Exhibition extended, see below
Carol Wells loves learning. As a researcher and UCLA graduate, she has spent most of her life learning about history through the art of politics. Political posters to be precise. And since she first began collecting, on a trip to Nicaragua in 1981 in the middle of the Sandinista revolution, she has amassed an impressive collection of posters that chronicle labor, and political movements filtered through the prism of art and activism.
After a few years, she had to move her collection out from under her bed and the Center for the Study of Political Graphics was born. Nestled among bakeries and design boutiques along the tony stretch of Third Street between Fairfax and La Cienega, in a building dedicated to peace and justice and shared — through the beneficence of a sympathetic landlord — with other like-minded organizations, the center occupies several rooms filled with flat files and vertical shelving brimming with art that is a call to action. Over the years, through persistence, dedication and some luck, Wells has amassed an impressive collection of 80,000 posters. "There are ten dissertations here, waiting to happen," she says. What started simply as an appreciation has become a calling that has helped Wells do what she most loves to do: teach.
"Posters are a very efficient and powerful way of teaching history that you don't learn in school." She talks about children of color seeing people who look like them portrayed as heroes, something that can be in short supply in school textbooks and on television. She worries that kids aren't reading anymore and much of history will be lost to them.
On her school visits, she will sometimes show the iconic and powerful image familiar to anyone who lived through the 60's, the victims of the My Lai massacre, lifeless bodies of women and children strewn on the road. "Children will ask me how they put those babies into the photograph," she said. "Teachers are getting younger and younger and didn't experience these events firsthand. Digital manipulation means that we can no longer believe what we see, and that terrifies me."
Her knowledge of the backstory of events depicted in these posters has enabled her to connect the dots of events worldwide, showing how they have reverberated through history. She pulls out a folder of Cuban art done by an artists collective called OSPAAAL ( Organization in Solidarity with the People of Asia and Latin America), protesting the Vietnam War. She credits the Cubans with the revitalization of postermaking in the late 60's, many of which were folded and and inserted into magazines of the day. They document solidarity with the people of Vietnam, Latin America and Africa. Another group of posters was done by a Mexican art collective, Taller de Grafica Popular (Popular Graphic Arts Workshop), started in the 1930's and joined by some blacklisted American artists who left the U.S. to escape political persecution.
Wearing white gloves to protect the sometimes disintegrating paper works, Wells pulls out a group of posters printed by Peace Press, an organization of artists protesting the Vietnam War. "Peace Press was founded by artists who could not get their work printed by mainstream printers. Unions at the time were very conservative and supported the war. So the artists did it themselves." The posters were printed on anything they could get their hands on, some silkscreened onto castoff computer printouts with mundane office business printed on the back, having been culled from the floor or trashbins next to the printers.
CSPG is reclaiming the power of art to educate and inspire people to action. "If it doesn't make you angry or make you laugh, we haven't done a good job,"
Wells says. "And you learn that one person can make a difference." She herself still walks the talk. She remembers the first demonstration she participated in, an anti-war rally at Century City in 1967 that changed her life. "Lyndon Johnson was doing a fundraiser and mid-rally our demonstration permit was rescinded by the LAPD," she says. It was the largest anti-war rally ever up to that time in Los Angeles and she remembers motorcycle officers riding into the crowd with their batons swinging. "That rally changed me from a naïve liberal into an activist."
She and her husband Ted had their first date at an anti-war demonstration and she still believes in marching in solidarity for causes she supports.
In its efforts to encourage education, the center also organizes forums for discussion and debate. This past November it co-hosted a conversation between Angela Davis and Reverend James Lawson at Temple Emanuel. On Saturday an event at the West Hollywood Library discussed how art and activism relate in Ray Bradbury's work "Fahrenheit 451."
There is still time to see CSPG's current exhibit. "Decade of Dissent: Democracy in Action 1965-1975," at the newly redesigned West Hollywood branch of the Los Angeles County library,
ends April 28 [extended to May 7.] It is a collection of posters printed around the turmoil of the 60's: the American involvement in Vietnam, the Free Speech Movement on college campuses nationwide, the injustices that sparked the Civil Rights movement, the fight for equality by women and minorities. As Wells wrote in the exhibit notes, and firmly believes: "Dissent is patriotic." The posters on display prove the point powerfully, passionately and eloquently.
While on the topic of dissent, the organizers of an exhibit right across the street, at MOCA at the Pacific Design Center, argue that Rudi Gernreich, he of the one piece topless bathing suit that shocked the world in the 60's, was not crafting a design but rather making a statement on women and their right to freedom. An interesting addition to an afternoon studying dissent would include a visit to the exhibit currently on display there through May 20. Through costumes, film and still images by the brilliant photographer William Claxton in conjunction with his wife, and Gernreich muse Peggy Moffitt, the exuberance of the 60's are celebrated. Well worth a visit.
Bottom photo: Peggy Moffitt models a Rudi Gernreich design, photographed in 1968 by her husband William Claxton.