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Parachute banners: Notes from the May Day preparation in Milwaukee

April 25, 2017

Voces de la Frontera has organized the annual May Day march for the past decade in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This year is no different. In this time of crisis Voces de la Frontera is calling for a general strike – A Day Without Latinx and Refugees across the state. The hope is that tens of thousands of people will march in the streets of Milwaukee on May 1st. The hope is that workers will walk of the job in large numbers, particularly in the dairy industry that can be brought to a standstill when Latinx workers are not on the job. Voces is calling for a repeal of the anti-immigrant legislation that the Walker Administration has introduced, driver’s cards for immigrants, and the demand that David Clarke – the far right-wing Milwaukee Sheriff – be fired.

Voces de la Frontera has been busy preparing for May Day and the artists connected to this key social justice and immigrant rights organization have been preparing too. Many of us in Milwaukee have donated our time, talents, and resources to creating art for Voces for years. The November, 2016 election results called for us to become more organized.

Following the election, a small group of us formed an artist-affinity group that works in direct collaboration with Voces. The artist affinity group – Voces de los Artistas – now has upwards 35 Milwaukee-based artists in the collective group with over 20 of the artist being Latinx. Members of this affinity group are also Voces de la Frontera members. We pull in artists that we know or that Voces suggests, artists that live in the area, and artists who commit to joining Voces. The artist-affinity group works directly with a full-time staff person at Voces who suggests slogans and image ideas and runs design drafts by others on the Voces staff.

The Voces de los Artistas group is directly inspired by and modeled after the late 1980s/early 1990s ACT Up model of affinity groups – particularly the graphic design affinity group Gran Fury. It was inspired not just by the images of Gran Fury but by the structure: An affinity group that worked directly within an activist organization, but a group that also had autonomy to focus solely on art activism.

The structure of art affinity groups so perfected by ACT UP works. Voces de la Frontera now has an affinity group of 30-plus local artists that they know and trust – one that can provide the activist art punch that movements need. They have 30-plus artists on call that can respond in a moments notice. (They also have other artists that they work directly with, most notably YES – Youth Empowered in the Struggle.) Similar to Gran Fury no one is paid. All the work is all done for the cause. Voces helps with the budget for materials and the cost of renting out Art Build spaces.

As artists we work directly with an organization that we admire and one that has a long track record of mobilizing tens of thousands of people. As artists we collaborate with one another, make new friendships, build new connections, learn new skills, and allow ourselves, hopefully, not to burn out. Many hands make light work. In the past Voces tended to rely on one or two artists to do design work and this person would stick with Voces for a year or two before moving on. Now there is 30-plus artists. Artists can take much needed breaks to focus on other commitments because when Voces calls on us to design a flier for an action, paint a banner for a march, etc. there is nearly always someone who can help with the request. When large actions are planned by Voces we can typically get 10-15 of us to work on an 1-2 day art build. This was the case with the upcoming plans for the May Day march.

In mid-April we rented the second floor open space above Company Brewing in Milwaukee to paint four large parachute banners for May Day. Three banners were for Voces and May Day, one was for the Menominee Nation and the campaign against the Back Forty Mine on the MI/WI border.

The three parachute banners for Voces were designed by Claudio Martinez, Jeanette Arellano, and Raoul Deal. One long-term goal, among many, of the VDLA group is to make sure that every artist in the group has the chance to have their work highlighted. At times, when deadlines are short or the call for art results in few design submissions, someone might pick up the slack, but the ideal is that new voices in the group are honored, and that was the cases with the parachute designs for the May Day march.

Parachute banners are carried by a dozen or so people in a march and their scale allows the image and the text to be visible from building tops and television news helicopters. The how-to is relatively straight forward and easily duplicated. (Note that the People’s Climate March in DC on April 29th is organized around parachute banners – circles of resistance – converging on the National Mall. Our how-to-steps involved ordering 24′ wide “play parachutes” ONLINE – white nylon parachutes with handles – the same kind that one would see kids play with in school playgrounds. (I do not have a go-to supplier: simply look up 24′ white nylon play parachutes ONLINE for options.) Next we worked with Voces for text ideas. Then three artists in VDLA went to work designing drafts. Once the designs were set, we reserved a large indoor space with high ceilings to digitally project the images onto a wall where we could then trace the designs onto the nylon parachutes with 6B pencils. (Thank you Union Art Gallery at UWM.)

