A local artist’s quest to introduce art into U.S. politics
Andrew Purchin is packing up his easel and canvases after three days of painting at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. The Santa Cruz artist, who is also a psychotherapist, will head to the Democratic National Convention next, which takes place in Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 4-6.
Art as a political statement is nothing new. But unlike the highly charged work of artist Mark Bryan, for example, whose exhibit “The Rupture” is at Leeds Gallery in Santa Cruz through Sept. 5, or the ice sculptures installed at the conventions to symbolize the melting middle class, Purchin’s paintings are the result of a more subtle, objective approach.
“I’m not putting a focus on partisan politics,” says Purchin, who painted the RNC commotion from a post outside of a nearby flower shop. “The way I’m approaching it is not to come in with a ‘rah rah rah Obama’ or Romney message. I want to see how I can find personal expression and beauty and to empathize with whatever I’m with, and I might learn things.”
Purchin declines to state his own political preference, and held no concerns about getting along with people at either event. “The weather is the biggest threat there, no matter what your politics are,” he says, pointing to possibility of rain from Hurricane Isaac in Tampa and sweltering temperatures in Charlotte.
Altogether, he will return with four paintings: one each from the RNC and DNC, and two hybrid canvasses that are a medley of observations from both.
“It’s like being an anthropologist, an observer,” Purchin says. “Instead of observing through my cell phone or my camera, I’m observing through my art. I’m observing through connecting, and seeing how I feel being in the field of Republicans and then in the field of Democrats.”
Although Purchin has not attended an RNC or DNC before (unless you count the time he got arrested outside of the 1984 DNC in San Francisco while in college), the action is familiar territory: he traveled to Washington D.C. in January 2009 to paint at the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. The result was an oil painting titled “People Listening,” which depicts the scene from where Purchin stood among the thick crowd of bundled-up attendees.
He will return to the Capitol in January for the 2013 presidential inauguration, and hopes to have a legion of other artists with him—999, to be exact. The mass public art-making event will be the zenith of his A Thousand Artists project, which aims to amass artists (notably, Purchin believes everyone is an artist) outside of the inauguration in a beehive of quiet, respectful creation.
He is optimistic about reaching his goal of 1,000 accomplices, but says he will be happy if he gets one or 200. “I think it will pop, though,” he adds. He envisions the West Coast artists traveling east together via Amtrak, and making art along the way.
He is drumming up interest in the January event at the conventions, passing out information and chatting with passersby. He aims to open their minds to the idea that things like a pad and pen, clay, or even yarn can be a meaningful tool for observing and documenting a moment, as well as for making a peaceful political statement.
“My idea is that when we make art, we can make history,” says Purchin. “We are the people. We don’t have to sit back and let politics happen around us; doing something very different [and] out of the dominant paradigm is a really powerful thing. It becomes historic, at least on a personal level.”
Although Purchin has set forth a set of guidelines for A Thousand Artists participants, he doesn’t expect to—nor does he want to—control what others create.
“The overall drive in what I’m trying to put out is engaging in a nuanced process,” he says. “We don't see our politicians finding nuance with their opponent, or putting out nuance, necessarily. We end up with a very black and white political system, where the idea is to get votes by using the lowest common denominator of the human brain. Which is not what art making is about. Art making is a very expansive process, [and] our political process is very closed at this time in history.”
If he had his way, congress members would start picking up paintbrushes. Until then, he looks forward to introducing art into democracy through A Thousand Artists and promoting his vision of widespread adoption of public art making.
“It’s a very democratic thing to be able to go inside and take off the blinders of identity, and give into the creative process,” he says. “It opens up the possibility for compassion.”
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