Posted: April 3, 2011
interviewed by Chris Richards, March 2011
Meredith Stern lives in Rhode Island, hunting mushrooms, banging drums, and cutting linoleum block prints. She is a member of Justseeds. She currently lives in Lincoln, RI and works at AS220 in Providence, Ri.
Her Justseeds store page is here.
Greetings, Can you give us a brief explanation of who you are and what you do?
I am a member of the Justseeds Artist Cooperative, a drummer, a gardener. I love to work with my hands to express ideas – primarily through clay, linoleum and wood block printing, and through music. I have a day job working at an arts organization in Providence, RI which is where I am currently living.
What Goals do you have with your art and its impact on the world?
This is such a huge question, where to start? On the most basic level, art is the best form I have of communicating my ideas and expressing emotions. But, I also hope that I am able to communicate in a dialog with an audience- at least half of a piece of art is how it is interpreted and impacts other people. I tend to try to express my love and appreciation for the best parts of the world, and how people can and do work together through mutual aid and cooperation. These ideas will lead towards everyone being better people to ourselves. I hope to celebrate the ideas of love and peace and encourage everyone to believe that these ideas are possible for all of us. The path towards peace is a world where we all work together to erradicate fear and war and greed and competition. At the heart of social change, is mutual aid and cooperation which are the methods towards liberation for everyone. Sometimes I make work expressing my anger and frustration at policies and ideas that work against human freedom and liberation (much of my reproductive justice work speaks on these issues, often times with a lot of words). While other times, I try to envision what a better world can look like, and that it is possible for all of us. The prints I make that represent cats engaging in tasks together are works promoting mutual aid and cooperation. I have been experimenting a lot with trying to elicit an emotional response towards these ideas through the use of line, color, texture instead of using words. I hope that these prints can sometimes inspire other people, create conversation, and bring people together to work towards creating alternative possibilities for how we all live.
You have worked within multiple types of creative mediums, from music to writing zines to linoleum block printing, do you find a different access and/or response from one to another?
I am constantly trying to communicate with the world, and different ideas tend to take different forms. Different mediums also lend themselves to different ideas. I find that beating the drums helps me express myself in a very subconscious sort of way; it’s less about communicating a specific idea, and more about transferring energy. Zines are a very democratic and direct medium- a zine can be made in one hour, one day, or one year- so they can be a very immediate way of expressing ideas. They are also fairly inexpensive to make and easy to distribute, so they can be given away, traded with other people, left in a magazine rack at a music venue, or sold in a store. Printmaking is also a fairly democratic medium- it’s a way of getting one idea to many people; so more people can enjoy the work. I do find that I have different audiences for different ideas that I have, and ways that I try to express them. For instance, I have friends who like the prints I make of cats, but might not want to listen to me pounding the drums; and friends that might love the band I play with but are not as interested in the print work.
Ideally, what experience or impact would a viewer take away from your art?
Again, I think this ties into the question asked earlier– on a basic level, I hope to engage in dialog with other people. I hope that some people will find the work to be inspiring, and maybe some people will change their ideas (or they will change my ideas) through the process of communicating about my work. I think that all artwork has an audience (some pieces have a large audience, and some a smaller one), and art can be very powerful for the artist and/or the viewer who responds to the work. The strength of blatant political work is that it can bring people together who feel the same way; it can allow for an outlet for people to be educated, agitate, and organize, it can help people deal with anger and frustration, and express the problems with the world around us. It can speak out against injustice. But I also think that blatant work can speak to a limited audience of people who already agree with the ideas being represented, and cut off communication with people who have different ideas. I think peace can only be achieved through the elimination of fear, and when people don’t communicate with people that they perceive as different than themselves, fear grows, and that is where injustice tends to thrive. So, I have been experimenting more with creating work that is more subtle, that can speak on an emotional level, which could perhaps bring a larger audience to the table to discuss and share ideas. The strength of subtle work is that it has the power to allow for greater interpretation, which can lead to more dialog, and also bring a new audience to a discussion. Hopefully, it can remind us all that we are all human, struggling for meaning, and for love, and justice, and that we are all in this world together. None of us are free as long as some people are ignored, marginalized, and disregarded. So, befriending and learning from people who are different than ourselves can only help us all become better, and help us work towards a world that is better for us all. Also, if someone first engages with my more subtle emotive work and are led to finding my more blatant political work, my hope is that it can bring people to see how beautiful the world could be if we stop thinking about things solely in diametrical extremes. American culture is very good verus evil, and I have been trying hard to think outside of that sort of mindset with my current artistsic work. American style capitalism is an unhealthy system for everyone, but we have all been conditioned to think it is the only way to exist. So, to really shatter this perspective, we need to present a world that is better, that treats people better, and that celebrates different perspectives and lets people feel safe, and loved. So, I don’t want to engage in fighting through my art, and would rather communicate with people expecting that everyone is smart, intelligent, and has their own ideas that are valuable. My perspective is only one, and it’s not the only one.
What place does art & creativity have within building a resistance movement?
