A! Magazine for the Arts

"Poor Man's Friend" by Phil Garrett is just one of the politically inspired artworks on display at William King Museum of Art, Abingdon, Virginia.

"Poor Man's Friend" by Phil Garrett is just one of the politically inspired artworks on display at William King Museum of Art, Abingdon, Virginia.

Cherry Bounce: a gestalt of art and politics

October 26, 2016

ABIINGDON, VA - The "Cherry Bounce: Appalachian Artists, American Elections" exhibit at William King Museum of Art, Abingdon, Virginia, is the brainchild of Eric Drummond Smith.

Smith was at a meeting at the museum where they were discussing ideas for shows for the next couple of years. "I said, "The election is coming up why don't you do something with political art leading up the election.' And they said, "Oh, you should do that.' I was horrified at what I had just gotten myself into," he says.

He left the meeting and began to think about what the show could entail. About a week later, he had the proposal for "Cherry Bounce."

His idea was to find artists and expose them to political art from different presidential elections and "just let them go crazy." He also wanted the exhibit to include opportunities to talk about history, and politics and the original art.

Once the idea was finalized, he had to find political inspiration pieces, artists and match them with each other.

"I got a ton of art history books that focused on political art. I went to the Library of Congress, and I just started digging. Picking the artists was a whole week of eight-hour days and picking the political art was another one to two weeks.

"I made PowerPoint slides for each presidential election. As I'd find a piece that was beautiful or brilliant, or horrible or addictive, I'd put it on the slide along with a reference and then move on. When every slide had two to three pieces of art, I was through."

He used the same PowerPoint technique to organize the artists he wanted to contact. As he found an artist he wanted to include, he'd put a piece of their artwork and their contact information on a slide. Smith searched for artists throughout Appalachia. He looked on the websites of every university and college art department, every art guild, museum collections and catalogs of old shows and major galleries.

He admits to a little bias when he made his choices. "There's so many amazing artists in the region, but I'm a lowbrow (a combination of pop art, surrealism and expressionism), so that's what I was looking for. In part because when you say Appalachian Art, people think of amazing folk art and impressionism. I wanted to do something different to highlight and bring together a group of artists, whom if you didn't know their names you'd think they must be from Berlin or somewhere," he says.

He sent out 120 messages to ask artists if they were interested in being a part of the show, and about 60 responded. "Some said this is great. Some said, "I don't do political art' and were horrified at the idea. Most people said, "This isn't what I do, you know that, right.' That was the point, I didn't want propaganda," Smith says.

He compiled all this information into a spreadsheet and took it to the museum. Callie Hietala, his co-curator, and he met at William King Museum. They had three computers involved. The artists were on one. The inspiration was on another and the spreadsheet on a third.

"I'd say what do you think about this pairing, and she'd say that makes sense. Sometimes it made sense right off the bat," he says. Other times he would have an artist who paints birds and animals, nothing close to political art. What he would look for in a case like that was an inspiration that had some feeling of birds or a predatory nature.

When the artists began to work, a few needed pep talks. "A couple said "What the hell have you done?' Some said, "I hate this guy.' I said, "That's fine. I didn't say you had to like this guy: go ahead, tear into him, go crazy. I'm not looking for happy, happy, joy America. I want an original reaction, and I want it to be yours,'" he says.

There was one artist who didn't turn in his piece of art. "He couldn't stand Andrew Jackson. This was understandable because his wife was Cherokee. I said, "That's fine, tear into him. He said, "Okay,' but he never turned anything in," Smith says.

This left a hole in the show for Smith. His solution was to add a desk, a sketchbook and pens to the exhibit for visitors to create their own visions of Jackson. "It seemed appropriate because Andrew Jackson was the most populist president. He invited everyone to the White House, he had parties. We've never had a president like him," he says.

When you visit the show, there are iPads throughout the exhibit that have the original political art on them. This allows visitors to see the inspiration pieces next to the original art.

Smith also created a website that contains information on presidential elections, each artist and resources.

"I'm a political scientist. I knew this was going to take a lot of work anyway, and I knew it was a complicated thing I was asking the artists to do. So I knew I'd have to make it as easy as possible for them to learn about elections and see the political art. I also wanted this to be a resource for teaching, not just my students, but anyone who wanted to teach politics, history and art. That's what the net is really good at," he says.

Smith plans to add videos from the exhibit's programming to the website. He's also writing essays and plans on turning "Cherry Bounce" into a book. "The artists have done an amazing job, so now I have to. My job is producing the content that isn't art, so we have a complete experience. Nobody listens to political scientists most of the time. I feel like a lot of political scientists are at a loss for thinking they can make an impact. I don't want to be at a loss. I want to help Appalachian people take control of their destiny and understand democracy and their power. I want people to love democratic republicanism but not overidealize it. I love the idea of a big gigantic forum to fight that fight a little bit," he says.

Visit www.cherrybounceshow.com for information about presidential elections, the artists and other resources.

Eric Smith: political scientist and artist