NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – As Rachel Epp Buller teaches the first-ever version of her new class at Bethel College, the current exhibit in the college gallery is providing a case study for her students.
Epp Buller, associate professor of visual art and design, had her proposal for the 400-level class Activism, Art and Design accepted last year and is offering the class for the first time this semester.
Since the class meets two different General Education credit requirements, it’s not all art majors as her upper-level courses often are. About half the students have previous art background, she says.
“That makes a very different kind of discussion but really interesting, as people bring other disciplinary perspectives,” she adds.
“My hopes for the class are for students to develop greater awareness of how artists have been at the center of social and political movements,” she says, “and a greater understanding of how to read the imagery, how the artists are conveying their messages, what cultural strategies they’re using.”
Artists and designers have long used their work in the service of political and social activism, but particularly since the 19th century. According to the course description for Activism, Art and Design, “Attention will be given to artists and designers who have protested war, class inequity, gender and racial discrimination, ecological crisis and other topics, and whose work agitates for political and social change.”
Thanks to a grant from the National Art Education Foundation, Epp Buller is able to bring in a number of guests throughout the semester. So far, she has had Wichita artist Armando Minjarez and University of Oklahoma doctoral student Alicia Harris as visitors.
The third scheduled is Dave Loewenstein of Lawrence, who was a major organizer of “Hidden Forces: The Kansas People’s History Project,” which is in Bethel’s Regier Art Gallery in Luyken Fine Arts Center through Feb. 24.
The reception for the show is Feb. 23 from 6-8 p.m. outside the gallery. Loewenstein will be present for that and to visit the Activism, Art and Design class the next day.
Loewenstein has been working with artists and students, including Bethel students, across the state to tell stories of “people’s history” – inspired by Howard Zinn’s landmark A People’s History of the United States and a print portfolio, Celebrate People’s History, organized by Josh MacPhee.
“Dave came last fall to work with beginning design students here at Bethel,” Epp Buller says. “He [encouraged people to look] for stories local to your area, a person or place that people don’t know, that aren’t part of the ‘standard’ history.
“It pushes us to realize there are multiple histories. People can tell their own, and don’t always have to accept only those that are handed down from on high.”
Nine Bethel students made posters about a variety of topics and submitted them to the project. Loewenstein and another artist he was working with chose 13 from around the state to make into limited-edition screen prints that will be sold to help fund the project.
Bethel senior Tyler Kaufman, Moundridge, had his poster depicting the story of the Bethel bell and its connection to Brown v. Board of Education selected for the screen-print portfolio.
Bethel graduate Lora Jost, Lawrence, a native of North Newton, is another of the screen-print artists. Her topic is “LCPJ Peace Vigils.” (LCPJ is the Lawrence Coalition for Peace and Justice.)
The portfolio is on display in the gallery, along with 29 digital prints from the Kansas People’s History Project and 10 from Celebrate People’s History, to make up “Hidden Forces.”
The work of three other current Bethel students is included with the KPHP digital prints: sophomore Grant Bellar, Conway Springs, and seniors Preston Gapter, New Cambria, and Justin Haflich, Pretty Prairie.
The exhibit is on loan from the Watkins Museum at the University of Kansas. The museum was one of seven arts-based or educational institutions – along with Bethel, La Casa de la Semilla in Wichita, Pittsburg State University, Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, InterUrban ArtHouse in Overland Park and the Salina Arts Center – that collaborated with Loewenstein on the Kansas People’s History Project.
More information about the KPHP, and a photo gallery of the posters, is online at kansaspeopleshistoryproject.com
“Hidden Forces: The Kansas People’s History Project” will be in the Regier Art Gallery through Feb. 24. Gallery hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday and 2-4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free.