I want to touch it, but that sort of thing is frowned upon.
Layers and layers of thick black, red, and white paint ebb and flow to create the likeness of none other than Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. At the top of the painting are the words “Can’t Even” and below is a direct quote from the man who may or may not have smaller than average sized hands: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
- IMAGE COURTESY OF ROBBIE CONAL
- YOU’RE FIRED: The phrase “Bully Culprit” on Robbie Conal’s Trump street poster, left, is a play on “Bully Pulpit,” a term coined by President Theodore Roosevelt to refer to the White House as a platform from which to advocate an agenda.
Can’t you just hear his voice in your head?
When real estate tycoon and reality TV star Trump declared his candidacy in June of 2015, a large chunk of the country assumed it was a joke. But Los Osos-based street artist Robbie Conal wasn’t laughing.
“I never thought it was a joke,” Conal said, “If it’s a joke, it’s really not funny. I can see Trump as the symptom of the Republicans getting what they deserve. But it’s so nasty. It’s so based on hate, fear, and ignorance. That’s dangerous stuff.”
So Conal did what he does best: He turned his Trump paintings into posters and took to the streets from San Luis Obispo County to the East Coast. He’s not the only local artist to take on Trump, or other political figures, in this highly divisive election season. There are Trump piñatas flowing into Santa Maria from Los Angeles, paintings that pay homage to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (and the fallen but still loved Bernie Sanders), and comic book style depictions of SLO mayoral candidates Jan Marx and Heidi Harmon. These artists have thoughts they can’t keep to themselves spilling out through their chosen media, rushing to get into the voters’ consciousness before that Nov. 8 Election Day rolls around.
America’s Trump card
While supporters of Trump laud his business savvy and the fact that he’s a political outsider as reasons to back The Donald, he’s also insulted nearly every group out there—women, immigrants, pretty much all people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and, of course, the press. Still, when Conal put up a GoFundMe page asking for $8,500 to print and ship Trump posters around the country for guerilla activists to plaster across their hometowns, he was surprised to see the money pour in. So far, the page has raised $11,704.
- PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
- POSTER ARTIST: Los Osos-based street artist Robbie Conal hangs out with his Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders paintings. The Trump ones are also available in poster form.
“People are a little bit upset,” Conal said.
The term “Can’t Even” emblazoned on one of his Trump posters is something Conal picked up from a millennial-aged assistant. The words tickled the artist, who has been satirizing political figures since the 1980s. His other Trump poster features the Republican nominee wagging his finger at you as he makes a snarling face. The word “Bully” screams at you from the top and “Culprit” does the same from the bottom. It’s a play on “Bully Pulpit,” a term coined by President Theodore Roosevelt to refer to the White House as being a platform from which to advocate an agenda. So far, more than 2,000 prints of the Republican presidential nominee’s face have gone up in cities and towns across the nation. From the end of September through the end of October, Conal will go on another postering tour with like-minded folks, putting several thousand copies of Trump’s face up across the country from Portland to Washington, D.C. It’s a lot of work, but Conal isn’t necessarily expecting to change hearts and minds.
“I do it because I’m compelled to do it, to express myself in public about issues I care about. I think it’s hubris for an artist to think they can change someone’s mind about issues they care about. Now, to tickle them into thinking along with me about those issues? That’s more like it,” Conal said.
- PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
- MAKING A STATEMENT : Arroyo Grande artist Mark Bryan, above, talks about his art at his tree house studio in Arroyo Grande. Behind him sits Devil’s Due, Meltdown at Diablo Canyon, depicting a natural disaster wreaking havoc at the local power plant.
Feeling drawn to create also got one of Conal’s art comrades, Arroyo Grande-based Mark Bryan, into making a political statement of his own. Bryan initially resisted satirizing Trump in one of his paintings. It felt too easy. But then against all odds, the Republican Party, which boasted more than 15 presidential hopefuls leading up to the primaries, crowned Trump as its pick.
“No one expected him to win [the nomination], but it got sort of alarming because he did win and his message is really an awful, racist message,” Bryan said. “But what’s frightening is that there are so many Americans that like what he’s saying.”
One of Bryan’s paintings, Trump-O-Matic, depicts Trump in his element, standing at the podium captivating a crowd of his followers. A tiny, Mini Me-sized Trump stands behind a giant mechanical Trump, pushing buttons labeled as fear, hate, and lie as he smiles at a reflection of himself in a mirror. Lil’ Trump stands atop a jail filled with Mexicans and Muslims. The crowd goes wild.
