was both made by and for the women in the movement.”

The buttons mimic political pins in their bold colors, graphics, use of symbols, and icons, and are meant to bring unity and start discussions. They’re not neutral but not overtly political, Toelke said.

Commemorating Suffrage was a starting point, but by no means defines the project, Toelke added. The design contributions from the other artists allude to current social justice concerns, including disability rights and the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as public health concerns, such as the ways we have been encouraging one another to follow — or in some irresponsible cases, resist — the social regulations put in place to help keep each other safe.

On Saturday, July 25, in partnership with SewGreen Rochester, Christ Church, and Susan B. Anthony Museum and House, RoCo will host an artist talk and Sash Memorial workshop, an invitation to all community members to create contemporary versions of this historic piece of political ephemera. Sashes made at this event will be collected and exhibited in the artists' larger exhibition, Worn.

The wall-button sculptures have also been scaled down to wearable ephemera, which you can score by taking a selfie in front of any of the public art installations, posting the pic and tagging @RoCo137 on Instagram. Then head down to RoCo for your free set of three pins.

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY’s arts & entertainment editor, and can be reached at becca@rochester-citynewspaper.com.