Leslie Thomas ’91GSAPP on Art and Activism

Alumni Artist

Leslie Thomas ’91GSAPP on Art and Activism

As Executive and Creative Director of ART WORKS Projects, Leslie uses design and the arts to raise awareness of and educate the public about significant human rights issues
Architecture & Design
Visual Arts

ART WORKS projects provides visual advocacy tools which produce action on human rights crises at the grassroots, media, and policy levels. Conceptualized and created in conjunction with established humanitarian and human rights advocacy organizations, ART WORKS’ art and design exhibitions, books, recordings, films, and other initiatives provide opportunities for large numbers of the general population to engage in ending major human rights violations.

Before Leslie founded ART WORKS projects, she was an architect and an Emmy Award winning art director. Leslie describes the moment that she was called to be an activist:

ART WORKS Projects started [one] night when I read a story in the New York Times about a boy who was murdered because of his ethnicity. It happened in Darfur, but thousands of miles away as I looked at my own little boy, I realized that I could not read any more about genocide without trying to do something about ending it. That impulse turned into DARFUR/DARFUR, a collaboration with ten photojournalists, a film editor, musicians, and many patient and generous colleagues.

My goal was and still is to use images to elicit such an emotional reaction among viewers that they would be so inspired by what they saw that they would be compelled to take action. In order to reach the largest possible audience, especially people who might not necessarily be informed about international affairs, I decided to project images onto public spaces effectively turning them into open-air galleries. I approached about 100 museums with the idea of the public projections before the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles agreed to partner with me in 2006.

Since that time, ART WORKS projects has exhibited around the world including such venues as the Royal Ontario Museum, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, FORMA in Milan, the International Center of Photography, the United Nations in Geneva and New York, Capitol Hill in Washington DC, the London Houses of Parliament, the US Department of State, and the US Institute of Peace.

Upcoming Project:

House of Cards: Rebuilding is the first presentation of a work-in-progress exhibition featuring the personal stories of community members who have struggled to save their homes. The narratives included confront loss of home through eviction, foreclosure, forced displacement and other threats to our human right to housing. Through photographs, short films, and research, this new work allows us to learn how our neighbors are dealing with these issues and meet the organizations they are working with to confront this challenge. While 2008 made us aware of the housing crisis, with the improvements in the economy, the assumption is that the crisis is over. The reality is, loss of home can happen to anyone.

How does ART WORKS Projects choose the issues on which it will focus?

We focus on issues that are not getting enough media attention. Once an issue starts to get traction in the media, we step back and move on to another issue.

What role do the subjects of your projects and images play in the creative process?

Creating images to represent people and places is a huge responsibility. Because we know that it can be easy to fall into stereotypes, we are very careful to make sure that our images are a result of consultations with a wide range of stakeholders with different opinions and perspectives. We organize informal working groups and solicit opinions and research from the foreign ministries and state departments of various countries, researchers and academics and non-official representatives.  Of course, while it is important to hear what each party has to say, we also have to analyze the agendas behind what is being said and draw our own conclusions so that our images represent what is going on as honestly as possible. In addition to stakeholder consultations, our images are also shaped by asking ourselves who needs to hear this story. Do we want to reach consumers, voters, policy-makers?

How have the projects had an impact on public policy in the countries in which you work?

We are always asked how we measure the impact of our work. It’s not easy. As you can imagine, our ability to change hearts and minds is not quantifiable and it is impossible to trace how a person’s emotional response to an image directly leads to a change in policy. We don’t lobby but we put powerful images in front of people to raise awareness and our hope is that increased awareness and education will eventually change policy. Our DARFUR DARFUR campaign was used many times in the effort to get companies to divest from Sudan and, through a collective effort with many organizations and players working on the issue, it happened.

Some people will argue that people who are dying of starvation or are homeless are better served if resources are devoted to food and shelter, not art. What is your response?

It is not a zero-sum game. Providing those resources is important and there are organizations dedicated to this effort. However, given the talents that my colleagues and I have, this is how we have chosen to join that effort. We are tackling these issues by raising awareness and we know that people understand things in different ways. While some people respond to data and numbers, others need to be struck emotionally and art has the ability to strike that chord. I will never forget my first encounter with Eugene Smith’s photo entitled Walk to Paradise Garden. The photo is of his two children walking hand-in-hand out of what seems to be a cave and into a burst of sunshine. What is so special about this photo is that it was taken during a time when the legendary photographer was recovering from his time in World War II and did not think he would be able to take another photo again. Walk to Paradise Garden was his first photo after the war. The photo represents hope and perseverance after unimaginable suffering. It has stayed with me and inspired me my entire life. 

Click here to listen to Leslie speak about her work on talk radio.

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