“I was kind of thinking of the wizard behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. He’s this little baby, he has this big façade, and the reason why people like him is he pushes these buttons,” Bryan said. “There’s two candidates that are really unpopular. I don’t think Hillary would have a chance if they had a normal Republican. The blue collar and middle class people aren’t winning anymore. Things have been getting worse for them the last 20 years, and they’re getting angry, and that’s when a demagogue can rise.”
- IMAGE COURTESY OF MARK BRYAN
- APPEALING TO THE MASSES : In his piece 'Trump-O-Matic,' Mark Bryan likens Trump to the Wizard of Oz, hiding behind a puffed up version of himself as he literally and figuratively pushes buttons to appeal to voters, all while standing on a political platform that oppresses Muslims and Mexicans.
If paintings of The Donald aren’t your cup of tea, another Arroyo Grande-based artist, Jan Dungan, crafted something totally different. The Australian native felt a tad bored last year while making teapots in a ceramics class at Allan Hancock College, until inspiration struck.
“I didn’t want to make teapots,” Dungan said. “I’ve got so many teapots and no room at home. The word ‘despot’ popped into my head and I thought, ‘I’ll make a series of despots.’”
So now the faces of people like Trump, Fidel Castro, and Adolph Hitler adorn a set of teapots that will be featured in the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Center Gallery’s election-themed exhibit—OMG, We are All in this Together—in SLO starting Oct. 29. To be more accurate Dungan categorizes the teapot with Trump’s likeness on it as a “crackpot” but feels he still fits in with the others.
“They’re all really unpleasant people,” Dungan said.
As anger about the upcoming election comes to a boil, a small party supply shop in Santa Maria is offering up a solution. For just $25, a Trump piñata can be the hit of the next party.
- PHOTO BY RYAH COOLEY
- NOT MY CUP OF TEA: Australian Artist Jan Dungan shows off her “despots” at her home in Arroyo Grande. Each ceramic teapot features a depiction of figures like Donald Trump, Fidel Castro, and Adolph Hitler.
Santos Novedades & Party Rentals is currently sold out of Trump piñatas. They’re made in Los Angeles and are understandably popular with the largely Mexican population in Santa Maria.
“It’s funny to hit and break them,” said Diana Santos, an employee at the store. “At first I didn’t think it would be popular, but everyone wanted one.”
Piñata Trump, like his human predecessor, has beaten the odds.
Amid Conal’s Trump pieces sits another painting of someone who almost beat the odds. A black and white painting of a kindly looking Sanders is set against a blue background with the words “Bernie Knows” running across the top and bottom. While Conal has supported and followed Bernie Sanders for nearly his entire political career, he won’t be writing in Sanders’ name or refusing to vote come Nov. 8.
“I’m going to vote for Hillary as many times as I can,” Conal said.
Who runs the world?
From the beginning everyone said, “There’s no way Trump will win the nomination,” and then he did. When pitted against Clinton, a former first lady, senator, and secretary of state, it seemed it could be an easy win for the Democrats. But current national polls show Clinton pulling only 1 or 2 percentage points ahead of Trump.
- PHOTO BY RYAH COOLEY
- CRACKPOT: A "despot" depicting Donald Trump by Jan Dungan.
While women across the country wait with bated breath to see the first female win the presidency, detractors cling to problems like Clinton’s email scandal and previous support of the war in Iraq. Clinton may have a good chance of being the next commander in chief, but it’s not a sure thing.
Ethel Landers, an artist based in Nipomo and the curator for the GALA Center Gallery in SLO, knows Clinton isn’t perfect but still thinks she’s the best person for the job. Both of her Hillary pieces are soft, flattering watercolor portraits. One has the words “We are better together,” written on the bottom. The other is a profile of Clinton with the words “Woman Wife Mother Lawyer First Lady Senator Secretary of State President” stacked up on one side and “Thank you for your service written on the other.
“She’s two years older than I am,” Landers said. “She could be sitting back with her feet up, playing with her grandkids, but she’s still out there with her talents trying to make the world a better place. There’s still a big chunk of Americans that don’t want a woman in charge of anything.”
- IMAGES COURTESY OF ETHEL LANDERS
- I’M WITH HER: While Nipomo artist and SLO GALA (Gay and Lesbian Alliance) Center Gallery Coordinator Ethel Landers acknowledges that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has made mistakes, she still thinks the former First Lady and current Secretary of State is committed to making the world a better place.
