Saad Ghosn Mobilizes Hundreds of Artists Yet Again

Lady Liberty returns. Not the Neoclassical colossus on Liberty Island. It is the shrieking girl with the liberty spikes on the S.O.S. ART posters plastered all over downtown. S.O.S. ART is a rally cry for peace and justice, which began in March of 2003 just as the U.S. invaded Iraq. As President George W. Bush called up the troops for battle, S.O.S. founder Saad Ghosn sent out his distress call. S.O.S, a call for artists to make some noise. Hundreds answer the call each year.

Now in its eighth year, S.O.S. opened on Friday May 27 at the Art Academy of Cincinnati on Jackson Street in Over-the-Rhine. 85 artists and various school and community groups came together to show roughly 200 works of visual art. The exhibition kicked off with an artist talk followed by music and a potluck. Ghosn always frames this large exhibition around an opening and closing potluck. It is a warm welcome and thank you to the many participants.

Among the six days of events was Japanese dancer and choreographer Tadashi Kato’s performance  Beyond Intolerance 2011. A bare chested man with lean muscles, a shock of spiky black hair and well-worn silver pants recites a somber poem. Then he thrusts his body violently, using hyper-controlled movements of Butoh, a Japanese avant-garde protest dance. Kato drops into a ball on the stage. He alternates between rage and vulnerability. He grabs Katana and Wakizashi swords, lashing them around his whirling body.

“The piece prompts the audience to consider an option of transforming the flame of anger into prayer,” Kato writes in an email. This is his fifth year performing in S.O.S., driving in from West Virginia where he is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Fairmont State University.

In his seventh year exhibiting in S.O.S., painter and graphic designer Jimi Jones delivers work packed with tension, optimism and satire. In Crossing the Delaware oil on canvas, Jones references one of America’s best known satirical paintings, Grant Wood’s Daughters of Revolution. Jones passed by the painting many times in the Cincinnati Art Museum where you can often find him copying the masters.

“The daughters have always been so comical to me,” Jones says. Wood bristled at these aristocratic, meticulously coiffed ladies. To him the idea that the Daughters of the American Revolution could have anything to do with a revolution was absurd. Jones depicts these same three fussy broads with an application of burnt and raw umber, leaving the stark white canvas to fill in their flesh. Jones replaces their pursed lips, and disapproving glares with that brassy wink of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and the blubbering sobs of  conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck crying into his teacup. Jones draws from Wood’s painting even down to the wooden frame with gold trim around Washington Crossing the Delaware. The frame around Jones’ own painting is markedly similar.

In Jones’ painting Washington steers his men around the icy heads of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. They press on toward the monumental figure of Barack Obama. An inscription accompanying the painting reads: “The Delaware was to Washington as the Tea Party is to Obama. Washington won; Obama must win.”

Jones was born to exhibit in S.O.S ART. “I actually get to express what’s on my mind. Don’t have to worry about selling art. Don’t have to worry about the audience accepting it for what it is,”  he tells me over plates of breakfast at Parkside Cafe. “It’s like a blessing to us artists who do political art because quite frankly there’s not a big audience for political art in the 21st century. I just hope Saad keeps doing it. He’s spectacular. Saad and Bill get so much work done it’s just amazing.”

One wall of the S.O.S. gallery explores what it means to “grow a healthy girl.” That is the mission of the non-profit HARMONY GARDEN. Pat Bruns and Judith Harmony, Ph.D. with HARMONY GARDEN gave cameras to girls and mothers living in Price Hill. Their assignment was to photograph images of what makes a healthy girl. HARMONY gave these photos to the group Art4Artists in Clifton who made work in response.

Teenager Morgan shot the photos Girl Talk! and Food. She snapped a candid photo of three girls laughing at their lockers. “When a girl has time to spend with her friends she is healthy. They let her be who she is without holding her to her parents’ expectations,” Morgan writes. The second photo is a close-up shot of bags of chips and popcorn. “Junk food is a barrier to girls’ health. Marshmallows are calling my name more than fruit is.” Most of us can relate.