This question gets asked a lot, so I will keep it simple. Everyone needs art. So, all successful movements need to have art within it to celebrate and express the ideas of the movement. Art in itself is not going to shift society- action and organizations must exist to implement those ideas. There are always artists and art within a healthy society, so creative makers need to have a place in the world that is being fought for. Art can play several roles: it can reflect the issues that need to be addressed (for instance shout out the injustices that currently exist), to express that change is possible (people need to believe that there is a better world), to envision what that better world can look like and what the values of that world are, and to celebrate our humanity and need for beauty, love, happiness, and peace.
What personal lifestyle choices have you made which reflect the views and opinions expressed through your art?
Social change needs to change structural inequality in the systems that we exist within, but we also do need to shift our lifestyles to limit our dependence on systems that are unhealthy and unsustainable for ourselves. To this end, from my own lifestyle choices, I try to engage in activities that are cooperative (such as Justseeds, playing music in a band). I try to avoid using oil (99% of my travel is riding my bike or walk through sun, rain, and snow). We grow much of our own food in our yard, I’ve gardened in community gardens, and I support our friends who are local farmers. I support local organizations in their fundraising efforts by donating art for them to sell and raffle off. I have worked with social justice organizations, protested the war, donate art to fundraisers for organizations whose work I respect. But, there is always more work to be done!
How does Just Seeds fit into all of this?
Justseeds is the backbone to everything I do. It’s the most amazing group of people I have ever worked with, and I am amazed and constantly inspired by how awesome everyone is. The artwork everyone makes is spectacular. The emotional support we all give one another is crucial. The success of our cooperative business model gives me a belief that we have found a more sustainable alternative to a capitalism. The blog is an amazing way to communicate with people around the world about issues that are going on all over the world. The cooperative nature of Justseeds is proof that the world we want to exist in is not only possible, it works and is currently happening!
Can you explain to ‘cooperative business model’ of Just Seeds? How does this present an alternative to a typical business structure?
A Cooperative is a business that is worker owned, and worker run. We all make money when we sell our prints, but a portion of the sales goes towards the running of the business. Any and all profits are shared and distributed equally to all the members. And we all have an equal say in how the business is run. We all have responsibilites and jobs within the cooperative, so we are all equal partners. We all decide how we spend money, and our group funds are used in group projects. no individual benefits at the expense of anyone else in a coop and everyone is treated equally.
A capitalist business model is a tiered system where there is a “boss” at the top, and profits are distributed in-equally throughout the business. some people make a ton of money, and other people are paid peanuts. some people have decision making power, and others have to follow orders. most workers within a capitalist business model have no power in the organization, and no say as to how it is run- and it is only the boss and or shareholders that stand to profit when the business succeeds.
So, as you can see, it is VASTLY different than a standard business model.
Do you have any favorite pieces or experiences you’d like to talk about?
The very first activist action I attempted, was when I was in Junior High School. I was 13 or 14 years old and I was upset that our cafeteria was using styrofoam and plastic plates and cutlery. I had recently learned how long it takes for these materials to decompose, and I was shocked and disturbed. So, I went on a quest to get rid of them. I made a poster that had all the aspects of what could be considered a “successful” political poster- it educated, agitated, and organized all in one. At the time, of course, I was completely unaware of that- I was just making a poster based on what I knew and want I wanted. It had a picture of the earth, and it had a statistic about how long it takes for plastic to decompose. It also said “save the earth!” and a call to action- to sign the petition to get rid of the plastics in the cafeteria. I also started a petition and even though I was one of the ten least popular people in the school, somehow convinced several other people to pass out the petition. And, when there were over one hundred signatures I gave it to the principal. I recall the morning in homeroom when the principal announced that he had gotten the petition, and that they would be looking into changing over to using regular plates and silverware and starting a dishwashing system. I turned bright red, felt shocked, and it took awhile to sink in that it had worked! Within two years, they did in fact eliminate the plastics and styrofoam in the cafeteria. It’s the first example I have of how art, when linked with a demand and an action, can have an effect, even if very small. I don’t think that any thing I have done since then has been anywhere near as effective, but it gave me the spark that change is in fact possible.
How important do you feel it is for artists/writers to communicate and discuss these topics and themes via their art and writing, as opposed to spending their time developing sustainable personal practices? Can you do both?
Definitely both can be done simultaneously and there are many examples, past and present of artists, writers, and cultural producers who simultaneously speak out against injustice while struggling to express justice within their own lifestyles! As Ghandi said, “be the change you want to see in the world”. Ghandi lived a very simple lifestyle while also writing about and struggling for large scale social change. Anarchists in some parts of Spain were doing this before and during the Spanish civil war. There were agricultural cooperatives where workers were in charge of their own farms, and whole towns got rid of the state money and instead were using bartering between artisans. Quakers are a very inspiring group of people- one of the largest issues that unites quakers is non-violence and peace activism. Quakers use consensus decision making and engage in non-violent peaceful protest. During slavery, many Quaker meeting houses provided shelter for people who were running away via the Underground railroad. A Quaker teaching is, “Live simply so that others may simply life.”