Art exhibits tend to be associated with the upper class and sophistication. Work produced by poor, working-class or even middle-class individuals can be highly regarded, but it’s usually in a condescending way or after the person who created it can no longer benefit (i.e., death).
What the art show at 32BJ SEIU headquarters should remind people of is that art is for everyone, and incredible work is out there. More than 100 members and family and friends of 32BJ and 1199SEIU members displayed their work to a welcoming audience at their annual art show. Artists from as close as New York City to as far as Poland presented their works. This year’s theme for the show was “Revealing the Other Side of Us.”
Once you walked into the building, you forgot about the union ties to this show until they were mentioned. Art from painters, poets, photographers, costume designers, fashionistas and others could be found. A jazz band kept the music going, and food was plentiful and drinks flowed freely.
The AmNews spoke with several artists who are also 32BJ members, including Ricardo Buchanan. He presented poetry heavily influenced by working-class struggles.
“Everybody wants to get a decent wage,” said Buchanan, who writes poems dedicated to housing and work, using the elderly and teenagers as jumping-off points. “It’s difficult for a person to work below the minimum wage, you know? They have to feed their family and their rent is very expensive. I feel their pain. So I decided to write it. Child care is not that cheap.”
Buchanan also said it felt good to have his work recognized, because 32BJ supports the fight for social justice.
“It’s hard for people of color and working people in general,” said Buchanan. “When you have less jobs, you have more crime. So many of these young men are trying their best, but the justice system is so unfair to us.”
Corry Penny found inspiration from his childhood watching relatives seam dresses. Now, design is his passion.
“My grandmother and mother were both seamstresses,” said Penny, a 32BJ member, to the AmNews. “So I remember as a child seeing them take materials … like a piece of material … and at the end seeing it become a dress or a jacket. It was like the sewing machine is this magic thing that could turn something into something else.”
For the work displayed at the art show, Penny hand-painted fabrics before putting the dresses on mannequins. He said his theme was Eve and water.
“Basically two things men can’t live without,” Penny said. “Women and water.
“I tried working with recyclable goods,” he continued as he presented a corset made of two two-liter bottles. One of his dresses included a “Jaws” reference with the opened back designed to look like a shark’s teeth.
As for one Booker T. Williams Jr., his art ranged from visual to aural. Williams is a musician and digital artist who uses photography and Photoshop to create colorful tote bags and magnets. He also plays the alto and tenor saxophone.
“Most people try to master all the tools,” said Williams. “You end up becoming the jack of all trades but a master of none. So I mastered a few tools, and this is a result of that.”
When asked how he found the time to make music (including an album in the late 1980s that featured free jazz interpretations of gospel classics) and visual art, Williams said it was all the same to him.
“There’s no difference between the two because art is art,” said Williams to the AmNews. “Music, poetry, graphics, whatever … it’s about language. I don’t differentiate the two because I’ve been playing the horn as long as I was doing this … since I was a kid.
“Everything has a season,” Williams continued. “There was a season for the horn. In that season, I couldn’t let it go. But for me to do other things, I had to put it on the back burner. And the creator has a master plan, and now it’s time for that to come through.”
The art from this show will be displayed for one month on the fourth and fifth floors of 32BJ SEIU headquarters.