CSPG and Getty Marrow Undergraduate intern, Haley Vallejo has been interviewing friends and supporters of the center for our blog. The goal of these interviews is to get to know some of the artists that are part of the archive and celebrate their work in the arts and social justice community.
We kick off this series of interviews with Michelle Williams, one of the founding members of the San Francisco Poster Syndicate. Thank you, Michelle, for your time and for all your work in the San Francisco community. To learn more about Michelle’s art and their projects, visit their website www.michellemarenwilliams.com and follow the San Francisco Poster Syndicate on Instagram at @sfpostersyndicate.
* What is your preferred name and pronouns?
Michelle Williams, she/her
* What made you want to stay in San Francisco after you finished school?
I always wanted to live in San Francisco, even as a teenager. As an adolescent, My family lived in Santa Cruz, CA (an hour and a half south of SF), but we ended up moving to Utah, around age 7, for financial reasons, and to be closer to family. I lived there until about age 17, before moving back to Santa Cruz for my last years of High School, so that I could get in-state tuition in CA for college.
I always knew I wanted to live in a big city. My mother’s entire family is from New York State and my aunt, who I’m very close to, has lived in Manhattan since the ’80s. NYC has a special place in my heart. So the first time I went to San Francisco I fell in love for sure. I also wanted to stay as close as possible to Santa Cruz, because I consider it my home.
* How has your experience been being a founding member of the San Francisco Poster Syndicate?
Poster Syndicate really saved my college experience. As you may know, Poster Syndicate (SFPS) grew from frustrated teachers and students at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2014. We started SFPS in reaction to the continuously troublesome administration at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). They are really out of control at that school, implementing new policies on the fly, and firing/terminating student and teacher positions with little to no advance. From what I’ve heard, they have had a long history of being unchecked.
During the years of Poster Syndicate being formed and active at SFAI, we saw a real change for the first time at the school. The administration couldn’t get away with anything without their faces showing up on a poster and being printed live during lunchtime in the courtyard.
Eventually, the same labor union representing adjunct faculty at SFAI were also serving fast-food workers in Oakland for the fight for a $15 minimum wage and union campaign. The union, SEIU local 1021, reached out to Poster Syndicate to see if we could make posters for Fight for $15. This was our first time working on any issue outside of SFAI, and I would say, for a lot of us students, it was our first experience making art for a specific social justice movement.
* What are your favorite art techniques/media?
My favorite medium is relief printing, carving wood & linoleum blocks, as well as screen-printing & photography. I also enjoy making music, playing guitar, keyboard, and drums.
* What attracted you to political art? How did you become politicized and what inspired you to create political art?
I have always considered myself as being politicized from an early age, without even knowing what that meant. I have always rejected the racist, homophobic, and xenophobic rhetoric that I was exposed to growing up in Utah. Living in Utah, you either politicize yourself towards decolonizing your mind at some point, or you further enter the trap of an “America first” mentality. I was always very aware of this growing up, and it was also a reason why I wanted to live in San Francisco so badly, to connect with genuine humans that knew what was up in this world, and that shared the same values as me.
In terms of creating political art, I struggled with that in school because, as a white person, I never felt comfortable making art about my personal life, because I thought that was privileged as hell. Nothing too crazy ever really happened in my life or to my family, except for escaping religion in Utah. So I struggled with wanting to make political art for a long time. I wanted my art to be research-based, and grounded in facts and history.
I have always found sanctuary in nature, and after taking a class at SFAI by the infamous Bay Area lecturer, Eddie Yuen, I learned more about climate change and the extinction of many species happening today. I started making art about animals, extinction, and their relation to the Anthropocene. That was my first experience making political art.
Then once Poster Syndicate was birthed and we branched out to these other movements, I found sanctuary in poster making and helping others with the technical aspects of posters for social justice movements.
* Were you influenced by a specific artist or movement?
I am very influenced by my mentor, teacher, and friend, Art Hazelwood. He is also a founding member of the Poster Syndicate. I appreciate the way he gracefully critiques American politics & capitalism in his illustrations and prints, always bringing humor and satire to the page. It’s quite incredible, his art has a very powerful effect on the viewer.
My other influences include other members of Poster Syndicate as well, like Jos Sances, Juan Fuentes, and Juana Alicia, all Bay Area political artists.
I also admire the Mujeres Muralistas, who were a very underrated all womxn, latinx & chicanx mural group in the 1970s. They were formed at SFAI as well and painted empowering political and cultural murals all over the mission district of San Francisco.
* What would you say has been one of your favorite pieces?
One of my favorite pieces I made was a large scale woodcut of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s land during the occupation and fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. I carved and printed the landscape from a woodblock, it showed a river running down the middle of the print. On one side of the river were the pipeline being built and oil spilling into the river. The other side showed the tents and camps of the water protectors.
The piece was in collaboration with fellow Poster Syndicate member Lucia Gonzalez Ippolito. She created an illustration of the figures that go with the piece. With corporate oil entities, police, and national guard on the pipeline side of the river, and water protectors, reporters, and protesters on the camp side of the river. Lucia created a heat transferred digital illustration onto metal and we hung that at the base of the print, over my woodcut landscape. It was on display for a show, The Art’s Political, at Bridge-Maker Arts Space in Richmond, CA back in 2017.
* How did you learn about CSPG?
I learned about CSPG from Art Hazelwood, who is already in the CSPG collection, even prior to Poster Syndicate, but now CSPG has also collected Poster Syndicate prints!
* Do you have any advice for someone looking to create political art?
My advice is to just go for it! But always try to seek advice and critiques from folks that you respect and trust. If you’re white, I recommend seeking advice from a BIPOC artist, especially if you’re new to political art, so that your message and imagery can reflect inclusivity. Also, create art with a purpose. Think about where this art could be used? What organization or group that you support could gain even more support by using your art to promote it? Connect with activists and organizations as much as you can. Reach out to them to see if they would like to use your art.
*This interview has been edited for clarity This interview was conducted over email by Haley Vallejo