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Where art and activism converge

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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ronny Edry, Israeli graphic designer works with students at Salt Lake Community College, Monday, March 11, 2013.

By Elaine Jarvik

Special to The Tribune

First published Apr 20 2013 01:01AM
Updated Jul 7, 2013 11:34PM

Before he went to bed that March night a year ago, Israeli graphic artist Ronny Edry uploaded a poster on Facebook —a photo of himself with his young daughter and the words "Iranians, We Will Never Bomb Your Country. We ♥ You."

His friends told him he was naïve and, besides, the overused heart icon was cheesy.

When Edry woke up a few hours later and clicked on Facebook again, there were scores of posts from other Israelis, grateful for his message. Then he created a "Israel Loves Iran" Facebook page, and soon Iranians were sending messages, too, and then making posters of their own. "We ♥ Israel," they said.

"And then it went viral," Edry told students at Salt Lake Community College on a visit to the campus last month. There are now scores of other, similar Facebook pages (Afghanistan Loves Israel, Israel Loves Palestine, Americans Love Iran, Iranians Love America, and on and on). All the major news outlets called, and so did Madonna.

The digital posters represent the place where art, activism and social media converge — and where definitions of audience and artist blur. It’s a convergence that SLCC will explore as part of its eighth annual Student Conference on Writing and Social Justice, Thursday and Friday, April 25-26, when Edry will deliver a keynote address via video conferencing from his home in Tel Aviv.

Simple, yet powerful •Edry’s posters and all the homegrown posters that followed are straightforward and not particularly artistic, if by "artistic" you mean something visually original or artfully crafted. But the images are arresting and communal and, like the Internet itself, democratic.

In their very simplicity — with their heart icons and photos of real people — the posters have an emotional power that is easily conveyed, says Randall Smith, founding president of the Salt Lake Chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. And now, because of computer technology and social media, he notes, anyone can join in, reaching out creatively across once-impenetrable borders.

It is this notion of "pubic creativity and participation" that SLCC’s Student Conference on Writing and Justice hopes to foster. "We want to show the students how their voices can be heard above the noise," as SLCC writing and literature teacher Kati Lewis puts it.

Lewis and SLCC writing teacher Charlotte Howe are co-chairs of this year’s conference, which is focusing, says Howe, on "the power we have as human beings to connect with each other."

Even though the conference is called Writing and Social Justice, Howe and Lewis wanted to expand the criteria to include visual communication and dance. "I have so many students who don’t think in essays," Howe says.

To plan the conference, the teachers assembled a team of 16 students from a wide range of backgrounds, including two Laotian sisters, a Vietnamese student, two women from Utah polygamous backgrounds, a returned Mormon missionary, a Jehovah’s Witness and an Iraq war veteran. Each one, Howe says, was surprised to have been chosen, each responding with some variation of "No one has ever asked me to do something like this before."

"You change the minds of people one by one," Edry told the students. The job of his campaign, he says, is "to undermine, to go straight to the other side," bypassing politicians and policy-makers. "If the idea is to have a Middle East free of war, we have to start talking to those other guys. We have to stop fearing them."

Power of social media • Before he made his first impromptu poster, Edry says, he knew no one in Iran. "To me it was like this dark place on Earth," he says. "You have to understand, in Israel we are not talking to Iranians." He was surprised that Iranians were even on Facebook.

But a year later he now has hundreds of Iranian friends on the social media site. "Suddenly they are on your [Facebook] feed. There is a picture of their kids." When you see these photos, he says, "You think, ‘This can’t be the enemy.’ "

More than 1 million people have watched his subsequent TED talk, and Edry and his friends raised money to put the "Israel ♥ Iran" on 70 buses in Tel Aviv for three weeks. They started a second campaign called "Not ready to die in your war."

Will all these hopeful thoughts and images have any lasting effect? So far, Edry says, Israel’s politicians have ignored the cross-cultural calls for peace. But fellow graphic artist Sany Arazi, who traveled with Edry to Utah and is a self-described pessimist, thinks eventually the posters will make a difference. "I can see there is a big hunger for these messages," he says. He and Edry came to the United States to drum up interest in a peace conference they hope to hold in New York City and a Peace Factory they hope to launch in the Middle East.

The lines are increasingly blurred between activism and art, and between social practice and art, says University of Utah associate professor and artist Beth Krensky. "For me, as an artist, that’s the most interesting thing that’s happening in the contemporary art world."

In "social practice" art, in fact, the engagement of what used to be called "the audience" is the whole point. In Krensky’s piece "Shroud/Shawl," ordinary people sewed handkerchiefs and sections of tablecloths into a shroud/shawl on a hand-cranked sewing machine, and later the piece will be "performed" as prayer.

"I see it as promoting healing, uniting communities living across divides of conflict or trauma," Krensky says, including in the Occupied Territories of the Middle East, where both Jews and Muslims use shawls in prayer and to bury their dead.

Like Edry, Krensky often is told that she can’t make a difference with her art. "But there is something quite beautiful, in the face of any large power, to do something poetic," she says, "to let the government know what some people on the ground are thinking."

features@sltrib.com

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