Artist Protesters Rally Behind Wisconsin Unions in a Show of Solidarity — and SolidARTity, and SolidARiTy

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's attempt to strip government unions of collective bargaining rights has triggered weeks of spirited demonstrations and occupations in the capital building at Madison. The attack has galvanized unorganized as well as organized workers — including the state's art community.

The early weeks of the protests saw notable outbursts of street-level artistry, with performers and artists turning out to stage concerts, readings, and street theater performances. The creativity of the protests is now being celebrated in a newly opened exhibition at Madison art space Project Lodge titled "SolidARTity." Spearheaded by University of Wisconsin art history PHD student Sarah Stolte, the exhibition gathers together both works made by artists and "found art" from the demonstrations at the capitol.

"Our entire state capitol has been transformed into a massive, site-specific installation reflecting an infinite variety of personal reactions to the actions of our state government," states Web site of the show, which was conceived two weeks ago at the height of the capital's occupation. As displayed on protest signs, these reactions range from the bluntly direct — "Wisconsin Is Not For Sale" — to comical absurdities like a piece of cardboard saying "Who Wants a Pink Slip?" with a lacy pink slip and pink Post-It notes attached.

The meme of artistic solidarity has definitely achieved a kind of critical mass in Madison. The same day that the Project Lodge's "SolidARTity" show opened, a separate and independent initiative titled "SolidARiTy" — please take a moment to note the different spelling — sought to bring together the area's creative community, from hobbyists to fine artists, to show their support at the capital building itself.

"We started thinking about how we were all going down to the capital to yell at the governor," says Laurie Beth Clark, an art professor at the University of Wisconsin. "That's our life now. But we were there as individuals but not as artists." She estimates that Friday's initiative, which sought a more coordinated artistic response, involved about 200 people.

The artistic contributions took a variety of forms, from people just bringing their sketchbooks and needlework to the capital as they sat in to more elaborate interventions. Ballroom dancers performed in front of the building, and there was a performance of Sinclair Lewis's play "It Can't Happen Here," as well as a reading of poems sent to Madison to protest the budget cuts' threatened elimination of a $2,000-per-year stipend for Wisconsin's poet laureate.

For her part, Clark decided to engage in an interactive performance called "Complaints Book," entering the capital with a bureaucratic ledger and asking people she met to use it to register their grievances. "Anybody who came into my sphere got an opportunity to write in the book," she says. "It was very powerful to me, the diversity was so far out of the path of people I meet at the university: public school teachers, corrections workers, nurses, students, and a lot of people who I don't know what they did."

What is one of the more striking pieces associated with the protests went up the following day, when a group of University of Wisconsin studio art grad students — Craig Courtney, Hongtao Zhou, Rebecca Lessem, and Jason Sandberg — erected a large wooden fist to symbolize solidarity (however it's spelled) with public sector workers. 

Since the beginning of the outcry against Walker's anti-union offensive, Saturdays have consistently seen the most spirited shows of support in the state capital, with many thousands converging to show support, often marching in blocks representing their various unions or professional affiliations. On Saturday, March 12, there will be an "Art Workers March" — the group has its own logo, a fist with a paintbrush, designed by Nancy Zucker — meeting in front of the Overture Center at 201 State Street to march against governor Walker. "The state is not 'broke,' and unions, public servants, the arts and education are part of the solution to our challenges," states a Facebook invite for the demonstration.

It's a pity that the organized artistic response is crystallizing after the most militant phase of the occupation of the capital building has finished. However, the organizers of Project Lodge's "SolidARTity" show are looking to the future of the struggle. "We are hoping to bring the show to other states (e.g., Ohio, Indiana, or New Jersey) where collective bargaining and labor rights are at risk," gallery coordinator Sonia Kubica told ARTINFO in an email. "It's 20 days later and protesters are still circling our capitol and the WI-14" — the 14 Democratic senators who fled the capital to prevent Walker's bill from going ahead — "are still on the run. This fight is not over. It's barely just begun."