The photo above details a number of us tracing out Raoul Deal’s image onto the nylon which was by far the most complicated parachute design that any of us had ever attempted. It took five of us nearly two hours to trace out the design considering that we were tracing a detailed woodcut design, but our task was made easier by having access to a mechanical lift. We folded the parachute in half so we needed to get 12′ off the ground to trace it. In previous art builds, we had quartered the design due to a much smaller wall space, but that has the disadvantage of lines not lining up perfectly.

The other designs went much faster – around 20 minutes per tracing. We then booked an art build space for the following weekend (thank you again Company Brewing), put out the call for VDLA members and others to help paint. We went to the local hardware store to purchase paint (We use flat latex house paint), and we went to the photo-copy store to get color copies of the designs so that those painting the parachutes would have a reference beyond the pencil marks on the white parachute.

On the day of the Art Build we covered the studio floor with plastic tarps as the paint bleeds through the nylon fabric and went to work. A great crew of 15-20 of us completed four parachutes in two days.

Claudio Martinez’s parachute design:

Claudio is a graphic designer who designed this years May Day poster so he simply adjusted it for a circular composition. He is also a big-time hoops fan: notice Giannis Antetokounmpo on the laptop screen.

above photo by Susan Ruggles

Jeanette Arellano’s parachute design:

Jeanette is a Milwaukee Public School art teacher and her epic design derived from a previous lino cut image that she had made.

Photo above by Susan Ruggles

Raoul Deal’s parachute design:

Raoul Deal image derived from a photograph that he had taken during a previous May Day march in Milwaukee. He turned the photo into a large woodcut image that was featured in an exhibition at the United Community Center in Milwaukee on immigration issues a number of years back. The image had also been used for a past May Day poster by Voces, a print for the Culture Strike/Justseeds portfolio “Migration Now”, and a mud stencil for a previous May Day march in Milwaukee.

above photo by Susan Ruggles

A sign painters trick: painting with a brush on a stick.

Dylan Miner’s parachute banner

Our fourth banner was not for the Milwaukee May Day march. Rather it is for the Menominee Nation and their campaign against the Back Forty Mine on the Michigan/Wisconsin border. A Canadian mining company is currently going through the permitting process to dig a massive gold and zinc mine right next to the Menominee River on the Michigan/Wisconsin border. This mine would be a ecological disaster for the environment, the sturgeon fish that breed in the Menominee River, and the people – including the Menominee – who live in the region. The Menominee have reached out to Native and non-Native artists and allies to create art that raises awareness to stop the Back Forty mine. I reached out to Justseeds artist Dylan Miner from East Lansing, MI to adapt one of his previous images to this struggle and he added the sturgeon fish and the bear at the request of the Menominee. I also added the text circle and the color scheme (blue for water, gold for the money-driven extraction industry.)

During the two-day art build Susan Ruggles took photos of all the banners being painted and made a short video that was shared extensively on social media. These photos were a key part of the activist-art tactics. Art informs a public audience about the issues, inspires others to get involved, and inspires those in the movement to keep fighting. The two-day art build itself was a great reminder of how important and how prevalent art builds are becoming in the tactics of social justice movements. It also showcased the vast potential of art affinity group. The VDLA group is less than six months old and so far we have grown to 30-plus members, designed countless flyers, and created art for three major marches that Voces has organized in 2017 alone. VDLA art (along with art by many others, most notably art by YES – Youth Empowered in the Struggle) has been ever present in numerous actions in Milwaukee, Racine, Sheboygan, and other cities across the state. The images created so far has been powerful, but it is the structure – art affinity groups and the importance that Voces and YES places on art as a tactic – that holds the most power. Gran Fury paved the way for others to follow. May other social justice organizations across the land duplicate the affinity art group structure – if they have not done so already.

April 26 update:

Voces unfurled the banners at the Wisconsin State Capital Building in Madison on April 26th after spending the morning talking to legislators and delivering a list of demands to Governor Walker. Demands called for the firing of Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, to block anti-sanctuary legislation, and to support driver licenses for immigrants

photos by Joe Brusky

And carried in Milwaukee during the May Day march which saw over 30,000 people march for immigrant rights.

photos by Joe Brusky

Note too that parachute banners have dual purposes during rain storms: (Photo by Nicolas Lampert)

Indigenous ResistanceLaborMigrationRacial JusticeSocial Movements

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