Fiber artist Ruth Banta turns Morgan’s junk food dilemma on its head. In a funky quilt titled Healthy Girls All in a Row 16 plastic dolls wear their junk food vices. Their dresses, skirts and pants are sculpted from candy wrappers, creating hip, wearable art. Banta is a collector and recycler of objects. The dolls are from the Dollar Store. The quilt is strung together with telephone wire as if it is a line of communication linking the girls. Banta’s crazy quilt is a wild and vibrant response to the question of what it takes to grow a healthy girl.

Another artist working with found objects is Banta’s daughter Debbie Brod. Yangtze Lace Mandala a mixed-media laser-cut on rubber, demonstrates Brod’s affinity for collection. The mandala is composed of plastic toys and gingko leaves, and is cut from a piece of roofing rubber.

“It really reminded me of dolphin skin!” Brod says of the roofing rubber. In an email she explains she experimented with black rubber discarded from her roof because she wanted to use recycled materials. “But it smelled awful, and I didn’t want this element to overwhelm the piece.” So, she chose silk for a white Mandala in her Unbrided exhibit at Weston Art Gallery, and black silk for a mandala in the Art Academy’s 20 YEARS/20 ARTISTS exhibit. This small rubber section on display in S.O.S. is a test piece representing the upper right corned of the mandala.

“I feel the top right quarter is optimistic, idealistic — a future-oriented placement,” Brod writes. Interesting when considering her work is a memorial to China’s Yangtze River dolphin, America’s passenger pigeon and all other extinct animals.

“I’ve been feeling more and more [like an] activist, but I’m just beginning to fold these feelings into my work, and to allow them to become the ‘drivers’ of the work,” she remarks.

“I really believe in Saad’s cause, his reasons for doing this show. Saad exemplifies the equanimity, openness, and gentleness he advocates. He’s bravely exposing ‘the other side’ of Cincinnati, the ‘activist’ side that somehow seems pretty well-hidden here, and with enough momentum, [he is] creating a community of people of social conscience,” Brod writes.

For a third year, artists with Visionaries and Voices have taken the opportunity S.O.S. provides to share deeply personal work. “It’s a time for the artists to reveal personal preferences and thoughts about their life, personal freedoms, and politics,” says Nick Paddock, Marketing Director with V&V. The organization supports more than 100 local artists with disabilities in their goal of exhibiting and promoting their work.

David Callahan’s large acrylic painting Memories of Me in My Past Life is dancing with vibrant color and bold shapes. Eight human subjects converse against a fiery orange sky. A few large sweeps of orange paint seem to make up the dominating background over-which he lays his figures. Some have orange faces, outlined with a thick black contour to delineate figure from background. Others have black and blue faces, Elvis pompadours and Blues Brothers glasses. Some have bodies that walk in a minty green landscape, while others are floating heads, hovering above the trees. The figures may be Callahan with his friends and family, or they may be various incarnations of the artist himself.

In his artist statement Callahan writes: “I am 56 years old. I have seizures that limit the way I live. Because of them I lost my job at Kroger’s. However, due to the Americans With Disabilities Act I have been able to go to school, work as an artist and live independently. The law created peace, justice and independence for people like me.” It is a powerful statement of personal freedom and perseverance.

Paddock’s own work for S.O.S. is also an intensely personal look at human struggle. Paddock, who has worked with V&V since 2008, presents Thailand an Intaglio print completed in 2001. Paddock tells me in an email that he was in Thailand during 9/11. From his hotel room, thousands of miles away, he watched the towers fall again and again on television. In his gallery statement he writes “The intense web images and newspaper articles in the lobby of the hotel were the only American connection I had.”