Whether they want it or not, San Miguel-based artist David Settino Scott, thinks the balance of power will shift from men to women, and he doesn’t even like Clinton. He thinks the patriarchy that’s standard across the world will give way to matriarchy in the coming years. This idea is highlighted in his sculptural piece, The Decapitation of Patriarchy, which features a headless bull-like beast standing on the top shelf. It boasts a single, beaten-up metal wing. On the shelf below sits its head. It currently has no genitalia to speak of, but that’s coming. Scott can’t decide if the beast should have a big penis, a pencil-like one, or have it going all the way down so that it touches the tip of the tongue.
“Once you do it, it’s there. It’s sculpture; you can’t erase it,” Scott said. “If he’s a warrior he’s probably impotent and gets his kicks from guns.”
While straight-up equality might be a good next stop, Scott isn’t sure most men can handle it.
“A middle ground is the best thing, but looking at history and Egyptian history in particular, they had some matriarchs that were the best pharaohs Egypt ever had. Hatshepsut decided to trade with people [instead of conquering them]. Scholars today say she was the best pharaoh Egypt ever had. There are more women in politics every day and that’s great. The men will never give up anything unless they’re liberated in their minds. Machismo is very phony.”
Make SLO Great again
- PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
- DAMN THE MAN: San Miguel artist David Settino Scott’s piece 'The Decapitation of Patriarchy' hints at a future where women rule the world.
Meanwhile back in SLO, aka one of the happiest places on earth, it’s actually really hard to find a place to live, which tends to put a sizeable dent in said happiness.
Cal Poly alumni Phil Hurst loves SLO so much he created his own company Live Local Apparel, which puts images from iconic sights like Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and the Fremont Theater on T-shirts. But Hurst, now in his 30s, struggles with watching friend after friend pack up and leave town because SLO is too expensive. Earlier this year, Hurst and his roommate were turned out of their 116-year-old (but livable) house in SLO after the city’s rental housing inspection program created stricter standards for landlords. While Hurst found a new place, he lost a roommate to the competitive rental market.
So after becoming a bit more involved with the local political scene, Hurst created a new website, saveslo.com, to inform residents about their local leaders, and a new T-shirt, this one showcasing comic
book-esque drawings of the candidates running for SLO City Council and mayor. Under mayoral candidates Jan Marx and Heidi Harmon are the words “SLO Sledgehammer” and “Force of Nature,” respectively. The same design can also be seen on posters around town.
“If you want to have a family and not have roommates, you can’t do that here,” Hurst said. “I love it here and that’s why I feel it’s worth fighting for and improving.”
- PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
- S.O.S (SAVE OUR SLO) : Saveslo.com posters featuring SLO City Council candidates and mayoral candidates Jan Marx and Heidi Harmon can be seen taped up around town. T-shirts and posters are for sale at Boo Boo Records. The website’s founder, Phil Hurst, designed the posters and shirts to increase voter awareness of and participation in the upcoming Nov. 8 election.
Tiny homes (shipping containers converted into houses and apartments) are part of what Hurst thinks is the solution to SLO’s housing problem. But they’re currently illegal in SLO’s city limits. His preferred candidates, Harmon for mayor and Brett Strickland and Aaron Gomez for City Council, are all against the rental housing inspection program.
While some artists grapple with the line between political art and propaganda, Hurst dismisses the notion as less important than the end result.
“You’re trying to get something done at any cost,” Hurst said. “The younger candidates would bring energy, positivity, and inclusiveness to SLO. No one on council is evil; they’re disconnected. They can’t grasp what it’s like to live in SLO at my age. I have two friends living in garages. The rental housing ordinance will put them on the street. We need to move in a new direction.”
Let's get political
The GALA Center Gallery's election-themed political art show will be on display in SLO from Oct. 29 to Jan. 1 at 1060 Palm St. Visit galacc.org for more information. To acquire your own Trump poster or to find out when Robbie Conal's next street postering event will be, visit robbieconal.com. For even more artistic musings on Trump and the patriarchy, visit artofmarkbryan.com and/or davidsettinoscott.com. For posters and T-shirts featuring SLO City Council and mayoral candidates stop by Boo Boo Records or check out saveslo.com.
Ryah Cooley and the rest of the New Times staff may relocate to Canada depending on how Nov. 8 goes. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.