Those intense web images actually appear as a tangled web of images in his print. A sinuous face, half human, half bird appears shattered, like shards of broken glass. In its fractured beak is the word “torn” written backward again and again. Across from a map of the U.S. is the figure of a man, pinned into a corner, by a swirl of shapes. The windows of a skyscraper are behind him as he appears to fall into a pit of black smoke and flames.

“The figure pushing back against the debris is a metaphor for life. Sometimes I have to push back to survive and succeed,” Paddock writes. The figure becomes both a victim of 9/11 and human fighting day-to-day for survival and success.

Much like Ghosn, Cedric Michael Cox has his hands in everything. An artist, musician and art educator, the list of after school programs he is involved in is so long even he confuses himself trying to name them all to me. He has worked as a studio coordinator with Visionaries and Voices, a project manager with Artworks and has executed art educational projects at the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Weston Art Gallery and the Contemporary Arts Center among others.

“One thing I do try to pass on to my students is that the more personal you make something the more universal it becomes,” Cox explains in a phone conversation. “I tried articulating the black experience when I was in college, and appropriating African imagery. I thought that was what being a black artist was about. It wasn’t until I realized what wasn’t me that I realized what was me. I’m a musician, I like rhythm and hard edges. I like where I live, these are my monuments. So, now I tell my students make it about yourself.”

Cox works with the YMCA and UC’s Cincy Afterschool programs teaching art classes to children and teens from Westwood Elementary, Mt. Washington School, the Kennedy Heights Art Center, and Winton Montessori. Cox challenged his students to focus on drawing solely in black and white for some of the work on display in S.O.S. ART.

“Black and white is a bold way to articulate a message when color just distracts from your message,” Cox says. Eighth grader Adam Rantz with the Kennedy Heights Art Center envisioned A World Without Humans. In his graphite drawing zebras, fish and flying squirrels co-exist peacefully, and in a world without humans of course they all smile. The drawing is ambitious, with a great amount of detail given to each animal. It appears Rantz applied texture to the ground by doing a rubbing with the graphite, and drawing with his eraser to render the tall grass.

Quahime White, a third grader at Winton Montessori, was head strong and it shows in his work. He insisted on color despite Cox’s instruction to draw in black and white. His paintings Evil and When Nature Strikes Back are full of chaos. He scrawls “evil” in big black letters on an army tank firing on a civilian. In Nature Strikes Back a volcano appears to devour everything in its path, setting tiny black human figures on fire. White states his messages quite clearly “war is evil” and “don’t make mother nature mad.”

Ghosn really loves these works by the children in S.O.S. ART. Walking through the gallery with him he is so animated. He zips through each room, eager to share stories and shower compliments on each and every piece in the show. Ghosn’s own work reminds me of what Cox says about the power of black and white, and the bold messages it conveys. Ghosn’s woodcut prints are commentaries on the horrors of war, the greed of capitalism and also his love for the peace and harmony we share in America. In Flag I and Flag II the American flag is surrounded by disparate images. Flag I has money signs and bombs in place of stars, and is surrounded by coffins and barbed wire. Flag II white doves and hearts replace the stars on a flag framed by figures holding hands.

“Should the flag be associated with money and military power, and therefore isolation and destruction” Ghosn writes “or with love and peace, and as a result community power? The choice is not only determined by our government, but most importantly, by everyone one of us, involved and committed citizens.” This in part, is what S.O.S. facilitates. It is about empowering the artist and the community to choose peace and justice.

I recall from this, and past years of covering S.O.S., meeting Ghosn in the gallery in the hot summer weather. I feel his damp shirt and the sweat in his mustache as he kisses my cheek. Isn’t he exhausted? But no, he is not at all tired. He wants more. He wants S.O.S. to grow. In the future Saad may seek out grant money to make S.O.S ART a non-profit, perhaps add staff, and offer workshops year-round. For now, he is one man mobilizing hundreds of people.

–  Selena Reder





One Response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *